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Saturday: Takin’ care of business

Are you pondering what I'm pondering?

As I was saying, I’ll be out of work in about a month.  But my lab partner (let’s call her B.) and I are still incredibly busy.  That’s not an attempt to make us look irreplaceable, because no one is, really (except Steve Jobs).  It’s just a fact.  There’s just an incredible amount of work on our plates.  I have about 4 reports to write up and, if I’m lucky, three more datasets to solve on Monday.  We’re also transitioning our projects to other people and other sites so there are meetings to attend.  Oddly enough, B and I are still having fun.  In that respect, we are a lot luckier than some of the other people who were laid off with us who we met up with at an outplacement orientation recently.  B and I are in a pretty good place right now mentally, well, comparatively.  We know that there’s more than enough work to keep us occupied until the very last day and even then, we might not get it all done before we leave.  Work has become our refuge.  There’s nothing more relaxing than spending time in the lab doing things that make us feel competent.

But some of my laid off colleagues have been told not to attend meetings anymore.  That has been devastating to them in so many ways.  They’re bitter, defensive and hurt.  Verily I say unto you, oh corporate overlords, don’t do this to your people if you can help it.  There’s nothing more morale deflating than to be told that your input and expertise is no longer needed.  If you still have people on site who are waiting it out, by all means, put them to work doing something. You and the employee will benefit from keeping a positive outlook.

B and I are very thankful to our colleagues, past and present, who have offered us sympathy and support.   Some of them have sent us messages out of the blue to reassure us that we are good and dedicated scientists and they want to help us.  Others have made sure to include us on project meetings and have encouraged our input.  Some of our friends ask why we even bother at this point.  It’s just that we are working on stimulating and interesting projects right now and are learning a lot of new things.  We want to keep our skills fresh and we want to keep learning in this area of research long after we leave.  B and I seem to be of a similar mindset in this respect.  We do it because we want to, we do it for ourselves and our colleagues who will still be working on our projects after we leave and we do it because one of these days, we expect to see our work turned into real results.

Which brings me to a new book I’ve been listening to, Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan.  Well, that wasn’t a very smooth segue.  So, why do I bring it up?  Heffernan has written a book about the perils of conformity and competiveness.  Heffernan’s book suggests that competitiveness leads to conformity and, subsequently, to blindness, that inability to see or acknowledge when you’re going off a cliff in your business, political and personal life.  I’d recommend this book to Obots who could really benefit from its insights but, ironically, I doubt they’d see themselves as suffering from the shortcomings described in this book.

What Willful Blindness describes really well is the pitfalls of modern corporate culture and the deleterious effects that conformity, distancing and competitiveness can have on a business’s core function.  Heffernan uses BP, Electronic Arts and Enron as poster children for what not to do to your employees if you want to succeed.  BP, Enron and two Wall Street firms, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns are particularly egregious when it comes to the number of business school grads who are assimilated and conform to climb the ladder to success.  They are so caught up in their own careers and oneupmanship that they become completely disconnected from the industry they oversee.  In BP’s case, cost cutting measures and staff reductions at a refinery in Texas City, Texas, resulted in the death of 15 people.  The operators were burdened with so much work after a 25% reduction in staff that some of them had gone over 30 days without a day off and were subsisting on 5 hours of sleep a night.  The Texas City explosion whalloped BP in the stock price for a couple of years and the stock was only beginning to recover when the Deepwater Horizon disaster hit.

Willful Blindness recounts many such corporate horror stories of cost cutting for bonuses and lax oversight due to disconnection that you’d think the business community would have learned their lessons by now.  But, paradoxically, their lemming-like behavior in pursuit of out Jonesing the guys in the next office up or the next corporation over has accelerated.  While the underlings look on with horror from their sleep deprived minds, the business guys drive the whole enterprise over a cliff.

I’m on the last chapter where Heffernan poses some possible solutions.  Most of them involve having the guys in the front office appoint independent auditors and reality checkers.  Heffernan’s experts recommend that the CEOs and executives encourage dissent and reward people who do not have a personal agenda.  But that relies on the executives realizing that they have a problem, er, which seems to be the point of the book- they don’t want to know.   And anyone who has been in an environment where cost cutting is all the rage knows that to speak up is to invite an unwelcome outcome.  So, for the time being, in the Obama age, don’t expect there will be a new honesty from the people most affected by the conformity in the boardroom.

I haven’t found anything technically wrong with Willful Blindness but I’m going through it slowly and critically, as the author would suggest, to see if all of her points hang together.  In the first chapter, she explains how it is that you will probably never hear anything out of your comfort zone on Pandora because your preferences have all been carefully analyzed.  All the recommendations will be based on what you already like.  Oddly enough, her book was an audible recommendation for  me, probably because I had read Malcolm Gladwell’s books that are similar in style and content.

