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Saturday: Why the desperation?

So, I went to see my employment counselor, like a cat dragged in from the cold.  “Fix my CV! PLEASE!”, I cried.  He calmly and methodically walked me through the procedure of finding a new job.  Just being with him lowers my heart rate.  During the first meeting, he told me that the he sees signs that the job market is starting to return, slowly, but that the pharmaceuticals research jobs are responding much more slowly.

By the way, anyone out there interested in pursuing a career in chemistry (biologists, you’re next), should read some of the entries in this post.  Here’s a sample:

I’m a synthetic organic chemist. I used to like organic chemistry a lot. It’s a cool science, but it’s not a valid career path anymore. Universities should really restrain the number of new students in chemistry programs, for their sake. In 2000, when I started my degree, the pharma industry was doing very well and paying big bucks for chemists. This is NEVER going to happen again. Our jobs are all in China now. I have a PhD from a top Canadian school and I did a postdoc in a top US lab. I’ve now been looking for a job for 6 months, and I’m willing to relocate ANYWHERE in North America, Europe or Australia, but I can’t find anything! Talk about wasted time! If you are ready to work very hard (easily 70 hrs/week) to do a PhD & postdoc, and then need to work as a store clerk to pay the rent, then organic chemistry is for you. If you don’t want to completely waste the best years of your life, then PLEASE PLEASE choose something else!!

This is what you’ll be up against: years and years of hard study in math and the sciences while your business major buddies are pledging down at Sigma Chi.  When you finally get your PhD after 10 years, you may be stuck in a post doc position making $40K- for years- if you’re lucky.  That’s the kind of thanks we get.  Americans do not appreciate scientists and you know what?  This country’s going to pay for that neglect and hostility.  Big Time.  Because young people who would make better money selling cars are going to sell cars, not run Suzuki couplings and Friedel-Crafts acylations.

We STEM researchers feel abandoned.  No one wants to invite people like us to jobs summits and we are virtually ignored by the media.  So, when this generation of R&D specialists die out, don’t expect a new generation to take its place.  The children most likely to succeed in these fields see what is happening to their parents and will avoid careers in science like the plague.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, the nice man who is trying to keep me focussed on finding a job.  So, I asked him, does he see any employment trends.  Yes, he says, the people who run the corporations are desperate for money.  You can draw your own conclusions from that but here’s my interpretation:

The current retirement structure is primarily based on a 401K.  Some of us have pensions, that we can’t tap into for decades to come.  But these are small.  Without social security supplements, our pensions will not be enough to live on. For those of us in the science industry, we were partially compensated with stock.  And that was peachy keen in the 90’s but in order to benefit from stock options, you have to wait a few years to cash them in and the pharma industry has been hit with so many recalls and gigantic lawsuits that most of our options are underwater compared to when we received them.  Yeah, really, go look at the stock prices of the pharmas for the past 15-20 years.  Despite what you might think, they’re not doing so well.  The did pretty well during the late 90s but since then, the stocks have plateaued or ailing companies have been absorbed by others.  There haven’t been significant gains.  So, if you’re a pharma exec during the last 15 years, you should be asking yourself why you’ve spent so much money lobbying Republicans.  They haven’t done a damn thing for you.  But I digress.

Most of us have our savings in 401Ks.  But 401Ks are like a giant pyramid scheme.  Imagine Bernie Madoff in a casino doing speedballs and shooting heroine (if those are the same things or combinations thereof, that just goes to show how innocent my illegal drug patois is).  The problem is that babyboomers are starting to cash in their chips.  They are going to start cashing more and more chips in the next decade or so.  Lucky me, I was born at the tail end of the baby boom generation and actually identify more with the gen Xers.  We will be the ones holding the bag.  So, imagine you’re a CEO and you have to keep the shareholders happy.  It’s going to be like bailing out at sinking ship.  You have to keep bailing more and more water at an ever increasing speed.  You cut and cut and pay your MBAs who are addicted to money and appease the Wall Street Gods because they are running the casino and the players are swilling champagne in their black tie tuxes around the craps table in an ever more dizzying frenzy of the game.  It’s out of control.

The shareholders must be appeased.  The money has to come from somewhere.  The end of the quarter is coming up.  Jobs will be cut.  They’re desperate.  But their short term thinking only makes the situation worse.  Because the fewer the number of people with good salaries that are employed, the fewer number will be contributing to the 401K scheme.  So, even as they cut jobs to pump up the stock prices, they are losing players to put down their money.  Which leads to more desperation and job cutting.  I’m no Paul Krugman but if I didn’t know better, I’d think we were looking at a new financial/economic phenomenon.  Maybe there’s a name for it illustrated with the kind indecipherable graphs that Paul is so fond of putting on his wonky blog posts.

This phenomenon might also explain (partially) the pressure to cut Social Security benefits.  If you make Social Security look like a welfare program, maybe workers would be more receptive to risking everything they own on the stock market through their 401K.  After all, what are your options?  Put it in a bank?  With the lousy interest rates??  Stuff it under your mattress?  Buy gold?  But giving the finance “geniuses” more of our money to invest in emerging markets will just add to the decline of our economy here.  There’s only so much money to earn or burn.  Sooner or later, the demands of the shareholders are going to exceed the ability of the CEOs and the consultant braintrusts to cut.  I think we have already reached that limit in pharma.  I’m going to guess that research is badly damaged if not disfunctional at some large pharmas.  Someone correct me if I’m wrong.  And if your corporation is based on research, what the heck are those high paid marketing and sales people going to sell exactly?  Pretty soon, the ideas from outside entities are going to get really expensive to buy.

I think when the job guy said “they’re desperate”, he means they are on a merry-go-round and they can’t get off.  It’s a more and more vicious circle that has one potentially catastrophic end.  There will soon be nothing left to cut and the financial guys are going to need another bailout.

Speaking of bailouts, check out William Cohan’s recent appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart as he discusses the biggest casino operators, Goldman-Sachs.  Not to be missed.

