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Karen Ho: It’s not about full employment

Anthropologist Karen Ho, author of Liquidated, was on Virtually Speaking a couple of weeks ago.  Check out the whole interview here.

I wrote a series of posts about Liquidated, applying Ho’s observations of Wall Street culture to the pharmaceutical industry because I’m going to make you care about unemployed scientists no matter how much you think you hate them, dammit.  It’s that important.  Here are my posts:

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 1

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 2- Flexibility

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 3- Shareholder Value

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 4- Putting it Together

I have to add that the outrageous price of drugs has just as much to do with the left’s behavior as the right’s but that is for another post. The pharmaceutical industry is probably the only place where that statement is accurate.  I’m not just playing a “professional journalist” who has a fiduciary obligation to my employer to say that “both sides do it”.

Oh, and I also told you that the cost of generics is going to continue to rise.  You heard it here first.

Anyway, back to Karen Ho.  In her interview, she said something very interesting that I had been wondering about.  She said that the “culture of smartness” thinks that no one works harder than they do.  And that’s probably true.  The analysts on Wall Street work crazy hours, like about 100 hours a week.  That doesn’t mean they do anything of value or that is productive.  I’m not sure lining up bullet points within a pixel of their lives is a particularly good use of one’s time, even if the presentations are beautiful.  Content is more important, but that’s just me.  So, essentially, Wall Street takes 22 yr old ivy league graduates, throws them in a financial crash course for a couple of months and turns them loose on the world to work like maniacs.  It love bombs them and tells them they’re wonderful because they pull the levers of the world’s economy without sleep and then those same analysts grow up to leave nasty comments in pharmaceutical industry blogs.

What I’m referring to are the comments that Derek Lowe sometimes gets on his posts when he announces another round of mass layoffs at Merck or Glaxo or whatever.  Some asshole will say something to the effect that it’s ok because it clears out the “deadwood”.

The weird thing is, these layoffs frequently *don’t* clear out the deadwood.  Oh sure, there is some brush clearing but the thing is, if you are in a group run by a blessed manager, you could be the deadest of the wood and still survive.  And a lot of the deadwood is in the managerial class and they tend to have the salesperson’s gift for explaining why they should be retained while everyone under them is cut.  So, by the end of the day, after pharmageddon leaves smoking ruins in its wake, the people who are left are those that haven’t been inside the lab for years.

Anyway, I have to thank Ho for alerting me to who was leaving those comments.  Funny how they would even bother to check up on our horror and dismay at another medicinal chemistry group biting the dust.  But they really have no idea what they’re doing, hence The Strategy of No Strategy.

Chrystia Freeland also has an opinion piece in the NY Times about the role of plutocrats vs populists and social distancing.  Something about Freeland’s piece didn’t seem quite right though.  Freeland is taking it as a given that technology is hollowing out the middle class.  This may be true but I see things from a different perspective and mourn the blight that plutocracy has had on technological progress.

The truth is that we are now experiencing the golden age of biology.  We are learning so much about biological processes on a daily basis that it is hard to keep up.  There is so much we now know and so much yet to be discovered.  There is enough work to keep every chemist and biologist busy for the rest of their lives.

The problem is that no one wants to pay for discovering those mysteries.  There will be diseases that won’t be cured, processes that won’t be applied to other fields and whole new industries that won’t be founded because plutocracy is choking the life out of the discovery field in the name of shareholder value.  And now we have the Republicans and their sequester choking out the only hope we have that government will step in and pick up the slack where shareholder value has failed.

In a way, the demonization of science has helped this process along.  We’re just a bunch of Simon Barsinisters in white lab coats planning to take over the world and heedless of our impact on it.  That suits the lawyers and the politicians that feed on the “knit your own sandals” demographic just fine, doesn’t it Jay Ackroyd?  But it leaves science without any advocates.

The point that Freeland is missing and that Ho might understand better is that there doesn’t need to be a hollowing out of the middle class.  This country could become an unmatchable technology powerhouse once again if some of that money was put back into research at both an industrial and academic level.  But someone has to be willing to commit the money to the process and in the age of shareholder value, that’s not going to happen.  Research takes long term investment and continuity and stability, all three of which are severely lacking these days.  The countries that make the commitment to provide these three elements are going to come out ahead.

One other point I’d like to make has to do with what do we do to get it back on track.  One of the things I hated when I was on the school board was when a bunch of parents complained about the same thing over and over again but never offered any solutions.  Ezra Klein twittered yesterday: what is the country’s most challenging economic problem and what is the solution?  Here’s my answer: the problem is an out of control finance industry.  The solution is to phase out the 401K.  Regulation would also help but the 401K makes more and more of us reliant on risky Wall Street instruments and encourages a kind of recklessness.  A steady stream of 401K payroll deductions is like heroin to addicts.

It’s got to stop.

 

 

7 Responses

  1. Pharmaceuticals were historically different from most industries. They were regulated more and they were more profitable than their non-regulated brethren and sistren. That traces back to the deregulation mania of the Reagan years. And it has had bad results in a similar pattern across the board. Trucking is less safe. Utilities (still partly regulated) have devolved into a series of holding companies and get rich schemes. As Adam Smith and older practice indicated, regulation is needed to prevent fraud. It’s as old as the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay colony (1628).

    I noticed your comment about the stock market when I was in college. It was counter-cyclical. Every time a company announced layoffs the stock went up. Occupy Wall Street had that one right.

    Science has always had an opposition. When anesthetics were introduced there was an organized opposition to stop their use based on a Bible verse, “Thou shalt bring forth children in pain” or some such. The instant comeback quoted the Bible with God putting Adam asleep to remove his rib and create Eve.

    Science, alas, has few visible defenders these days. Maybe TED is the most visible. Oh my.

  2. I’d change that to “quarterly shareholder value”.

  3. The United States abandoned any pretense of commitment to scientific leadership when the SSC was canceled during the Contract On America days. It’s just taken a little time for the bad news to trickle down from the high-energy physics folks to the rest of the STEM community.

  4. SSC? Supercolliding Super Conductor??

    • Superconducting Super Collider. Its cancellation in 1993 effectively gutted high-energy physics research in the US – and set back the field worldwide by more than 20 years. And yes, I do mean more than: the celebrated LHC at CERN operates at less than 1/3 the energy of the SSC, so there’s still no research tool of similar capability anywhere in the world nor will there be for the foreseeable future.

      Come to think of it, maybe the great slide downward started with Nixon’s cancellation of Apollo.

  5. Not enough profit in them for the big corporations and politically connected, katiebird. At least that’s my guess.

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