She also talks about the Cassandras.  Anyone who has read this blog for the past three years will know I and other co-bloggers here and in a subset of the left blogosphere fall into this category.  Psychologists don’t know what makes us tick yet.  There’s no clear pattern that emerges.  Maybe we’re just born that way.  I do suspect it’s a bit of both nature and nurture.  Someday, they’ll pin it down.  Maybe it can be taught.  But maybe it just has to do with being comfortable in our own skins, not seeking or needing as much approval from our peers as other people.  If there is a neurotransmitter feedback loop in conforming to the crowd, we have either less of it or have learned to neutralize it, substituting our own positive reinforcement.  But until we figure it out, we should expect that target audiences, whether they are in business or politics, will “go along to get along” and savvy manipulators will exploit the tendency to short circuit analysis with group dynamics.  The Cassandras will see it coming, speak up and get ignored until the rest of the population suffers enough to catch on.  Until then, we can expect a lot of sleepless nights as the wheels of business grind on.

American business is flying into a mountain

Do you remember the 70’s PBS series Connections?  Each week, James Burke showed how politics, obscure history, necessity, science and opportunity lead to the technological advances we now take for granted.  You never know where you’ll find connections.  So, I’m intrigued when I think I spot one.  See if you agree.

In one of his recent books, Outliers, the Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell relates the story of the crash of Korean Air Lines Flight 801 into a mountain in Guam.  There were a number of factors that contributed to the crash, including that the glide path signal was taken out of service for a 2 month overhaul, the landing beacon that was supposed to be located a the end of the runway was relocated 5 kilometers from it and that the low altitude warning system was reconfigured to prevent the air traffic controllers from being annoyed by false positive alarms.

But the air crash investigators found another problem on the black boxes and cockpit voice recorders.  The pilot was exhausted and the co-pilot was reluctant to override him until the crash seemed imminent.  The problem seems to be a function of the culture where those people in charge are not questioned.  Malcolm cites research that shows that countries where questioning authority is forbidden or discouraged have bigger barriers to cross when introducing new ideas and preventing catastrophes.  The more hierarchical the structure of the society, the less likely innovation is to be nurtured.

Flash forward to 2010.  Derek Lowe at In The Pipeline posted this letter from a pharmabot in a corporate setting regarding the perils of outsourcing.  Here’s the money quotes:

in a recent edition (25th Oct 2010 “The Grand Experiment”) you state that Merck &Co targets 25% external R&D and that AstraZeneca is striving for 40%. I recently talked to all the project managers which oversee our current collaborations. The stories of naivety, incompetence and missed deadlines by the outsource companies were legion. The managers I talked to mostly used in-house resource and expertise to paper over the cracks. Why?When asked whether they had reported these problems up the chain of command, the answer was always no. The reasons?

1 “If we have four collaborations and mine is the only one reporting problems, which three project managers do you think will get a bonus?”

2 “They won’t believe me, they will just think I am trying to protect jobs here”.

3. “You can’t swim against the tide”.

4 “When it goes bad here, I might be able to get a job with the collaborator”.

5 “My next job will be outside chemistry as a project manager. The last thing I need is any negative vibes around this collaboration”.

6. “I want to be the out-sourcing manager when that is all that there is left here. Do you think I want any trouble to become visible”

So, as far as senior management know, it is all going very well.

Unfortunately I can’t attach my name and organization. I need a job too and telling the truth is not always that popular, as many out-sourcing managers will have experienced. . .