What to do?  I dunno.  I hate playing with money.  It seems wasteful to me even if my own 401K has done pretty well lately. Right now, I wish there was a nice secure pension fund I could stuff it into.  I’d love to live in a small place in a medium sized city close to public transportation with a regular job with benefits.  Nothing fancy.  Give me modesty and security over glitz and desperation any day.

And check out this guy’s Swiss Army knife apartment.  Brilliant.

Thursday: Can we have Bernie Sanders for President? Please???

Tornado over Alabama, april 27, 2011

Eastern PA and all of NJ is under a severe weather alert.  Friends of mine in PA got a tornado warning and were told to take cover.  It’s going to be a rough day following a rough day in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia yesterday.  The mayor of Tuscaloosa says damage to his city is catastrophic.  There hasn’t been a tornado outbreak like this one since the super outbreak of 1974.

If I were Obama, I’d get my unsentimental natural born ass down to Alabama as soon as possible.  JMHO.

Hey, can we have Bernie Sanders for President?  He was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last night.  You can watch the extended interview PART 1 and PART2.   He sounds like a real Democrat even though he is an independent.

Bernie is right about Social Security, outrageous tax cuts for the rich, a real national health care policy that doesn’t force us to beg middle man insurance companies for high priced policies and ending unnecessary wars.

If you missed the FiliBernie last December, you can catch it here on C-Span.  Orgasmic.  The text  of the filibuster can be found in Bernie’s new book, The Speech.  I think I might “buy 10 copies for my mother”, and her friends.

As for jobs, the most important issue on the table right now, no matter what Ben Bernanke says, Derek Lowe of In the Pipeline has news that more scientists have been Pfizered today.  Let’s recap: Pfizer spent the last decade gobbling up every company with a decent pipeline and then proceeded to layoff the very scientists who discovered those drugs.  Since 2009, Pfizer has laid off 19,000 people and today, they add even more very smart, very well educated people to the unemployment line.  These people don’t need any additional training to work in biotech.  They are perfectly capable of applying their skills to a new position – right now, without any further education.  In fact, leaving them out there in the wilderness without access to scientific literature will actually erode their skills.  So, what is this administration going to do about it?  What is it going to do about the plans to turn these hard working, educated scientists who have spent half of their adult lives studying into lower waged contractors?

Somebody better have an answer because the destruction of our scientific infrastructure is shameful and inexcusable.

Ok, can we put the birther nonsense to rest now???

20110427-081247.jpgHe brought forth the birth certificate. Like it or not, the guy is a genuine, home grown American. He was born in Hawaii *after* it became a state, not that it would have made a difference as Hawaii was a US territory before that. He wasn’t born in the Kingdom of Hawaii nor does he owe his allegiance to any foreign tiki gods. He’s legit. Er, maybe not *legit* but he meets the qualifications for being president.

The birther contingent has wasted 3 years on this topic while blithely ignoring all of the perfectly good reasons why Obama should NOT be president, like, his thugs stole some caucuses, he bought off the DNC so it would bend the rules for him and he’s just a lousy president. Instead of going off over the “long form” vs the “short form”, can we please discuss why he seems so determined to give the rich even more money as soon as possible while he vamps on a jobs program?

No, I’m not interested in the smudges and the kerning. I want you birthers to stop acting like wingers and get back to holding his feet to the fire. The best way to get a better president is to point out how unelectable he is. In the run up to the 2008 election, we all knew that the Republicans were going to tank the economy and leave the Democrats holding the bag. That’s why it was so important to not elect a lightweight with no practical experience in governing. Anyone with qualifications as gossamer light as Obama’s could only be in it for one thing- the name plate outside the office door. It’s just an achievement for him, probably cooked up in some dark room by a committee of very wealthy power brokers. That’s the important thing, not where he was born. I guarantee that the more time we spend on this issue, the greater his chances of re-election. The birther contingent is starting to look seriously unhinged. Bad strategy.

Don’t waste our time, birthers. The rest of us want jobs, not stupid wild goose chases.

Monday: what Ian says

We’re starting to see convergence in some of the left blogosphere about what will happen next year if Obama is the Democratic party’s nominee and it ain’t pretty. Ian Welsh lays it out:

Obama is not turning things around, what he is doing is negotiating with Republicans how fast the decline will be, and how much and how fast it is necessary to fuck ordinary Americans in order to keep the rich rich. If Obama wins another term, he will continue to negotiate the decline, then, odds are very high, a Republican will get in, and slam his foot on the accelerator of collapse.

This is why Obama must lose in 2012. I would prefer that he lose to a Democrat in a primary, then that Democrat wins, but he must lose regardless. If he loses to a Republican, then 2016 you get a chance to put someone in charge who might do the right things (or even just some of them.)

No, those odds aren’t good. They suck. Every part of them sucks. And even if you get a Dem in 2016, you’ll probably choose the right most candidate, just like you did last time, and he’ll go back to negotiating with Republicans over what parts of the corpse of America’s middle class they should dine on next. “No, no, eat one kidney first, they only need one to survive, so that’s not too cruel.”

But it is still your best chance. Otherwise you’re looking at full, Russian-style collapse. What comes out the other end, I don’t know, but you really won’t enjoy getting there.

And yes, if a Republican gets in in 2012, that’ll be awful. Just awful. But it’s not like a Republican is never going to be president ever again. That’s not on the agenda, that’s not possible. It will happen, and he will substantially cater to the Teabaggers. He will trash your country. That’s baked into the cake now, all you can choose is how soon it happens, and work to replace him with someone who might do the right thing.

Damn, if only some lefties had the courage to speak up in 2008 we might not be in this mess right now. I know there were doubters but they were too timid to say what they were really thinking. Why? Because they were afraid of being called racists and exiled to the Oort belt?

For you doubters in the left blogosphere who had Obama’s number but were too chickenshit to say anything, let me reassure you that there is and was a perfectly good reason for rejecting Obama. He messed around with the primary vote in 2008. No, don’t you roll your eyes at me. The primary vote of 2008 was the canary in the coal mine for everything that followed and should have been your leading indicator of all that would follow.

When it comes right down to it, your citizenship, your most valuable possession as a resident of this country, depends on your ability to exercise your right to vote. Self-determination, the kind of government you want, what kind of characteristics you choose in a leader to fit the demands of a fragile economy or time of war, that all hinges on whether you, along with your fellow citizens have the power to elect your representatives. The Egyptians learned that the hard way over the past 30 years. So have many countries around the world. When you lose your right to vote, when the vote is rigged in one person’s favor, when all other candidates need not apply, when political factions are suppressed, you end up with a country where brutality rules, where people are poor unless they are well connected and where the young grow up without hope.

That is where we are headed, lefties. If you accept the preconception that Obama will get the nomination and you do not choose to object – right now- then you take one step closer to living in a country where your vote means nothing to the people in charge. It already means very little. That’s because the primary vote was very clearly manipulated in 2008 and the Democratic activist base said nothing. The base was so enamored of John Edwards first and Barack Obama second, its dark, latent sexist tendencies provoked by political psychologists, that it did exactly what those manipulators expected. It went with the businessman’s candidate. The rest of us were screwed. And it did not protest when the 18 million of us who voted for the other candidate were cut out of the loop.

That was your fatal mistake, lefties. You should have insisted on fairness, a floor fight, an opportunity for each candidate to make his or her case before the convention delegates. That would have lead to unity. Instead, the party decided to suppress, in *our* eyes, the votes of Half of its members and humiliate a party loyalist who deserved it’s respect and admiration. In the end, the party’s slogan for 2008 could have been “unity is division”. You lost your ability to persuade the powers that be when you allowed half of the party to be jettisoned and their right to self determination trashed without raising a peep in protest.

So, now those powers are looking at what is left of the party and see a bunch of disunited factions, unable to solidify a credible response to their plans. And what are those plans? As far as I can tell, the Obama campaign will data mine the various socio-economic cohorts and craft a narrowly defined message for each one. There is no vision. There are only votes. They will pick them off little by little. The result will worse the second time. The business and financial sector elite with become entrenched and enjoy all the blessings of aristocracy. There will be no significant cohort to stand in their way to draw a line in the sand.

That is, if you do nothing but wring your hands in frustration.

What needs to be done is to not cooperate. Now. If you wait for the narrative to be fixed, it will be too late. Now is the time to reconcile with the 18 million and to tell Obama’s backers that you’re not going along with it. Do it now, while you still have the power to affect the outcome. Just say, “No”.

My objection to Obama has never been based on his race. As a scientist, I believe that the concept of race has no biological basis, even though it does in a socio-economic and historical sense. But Obama was not born a disadvantaged child no matter how unusual his childhood. His ties to the disadvantaged African American experience is tangential at best.

Nor do I think there’s any validity to the birther claims that he wasn’t born here. Bill Clinton said during the primary that Obama met the constitutional tests for becoming president and if you don’t think the Clintons didn’t look into it, well, you don’t know the Clintons. As far as his birth certificate goes, I think he withholds the official documentation just to make the birthers look unhinged- which they do. If you’re one of the birthers and you don’t mind that you look batshit crazy and ineffectual, go right ahead and keep tilting at this windmill. You will never dislodge Obama going this route and you are diluting your real strength by not returning to your Democratic roots.

And I don’t begrudge the guy rest and relaxation or trips to Broadway with his wife or any other down time the president of the United States is privileged to enjoy. Being president is aging particularly if you don’t do it well. If you are trying to please your patrons and run a country without any political coalitions of your own because you didn’t put in the time to actually learn the ropes of government through hard work and legislative activity, then it must be a very tiring experience and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

But a politician that seeks to invalidate my vote and smother my voice *is* my worst enemy. That person has no respect for the only right of a citizen that actually counts. Countless Americans without property or who were property or who were women struggled for years and in some cases centuries, to get that precious right and in the blink of a rules committee hearing, it was trampled, unceremoniously and almost gleefully by the same party activists who vowed to never act like authoritarian bad guys who ran the country for eight, long years. It doesn’t matter if that person has a D after his name.

The left has yet to learn who its enemies are. I have said before that nothing good comes of a bad seed. The 2008 primary was a very bad beginning and everything that Obama has done or failed to do and has impacted the lives of ordinary Americans has flowed from that series of very unfortunate events. It’s time to face that truth.

It really is that serious.

Faradays and collaborators

This week, I am at a science summit in Philadelphia, atrios’ urban hellhole. The traffic is miserable, the parking is expensive (although, yesterday, I found a lot that only charged me $10 for the whole day. No sexual favors involved. Go figure.). I love public transportation but this is not a post about that.

No, this is a post about management schizophrenia.

Yesterday, Yvonne Martin, the doyenne of drug design, gave a presentation. The science was retrospective but her commentary on the state of pharma management was scathing. Well, in general there’s a lot of commentary in general about the way modelers have been written off and excluded from patents and publications. Everyone here has a story to tell about how the pressure to get credit for a design drives people to shut out their collaborators.

Yvonne’s tale is a little different. She worked with a talented designer in her group and had high respect for his work. They enjoyed collaborating. But her employee couldn’t get a promotion. Why? Because management had decided (erroneously in Yvonne’s estimation) that the employee only did what Yvonne told him to do. He was judged incapable of doing his own work. Yvonne said she thought it was because management does not really value collaboration. Then she said, “or maybe it’s because I’m a woman.”

Jeez, I hate to keep coming back to this but when a person who has been in the business a long time sees things this way too, there might be a problem. I have worked for two extraordinary supervisors. I learned a lot from both of them. Both of them preferred collaboration. Neither of them are appreciated for their skill in bringing people together to work productively. One of them was a woman. And recent studies suggest that the more women you have in your working groups, the more creative and productive your group will be because they are more likely to share information and cooperate on solving problems.

More distressing is the idea that because a person is less senior, their contributions are instantly attributed to their manager. This is a symptom of what management wants rather than what they say they want.