This isn’t really surprising and isn’t exclusive to R&D industries.  But the whole R&D apparatus in particular is scared sh&*less by layoffs and outsourcing.  No one wants to be the one to break the bad news to upper management that some outsourcing collaborations or periodic business management rearranging of the deck chairs restructuring is making our jobs harder and less productive.  As Derek sums up:
Just as with internal efforts, Something Upper Management Wants can too easily turn into Something Upper Management Is Going To Do No Matter What. And with outsourcing, the problems can be both harder to detect and potentially more severe. Because what you don’t want is Something Upper Management Will Be Told Is Going Great, if it’s really not.
But how do you break the news to the guys in charge without getting fired?
And then I read this article recommended in the comments section of today’s news post about the fading fortunes of America’s middle class.  In Class Dismissed: Why middle income jobs are not coming back, this paragraph caught my attention:
From 1979-2009, there was a nearly 12% drop in the four “middle-skill” occupations: sales, office/administrative workers, production workers, operators. Meanwhile, people in the top 20% of the economy earning $100,000 or more a year, says Peter Francese, demographer at Ogilvy & Mather, “have barely been touched by this recession.” They average an unemployment rate between 3% and 4%, the lowest in the nation. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14% increase in low-education service jobs between 2008-2018. “The only major occupational category with greater projected growth,” Autor writes, “is professional occupations, which are predicted to add 5.2 million jobs, or 17%.” These sectors include medicine, law and middle- and upper-management.
Yes, that’s right.  Middle and upper management is now considered a “profession” right along side doctors and lawyers.  Hold that thought for a moment.
A couple of years ago, I ran into one of my daughter’s friend’s parents in a movie theater lobby.  Here’s how her side of the conversation went:
Oh, hi, what’s up?  Oh, I didn’t know you work for yadayadaco?   No, I work for blahco.  Yes, my job is very exciting.  I graduated from Wharton.  Which school did you go to?  Oh, really?  Well, my last project was very ambitious.  Yeah, we just corrected the labeling on the bottle of *insert famous over the counter medication here*.  And you do what?  What does that mean, I mean, I don’t know what that is.  Oh, it must be very interesting.  Well, gotta go.  Bye!
Readers, she’s bringing in the big money in her family.  Her husband’s career is more like a hobby.  They live very well, very well indeed.  Nice big house.  Expensive cars.  Lavish vacations.
And she changes the labels on over the counter drugs.  Now, I’m not saying this is not a very important thing to do but do you really need an MBA for that?  I mean, wouldn’t any one with sufficiently well developed communication and planning skills be able to read the documentation provided by the FDA and make the appropriate changes?  Sure, you have to coordinate with other departments but this is something the labrats do on a daily basis in addition to solving science problems.  Yeah, we have to read contracts, negotiate with vendors, make spreadsheets, call meetings, coordinate with other departments, prepare budgets and do every thing else that the Wharton MBA does.  But we do it for much, much less in salary and other benefits.  Moving from the lab to the corporate building always comes with a generous increase in salary regardless of company.
They think very well of themselves, those MBAs.  I doubt that any of them have a clue what we do and I don’t expect that any of them want to find out.  I’ve seen well respected PhDs in biology dressed down in a training session by some snooty woman from purchasing in her business suit because he had the temerity to ask about the application they were forcing on us.  It’s typical.  The condescension is palpable any time a labrat has to deal with the administrative side of the business.  You get the impression they think of us as dirty nuisances, an unpleasant and expensive necessity and we are stupid idiots for not immediately understanding their obscure bureaucratic procedures for getting even the simplest things accomplished in a time sensitive manner.  Yes, they waste our time and they aren’t nice about it.
But the fear we face is that the MBAs don’t want to hear this even if it is in the best interests of the shareholders.  We fear that they don’t want to hear that  they are sometimes wrong and that they will kill the messenger.  So, we just try to adapt and keep doing our best even when the alarms are all flashing danger.  No one wants to be the first one to raise their voices and get cut down by the higher ups.  We’ll keep our heads down and brace for the impact into that mountain.

Tuesday: The Rich have feelings too

O.M.G.  This piece, The Rage of the Priveleged Class, in New York Magazine is a must read.  It’s all about the trials and tribulations of the movers and shakers on Wall Street who are starting to feel the pinch both economically and socially.  It is hard to find a piece of journalism that is this unbalanced by the subjects themselves.  These people need a major attitude adjustment.  Here are some choice excerpts:

In a witch hunt, the witches have feelings, too. As populist rage has erupted around the country, stoked by canny politicians, an opposite rage has built on Wall Street and other arenas where the wealthy hold sway. Its expression is more furtive and it’s often mixed with a kind of sublimated shame, but it can be every bit as vitriolic.

“AIG pissed some people off, and now you’re gonna screw everyone on Wall Street?” rails a laid-off JPMorgan vice-president. (Despite the honesty of the conversation, many did not wish to be quoted by name.)

“No offense to Middle America, but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?” e-mails an irate Citigroup executive to a colleague.

RD here.  I am familiar with the Wharton Whine.  You will probably not be surprised that this claim of superiority has trickled down to the pharmaceutical industry as well.  I met a Wharton graduate whose job is to change the labels according to FDA rulings.  No doubt, this is very important and requires following instructions with great attention to detail.  But as value goes,  it hardly compares to the labrat who invents the drugs in the first place.  Not according to her.  The labrat doesn’t have an MBA from Whaaaaarton, therefore, they don’t get paid the big bucks. It’s the natural order.  These people are nasty.