What management says it wants is collaboration and breaking down walls and sharing information. They have the graphics department put together little origami paper pamphlets showing the “dos” and “don’ts” of good corporate behavior. We all study these things and dismiss them because data and observation confirm that is is precisely the “don’t” behaviors that are rewarded. Secrecy? Check. Don’t share information? Check. Cutting people out of the loop? Check. People who believe in the value of collaborating and crowd sourcing, those people are willing to share the credit. But the minute you do that, you lessen your own contribution in the eyes of management and you aren’t ambitious and competitive enough.

So, there are more and more stories at this summit of chemists cutting modelers out of the loop, refusing to make molecules that aren’t their ideas and jobs lost without a paper trail because the designer is thought to be junior and therefore easier to write off. What takes the place is a system where the non-collaborators are encouraged to take credit for other people’s work and are rewarded for it. It’s a system where loyalty is more important than work effort. It’s a system where hierarchy and pedigree takes the place of ability.

In short, it’s the same kind of system that existed in the early 19th century Britain when gentlemen scientists with money and educations limited to the well heeled class held sway in the scientific societies of the day and when the works of people like Michael Faraday, without the formal education and from working class backgrounds, were vulnerable to the ambitions and entitled behavior of their betters.

It is Michael Faraday who is remembered as one of the greatest experimentalists ever. But it was an uphill struggle. America was supposed to be a land of opportunity where anyone with a good idea could get a shot and that has been our greatest strength in terms of innovation. When the home schooled (Edison) and the college dropouts ( zuckerman, jobs, and gates) were able to innovate without barriers, we were great as a country.

But these are the days when pedigree and ruthlessness trumps all. When it’s more important that one person is designated as the innovator and automatically gets the credit no matter what they do, the barriers for good minds to gain entry and participate become too high. What results is a lot of top heavy departments. A lot of people who want to direct and are forced to pursue the top spot and fewer people who work together to solve problems.

Collaborators and Faradays beware.

Saturday: Republicans have ALWAYS Hated Medicare

So, the Republicans have voted to end Medicare as we know it and throw our parents and ourselves to the mercy of the insurance market with vouchers.  The new budget bill the House Republicans passed yesterday cuts trillions of dollars of support for poor and working families while enriching the already rich even more.  It’s hard to look at recent decades elections maps and not notice that the bulk of the Republican strong hold is still located in the poorest, most rural and, by far, the most southern states.  It’s almost as if the south never gave up its taste for cheap, exploitable labor.  It’s still fighting the Civil War using modern tactics.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that.  Lyndon Johnson was from Texas and he made it his goal to introduce the Great Society in order to eliminate poverty in our lifetime.  Lyndon Johnson was a schoolteacher before he became a politician.  He taught children of Mexican workers and this experience seems to have shaped his worldview and taught him compassion:

I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.”

When he became president, he took up JFK’s New Frontier programs that had previously languished in Congress.  Some of the initiatives of the New Frontier were Medicare and Medicaid.  They couldn’t get through the impasse of Republicans in Congress who were supported by money from the American Medical Association.  Let’s think about that for a minute.  It was doctors who didn’t want Medicare.  Why does this sound so familiar?  In the recent healthcare reform debates, we’ve heard a lot about controlling costs and determining which health care procedures have the best outcomes but the vast majority of the efforts seem to be directed at getting consumers to pay more in insurance costs, to accept fewer services for their insurance dollar for guaranteed coverage and to pay for treatment out of pocket.  But who benefits from more dollars for fewer services?

Medicare had a much easier road to passage after the 1964 Democratic landslide in Congress.  Many more liberal Democrats were elected to office and the number of Republicans was reduced to under 1/3 of the total number of representatives.  Medicare, Medicaid, housing and educational funding were passed without Republican help, or, more importantly, interference.  For a historical perspective, listen to this podcast from Witness (BBC) on the Birth of the Great Society and Medicare.  It’s only 10 minutes long and you will get a clearer sense of what we’re up against.

Now, a lot of people will get their backs up about labeling Republicans.  Democrats can be just as bad.  Yep.  There is no doubt in my mind that there are a lot of Democrats in Congress elected from very conservative districts who don’t really embrace Democratic values much less liberal ones.  But if the country wants to keep their social safety net programs intact, their civil rights protected and give their children a fighting chance in terms of education and a more equal society, it has to get rid of as many Republicans as possible and replace them with politicians who are more liberal.  They don’t have to be Democrats.  They just have to be proponents of a Greater Society.  We should have learned lessons from our past.  We know that endless wars can drain our economy. We know that welfare can destroy initiative, demoralize and cement generations of families in poverty.  But having no social safety net can do the same thing and the effects will become much more noticeable as time goes on.  Crime will increase, our society will be less well-educated, education and opportunity will become more dependent on who you know, not what you know.  We will all get a little bit closer to the poor migrant worker, never able to count on a stable paycheck or help during economic or health care emergencies.

Republicans seem to want a feudal kind of society back.  Landowner and serf.  Sixteen tons.  This is nothing new.  They’ve been at this for 50 years.  The question is, what have we learned from this?  More importantly, how do we get the country to turn away from the noise machine that keeps pushing its buttons on gay marriage and abortion and get it to concentrate its efforts on saving itself?  Democrats missed opportunities since 2006 to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine and strengthen Net Neutrality.  Failure to do this will result in fewer outlets for alternative viewpoints.  I have to wonder why Democrats have deliberately hobbled themselves like this.  Is it malice or stupidity?  Are they so afraid of hostile public comment, ginned up by Republican astroturf campaigns, that they are paralyzed into inaction?  Is Al Franken political poison?  Isn’t this a vicious cycle?  If so, we need to replace these Democrats with some loose cannons of our own.  Where are the Rand Pauls and Paul Ryans of the left?

No matter what happens in the next year, the blame falls on both Republicans and Democrats.  Republicans for being the snakes we pick up at the side of the road, knowing what they are; Democrats for yielding to big money instead of working on great efforts.  We shouldn’t let ourselves be distracted from the fact that this issue is played out before a big election.  Medicare has become politicized by both parties for their own gains.  I don’t appreciate having Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security dangled in front of the American people with snapping crocodiles waiting to consume them and if that’s what the Obama campaign is planning, they’d better make damn sure they haven’t miscalculated. The “smart compromise” move would be to not negotiate with Republicans on Medicare.  Period.  Or Social Security or Medicaid or any other social safety net program.  Tell them you’ll smartly compromise when the rich starts paying its fair share, the bankers return all of our money and unemployment is down to 3%.  Then we’ll talk.  Frankly, I don’t trust Obama or his organization.  He’s no JFK, LBJ or FDR.  He’s an Obamaist.  That’s the sum total of his political philosophy.  You lefties know this going in.  Your eyes are open.  He’s going to try to please all of the data mined to death voter blocs on his electoral checklist.  There will be no vision, no program.  It will be all about HIM.  How many votes can he get here and there to put him ever so slightly over the top.  Expect a lot of compromising, very little of it smart.

I’ve worked since I was 17, faithfully putting away my (now substantial) FICA and Medicare taxes and now that I no longer have a job and may never get one that pays as well as the one I lost, I am going to expect that my decades of deferred wages get paid to me as promised.  To ask me to accept anything less is to ask me to accept fraud.  I won’t have it.  If the projected costs are too high based on the past several years GDP, it would have been better to do the hard work of passing a decent jobs program, ending the unnecessary war in Iraq and taxing the rich.  Don’t ask me to make long term sacrifices for some stupid short term gain that spares me a few measley cents on the dollar but rewards the rich lavishly.  I see clearly what is going on and I’m not buying it.

Democrats, take notice.

A little more:  I started free associating (without drugs) on the concept of the company store in 16 Tons and came across this wikipedia entry for the truck system:

truck system is an arrangement in which employees are paid in commodities or some currency substitute (referred to as scrip), rather than with standard money. This limits employees’ ability to choose how to spend their earnings—generally to the benefit of the employer. As an example, scrip might be usable only for the purchase of goods at a “company store” where prices are set artificially high.

Bear with me for a sec.  It seems to me that offering seniors vouchers that must be spent on private insurance policies and not providing access to something like a public option like the one Paul Krugman is suggesting is a lot like the truck system.  What makes it more outrageous is that it’s with our taxdollars that we have earned.  So, to recap, we labor all our lives, deferring our wages for Medicare and Social Security. Then, when we need to use it, to recoup our wages compounded by millions of other taxpayers, we are issued “scrip” instead that can only be used at a “company” insurance store where the company sets the rates and can set them artificially high to guarantee themselves a profit at taxpayer expense.

We outlawed the truck system in the 20th century but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of seniors have heard of it from their parents.  It was despised.  Republicans want to bring a form of it back.  Anybody who votes for a politician who wants to “smart compromise” on this plan should have their heads examined.

Thursday: Perplexed by Pork Roll

Update: Atrios’ Lucky Ducky list is out!  I am one of 412K in new unemployment insurance claims.  I have arrived!

I’ve been living in NJ for two decades and have never eaten pork roll.  My former colleague, Ralph, a New Jersey native, used to wax eloquently about pork roll in the same way my old Sicilian Spanish teacher used to pine for marzipan while stuck teaching in the boondocks of upstate NY.  Ralph’s eyes would shine as he looked back to his last encounter with pork roll, his fingers rubbing each other as if trying to recapture some elusive quality.  But then again, he’d get all misty eyed over the memory of the grease wagons that lined up on the street near Rutgers where he went to school.  So, I just wrote pork roll off as some weird local right of passage, like Philly cheesesteaks or Pittsburgh hot sausage sandwiches with peppers and onions.

The other day, the pork roll called to me from the dairy case.  I’d passed on it so many times before.  What the heck.  I bought some “Tangy Pork Roll”.  OoooOOoo.  Tangy! It comes in flavors.  It looks like thick slices of bologna but has the appearance of a finer grade of Spam.  Assuming it wasn’t cooked, I looked all over the package for cooking instructions, hoping there would be a “Trenton Style Tangy Pork Roll Sandwich” recipe somewhere.  Nope. Having no idea how to prepare this sucker, I stuck it in the microwave for a minute.  (Someone out there is going to tell me this is sacrilege)  The result was a hot and greasy round of pork product with the right mouth feel of fat and plenty of salt.  The tangy comes from what tastes like vinegar.  If you’ve ever been to a dive bar and had one of those pickled sausages that come in a giant glass jar with your beer, that’s what it tastes like.  So anyway, preparing pork roll is not a hard job even without instructions.  What does this have to do with anything?  I don’t know.

Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story recount how the bankers got away with the financial crisis of 2008 with no punishment or prosecution.  Right from the start of this piece, it becomes clear that there was not going to be any serious attempt to bring the bastards to justice.  Tim Geithner (him again) sets the narrative early on by putting out the theory that attempting to prosecute the evildoers would further destabilize the markets in a time of crisis.

Answering such a question — the equivalent of determining why a dog did not bark — is anything but simple. But a private meeting in mid-October 2008 between Timothy F. Geithner, then-president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Andrew M. Cuomo, New York’s attorney general at the time, illustrates the complexities of pursuing legal cases in a time of panic.

At the Fed, which oversees the nation’s largest banks, Mr. Geithner worked with the Treasury Department on a large bailout fund for the banks and led efforts to shore up theAmerican International Group, the giant insurer. His focus: stabilizing world financial markets.

Mr. Cuomo, as a Wall Street enforcer, had been questioning banks and rating agencies aggressively for more than a year about their roles in the growing debacle, and also looking into bonuses at A.I.G.

Friendly since their days in the Clinton administration, the two met in Mr. Cuomo’s office in Lower Manhattan, steps from Wall Street and the New York Fed. According to three people briefed at the time about the meeting, Mr. Geithner expressed concern about the fragility of the financial system.

His worry, according to these people, sprang from a desire to calm markets, a goal that could be complicated by a hard-charging attorney general.

Asked whether the unusual meeting had altered his approach, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, now New York’s governor, said Wednesday evening that “Mr. Geithner never suggested that there be any lack of diligence or any slowdown.” Mr. Geithner, now the Treasury secretary, said through a spokesman that he had been focused on A.I.G. “to protect taxpayers.”

My gut reaction says that’s bull.  If anything, crackdown on the bankers might have signalled to the global financial market’s hostage takers that the government was not playing games and might have averted further threats and destabilization.  And let’s not forget that now these assholes have us and our 401k portfolios by the short hairs.  They weren’t punished so they will feel free to act with impunity again.  The other bizarre notion was that taxpayer money would be used to pay for settlements.  Ok, it is not clear to me why this would be a problem.  If the settlements were *to* the federal government, wouldn’t that mean the taxpayer money would be returned?

Is anyone getting the sense that Geithner is one nasty guy with a silver tongue and a benign appearance?  If there’s one thing we have not learned from recent years it is not to automatically trust men in suits.  We don’t have to worship them or defer to them or treat them as authorities.  They shouldn’t get a pass just because they went to the right school or know the right people.  They should have to earn our respect.  No, if anything, the election of Obama shows that merit, exprience and responsibility can easily be trumped by the oily charisma of the company man.  The whole piece makes me outraged, as if that is even possible these days after all of the other outrages.  We walk the unemployment lines while the bankers walk away with millions and barely a slap on the wrist.  This will really burn your oatmeal:

But Mr. Alvarez suggested that the S.E.C. soften the proposed terms of the auction-rate settlements. His staff followed up with more calls to the S.E.C., cautioning that banks might run short on capital if they had to pay the many billions of dollars needed to make all auction-rate clients whole, the people briefed on the conversations said. The S.E.C. wound up requiring eight banks to pay back only individual investors. For institutional investors — like pension funds — that bought the securities, the S.E.C. told the banks to make only their “best efforts.”

Isn’t that nice?  Read the whole thing.

Whoo-Hoo! The editorial page of the NYTimes is finally telling the truth about tax cuts and their effect on the budget deficit?  In Budget Battles-Tax and Spending Myths and Realities, the editorial states:

President George W. Bush and Congress undid that progress with $1.65 trillion in tax cuts, heavily skewed to high earners. The economic recovery of the Bush years was extraordinarily weak by historical standards. By early 2009, shortly before Mr. Obama took office, the Congressional Budget Office projected a budget deficit for that year of more than $1 trillion.

These are the economic facts, which Americans need to hear. The Republicans certainly won’t tell anyone. And, so far, the Democrats haven’t had the political courage to challenge them head-on.

President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal-year 2012 does call for a mix of tax increases and tax cuts, but he hasn’t made a serious effort to explain the need for substantially more revenue.


As a matter of fairness, raising income taxes must start with requiring the richest Americans — who have been the biggest beneficiaries of Bush-era tax cuts — to pay more. But even that won’t dig the country out of its hole. The middle class is also going to have to pay higher taxes. That is the only way to pay for needed services, tackle the deficit and slow the borrowing and the rise in interest payments.

I don’t know about raising taxes on middle class people.  I already pay a ton of money in taxes and live a very modest lifestyle for my salary.  Honestly, I don’t think I could pay any more without severely jeopardizing my savings for retirement.  Saving for college is already next to impossible.  So, let’s start with soaking the rich first and see how that goes before we ask anyone living in Central NJ on one income and a kid to support to pony up.

Did Krugman finally get through to the serious people on staff?  Is this message coming too late to make a difference?  Will the editorial board get cold feet and issue a retraction after a few nasty emails from Grover Norquist’s secret shock troops? Stay tuned.

Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline has two interesting posts about Foxes vs Hedgehogs here and here and how they apply to researchers.  Hedgehogs are researchers who delve into one particular subject in depth for most of their careers, like mathematicians studying a particular theorem. The other type of researcher, the fox, likes to be stimulated by many different problems.  Chemists and biologists tend to fall into this category.  I like to think of myself as a combination of fox and squirrel, storing away little bits of what looks like useless trivia until I find an interesting problem to apply it to.  It doesn’t always work and it can be distracting.  But you never know when something you read or did somewhere a long time ago might be useful.  Last year, I went back to the lab after a long time’s absence and learned to make proteins from ecoli and insect cell cultures.  Up to that point, I never had any use for the microbiology course I took decades ago.  Very handy.  “Luck favors the prepared mind.”  Derek’s illustration of how a researcher can be happily engaged in interesting research in industry is refreshing and mirrors my own experiences.  You don’t have to be in academia to get your problem solving fix.

A little something from Atrios the other day has been twitching my tin-foil antenna:

That Can’t do Spirit

I’ve commented on this before (as with most things), but I continue to be amazed at the completely pervasive can’t do spirit that seems to have gripped the country. Maybe we need to win a hockey game against the Soviets or something to bounce back.

I don’t think this is accidental.  I think it’s deliberate.  What better way of entrenching the idea that the country is run by a small evil group to which no one we know belongs than to reinforce learned helplessness.  There is a tangible inertia about the election next year.  I predict a disaster unless we get an Eleanor Roosevelt type to perk things up and help despairing Americans find their dignity.  Obama can’t do it.  He is more aspirational than inspirational.  If you’re not already at his level, he has very little to offer. And he intends to continue offering very little.  If you’re a well educated unemployed person with a kid to put through college, a house to pay for and a retirement to save for, Obama stands in your way.  What the inert want right now is a recipe for getting him to move, either forward or out.

Lefties, take the pledge

Ahhh, I see that the left blogosphere has finally come to the point where they no longer want to vote for Obama in 2012. We won’t say we told you so, again, but we will offer some unsolicited advice.
If you don’t like the way they are kicking you in the teeth, you have to be prepared to walk away. The Democratic Party is going to to roll out the “stop being naive, be realistic, where else are you going to go?” meme next year. Oh, yes, you know they will. They will make YOU feel like the guilty party if the Republicans win. It will be all YOUR fault that you didn’t get behind Obama and let the Republicans run all over poor people. But what does it mean if Obama wins a second term? Won’t the country just continue it’s rightward slouch towards Gomorrah?
If you vote for Obama again, you’re just letting the bad stuff happen at a slightly slower pace. And they know it. They have you right where they want you, poised between right wing republicanism and batshit crazy republicanism. Some choice. But it will be your only choice if you don’t act now.
If you take the pledge now and say, “I’m not contributing a penny to Obama’s campaign”, well, they’ll just get the money from some rich dudes. It’s not your money they want. Or at least not at the top of the ticket.
If you say, “I’m not contributing any money to any down ticket Dem who comes out in support of Obama’s second term”, now that might get their attention.
If you say, “screw it, I’m voting Greem, or Democratic Socialist or American renaissance or anything but Democrat next year”, you may just give them a case of the willies. If a bunch of you do it all at once, you’ll start hearing yourselves referred to in very unflattering terms. That’s when you’ll know you’ve gotten their attention.
And then really mean it. Here’s something I suggested for the midterms: put your contributions in an escrow account. Yep, anytime the New Democrats or DCCC or DNC calls for a contribution, tell them, “I’m putting my money in the escrow account for players to be named later because I can’t trust you guys.” Then do it. Make a widget we can all put on our pages that show how much the fund has made. Watch the numbers go up and the Democrats start to panic.
Now, who to run? You know my preference. Unfortunately, anti Clinton deprogramming may be an impossibility. Nevertheless, she may be the only REAL Democrat you’re likely to get in the white house and now that she’s run an executive branch office, you guys, and you’re all mostly guys, can’t say that she doesn’t have the penis years to be president. Countries across the globe admire and respect her. And she is much more likely to promote the new deal style programs to restore the economy.
You guys screwed up once already. It cost many of us our jobs. You really need to put this right by sitting on your hands and letting the rest of the country have a turn.
What’s a more frightening scenario? Michelle Bachmann in the white house, or Hillary Clinton?
Think about it.

Wednesday: An Inauspicious Start

Just thinking about this triggers spasms

Wouldn’t you know, I inflamed a back muscle while rooting through my car for that damn CV folder and have been somewhat incapacitated for the last 48 hours.  This is so weird.  I used to have no respect for people who constantly claim that back problems prevent them from working.  Now, I are one.  {{Sigh}}  A couple more doses of aspirin (the real wonder drug), some soft stretching and more nukeable heat bean bags should do the trick.  If anyone else has suggestions, please send them in.  I have to visit an outplacement service asap and I’d like to be able to aggressively pursue and new job without gritting my teeth.

Onto some newsy items:

Paul Krugman has been on a tear in the past week panning Paul Ryan’s ridiculous and stupid budget plan, not that it will prevent Obama and Co. from embracing parts of it anyway.  Krugman’s good stuff is in Conscience of a Liberal.  I hate to say it but Krugman is starting to hit the high notes in shrillness.  His takedowns of Ryan’s plans are pretty straightforward and clear but they lack that crucial endorsement feature that make them so attractive to “serious” people.  I know the feeling, Paul.  People haven’t been taking us seriously since 2008 even though we had Obama’s number  and knew how his weak presidency was going to work out from the very beginning.

I was just watching a program on the Nuremburg trials (because now that my back is out and I am on a enforced vacation, I can catch up with my All Hitler, All The Time) and there was one comment from an investigator that struck me as signifcant that we continue to ignore at our peril: the henchmen we ordinary guys who had no connection to the reality they had power over and they were very good Yes Men.  You find their types among the GOP, the Obama administration and access bloggers.  They experience a different reality than the rest of us.  I’m just surprised that Krugman is surprised at the rise of Donald Trump’s popularity.  Birtherism is pretty nuts, IMHO, but I understand what’s going on in the minds of the people who are attracted to The Donald.  Those are the very same people who were written off by the Democratic Party in 2008, the year they thought they had a chance of recapturing the White House from the Republicans.  These people are angry at the deal that both parties has handed to them.  The country is ripe for a third party and the person who appeals to the disenfranchised is going to see that huge voting bloc as the political opportunity of a lifetime.  I would have preferred someone other than Trump and a more rational message than birtherism but there ya go, Paul.  Really, you need to get out more.  Hillary Clinton could be a contenda…

Yesterday, Krugman proposed a health care solution for Medicare that I’ve endorsed for a long time that would be good for any American without health insurance.  That is, adopt a military or VA style health care system as an alternative public option.  As a Navy brat, I heartily endorse this idea.  The care my family, especially my asthmatic sister, got through the dispensary and military hospital system when we were kids was pretty good.  It was sort of a one stop shop.  Tests, doctor’s visits, shots, and prescriptions were all done at the dispensary.  We did the generic thing at both the dispensary and the commisary.  Of course, I think I grew up a little bit different than most people in that my parents didn’t usually take me to the doctor unless a.) we were scheduled for immunizations or b.) we were genuinely sick.  We also didn’t care much that the appearance of the place was, well, strictly military.  If you’re used to posh, the minimalism can come as a bit of a shock.  I know a lot of people who think that because they have insurance, they must maximize its use.  It sort of reminds me of people who go on cruises and then pack their plates at the buffet with enough food to gag a small African village for 3 days.  If you’re one of those people, shame on you.  You don’t have to get an antibiotic for every sniffle.  For one thing, antibiotics only work on bacterial infections and for another thing…

Bacterial resistance to current antibiotics is on the rise.  What you may not know about bacteria is they pass genes around between them on little rings of DNA called plasmids in much the same way teenagers pass mono around while swapping spit.  Some of these new gene combinations have resulted in multi-drug resistance to just about every antibiotic the pharma world can throw at them.

“IncP-1 plasmids are very potent ‘vehicles’ for transporting antibiotic resistance genes between bacterial species. Therefore, it does not matter much in what environment, in what part of the world, or in what bacterial species antibiotic resistance arises. Resistance genes could relatively easily be transported from the original environment to bacteria that infect humans, through IncP-1 plasmids, or other plasmids with similar properties, as ‘vehicles’,” says Professor Malte Hermansson of the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Gothenburg.

Personally, I’d be more worried about this than the radiation threat from Fukushima to California.  Now, the WHO is getting alarmed that we’ve run out of options and new antibiotics are not coming to market.  Gee, I wonder if that has anything to do with how many pharmaceutical workers who know how to make new drugs are presently laid off with nothing much to do?  Oh, well. Probably nothing to get all worked up about, right?  (We Lefties might want to ease up on the class action lawsuits for a spell until the bugs are under control again.  Just saying.)


Unemployment Day #1

I woke up this morning to go to a Biotech recruitment fair at a local community college.  My “professional” clothes fit me nicely now after over a year of feeling like I had a target on my back and finding out I wasn’t imagining it.  My actual professional clothes are denim jeans and professional chef’s clogs.  Panty hose feels weird.

The day did not start off well.  I couldn’t find my CV folder with my neatly formatted story of my life (in .doc and .pdf format with strategically placed key words).  I needed to get new copies from the stick that has all my presentation slides on it. The bright young thing at OfficeMax couldn’t operate the printers, couldn’t figure out how to send files to them and when I told her, forget it, I’m in a hurry, I’ll just do it somewhere else, pulled the usb stick out of the computer without unmounting.  {{GASP!!  Heart stopped, face blanched}}  “What did you do??  Those files are the only ones I have.  If you screwed up my presentation stick, I’ll kill you” (not really meaning to kill her. )  She jumped up from her stool and started to yell that I was threatening her.  Jeez, do I have time for this nonsense?  Went to the Staples up the road, did it myself.  It took 5 minutes.  Let that be a lesson.  Organize your boxes.

The recruitment fair was set up for pharmaceutical workers whose jobs has been eliminated and who had been out of work since January 2010.  There were recruiters and contracting companies and odd little services.  There was advice on how to optimize your LinkedIn experience (get at least three references and *complete* the profile).  One service that I had never heard of is called Encore.  Encore sets up professionals with companies that need their services for very short term projects.  I offered my CV to the Encore rep but she told me I wasn’t old enough.  ???

This recruitment fair was aimed at older workers in the pharmaceutical industry who had been displaced.  If they qualified, they were eligible for a $5000 retraining grant.  To learn…what, exactly?  I mean, they’re already about as high tech as you can get.  They’re all very well qualified, many have PhDs, some of them wrote the “How To Do It” books and papers on pharmaceutical sciences.  These are not the mythical mortgage brokers who need to be retrained to do computer programming.  These are the chemists and biologists who wrote the first protocols on how to make new drugs. Just because the whole pharmaceutical industry has decided to follow each other off a cliff pursuing biologicals doesn’t mean these people are suddenly unskilled.  Motivated, intelligent people don’t need a lot of retraining.  They just need opportunities.  And opportunities are the things in very short supply.

What I’ve heard from my former colleagues at Wyeth who were Pfizered last year (Pfizered- what happens to you when Pfizer buys your company’s pipeline but not the people who actually discovered the blockbuster drugs), is that employers actually *want* people with 15+ years of experience.  They really need the expertise.  But when they see a CV that has that many years of experience, the potential employee is “overqualified”, which is another way of saying, too expensive.  But expertise should have some kind of value.  Look, I understand that companies are trying to cut costs as the whole industry heads over the “patent cliff”.  But if you know you need the expertise, don’t try to cut corners with your talent.  After all, most of them didn’t choose to live here in the Northeast where it’s as expensive as all get out to support a family.  Pharma relocated many of these people in the 1990’s from places like Kalamazoo and Cinncinnatti.  At that point in time, their knowledge and skills were valuable and companies needed them.  They still need them, but they don’t want to pay for it.  The Wharton grad restructuring the research unit he knows nothing about , they’ll pay for.  The borglike IT drone who’s still stuck on Windows XP, they’ll pay for.  The guy who invented modern pharmaceutical science?  Unemployable.

This is what your 10,000 hours of experience will get you in the northeast:  Your company will be bought or restructured.  You’ll be worried about layoffs in the year following the big announcement.  After that year, the company will either offer you a job, maybe in another state, or lay you off.  If you accept the job in the new location, there’s a good chance your spouse will have to a.) give up his/her job and find a new one in the new location to keep the family together   or b.) accept that the family will have to live apart for much of the week.  The employee will have to rent a small apartment, sometimes with other relocated employees and travel back to the family on the weekends.  Besides adding stress to the family unit when one parent has to do the work of two throughout much of the week, there is the burden of additional cost of maintaining two residences, not to mention the blow to the quality of life.  It reminds me of the black men in South Africa who had to leave their families behind when they went to work in the mines during the apartheid era.

Or, the employee can get hired by a contracting company who plays the middle man between the company and employee.  The contracting company takes a cut of the wages; the employee pays everything himself out of the rest . There’s no job security, no benefits, no ties between employee and company.  That’s the whole point.

This is not a good thing to do with your best and brightest.  The reason they went into science in the first place is because it’s interesting.  They like the challenge.  They like to solve hard problems.  Treating them like swappable technicians that can be reduced to performing routine tasks is wasting their talents and discouraging their children from going anywhere near a lab bench when they get older.

It’s not like I expect these companies to suddenly grow consciences and become more sympathetic towards their work force.  No, the powers that be are so far removed from their research staff that such a thing is probably unrealistic.  But it doesn’t make good business sense to get rid of so much knowledge, or beat the spirits of the talent you need so that they’re not as engaged as they should be because their connection to the company is temporary and tangential.  The unemployable biotech worker will become walking warnings to anyone who dares to entertain the notion that science is a field worth pursuing.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste.  Especially when there is 20 years of knowledge bottled up in it with no place to go.

It’s not good for the nation’s scientific infrastructure.