Let’s continue:

Their anger takes many forms: There is rage at Obama for pushing to raise taxes (“The government wants me to be a slave!” says one hedge-fund analyst); rage at the masses who don’t understand that Wall Street’s high salaries fund New York’s budget (“We’re fucked,” says a former Lehman equities analyst, referring to the city); rage at the people who don’t “get” that Wall Street enables much of the rest of the economy to function (“JPMorgan and all these guys should go on strike—see what happens to the country without Wall Street,” says another hedge-funder).

LOLOLOL!  Yes, PLEASE, JP Morgan, go on strike.  Do not pass go, Do not collect $2,000,000.  Go directly on strike.  It is always astonishing to me that these people can be so oblivious to the rest of us out here who have seen our measly 3% raises get eaten up by inflation and property taxes.  And the reason our raises are so lousy and our employment prospects so miserable is because of entities like JP Morgan who worship the investment crowd to the detriment of the rest of us.  Wages are low and the merger mania has lead to RIFs and outsourcing.  But JP Morgan thinks we should be grateful that they have created a class of servants who will buff the cars and serve the antibiotic free lamb chops with organic baby vegetables.

“You can’t live in New York and have kids and send them to school on $75,000,” he continues. “And you have the Obama administration suggesting that. That was a very populist thing that Obama said. He’s being disingenuous. He knows that you can’t live in New York on $75,000.”

Au Contraire.  There are lots of people who live in Manhattan on less than $75,000.  And while their lives are kinda tough, there are worse places to be in terms of culture.  The City has some of the best museums in the world, there are nice magnet schools and even the street entertainment is good.  I love watching the people go by on a warm summer day in Central Park.  Good culture is relatively inexpensive or free.  You just have to be willing to mingle with the great unwashed masses from New Jersey. And speaking of NJ, it’s hard to live here on less than $75K or even $100K.  I live a very modest lifestyle here even though my salary would make me well off in Kansas City.  Sure, I’d LOVE to be able to send my kid to a private school but I don’t have the money.  So, I improvise, just like the newly emancipated Wall Street folks will have to do.

The hidden nugget in this piece, and one of the most important reasons why we have to kill this out of control greedy mindset once and for all, is the account of the Goldman-Sachs vet who says that last fall, G-S employees were panicky and dismal over the value of their company.  They thought they were done for and were going to go the way of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers.  Then the government and AIG stepped up to the plate with cash infusions and now they’re partying again like nothing ever happened.  This is what Adam Posen was referring to when he talked about Gambling on Resurrection with respect what happened to Japanese banks in the 90’s.  As long as there is money around to be used to make risky investments, the bankers will use it.  They may have lost everything but give them enough cash and they will put it all down on some high risk/high rate of return bet.  And they will keep doing this until someone holds them accountable and takes their money away.  In other words, the bankers, as bad off as they are right now, have not learned their lesson and won’t until the Obama adminstration summons up the courage to get tough with them.  Until that happens, expect no recovery of any consequence.

Just go read the whole piece.  It’s cathartic.  They really are as bad as we thought they were.  The comments are a hoot too.  Some of the ones from insiders who finally “get it” are refreshingly frank.  The moneyed class is finally going to get their rude awakening to find they’re not so valuable after all and it can’t come soon enough.

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Monday: Why doctors of thinkology don’t get it.

Paul Krugman is in despair. He simply cannot understand why Obama and his economics team are taking the country off a cliff in order to protect bankers and investors from absorbing their losses.  It’s a puzzlement why taxpayers are subsidizing the private investors who will gladly take bad assets off of the bankers hands for more money than they are actually worth.

Paul, Paul, Paul, where have you been?  This $@#%’s been going on for a couple of decades now.  If we weren’t in danger of being called “crude populists”  some of us would complain loudly and vociferously about a class war.

Remember Pittsburgh in the late 70’s?  Of course you do.  Back then, the Japanese dumped steel on the US market and drove prices down.  The US steel manufacturer’s used that as an opportunity to get rid of the pesky unions and diversify.  I used to wake up in the middle of the night to a bright orange sandblasted sky and the comforting sounds of clanging steel.  My uncles worked for US Steel and made pretty good money.  Then, they were suddenly out on their own.  The mills went silent.  The milltowns fell into disrepair.  Giardia crept into the water systems that municipal authorities couldn’t afford to fix.

Then there came PATCO.  Ah, yes, I remember it well.  It happened just before my first trip to the Bahamas.  Lucky for us there were just enough management to take over running the airports to get us safely off the ground and back again.  But it was OK.  We hired new air traffic controllers who were willing to work for less money and wouldn’t complain so much.  Probably laid off steelworkers.

The 80’s were full of stories about lockouts and Caterpillar workers on strikes and people living off of their union dues and sadness and heartbreak in reazlizing the only job they knew was gone, gone, gone.  These were not high-falutin’ doctors of thinkology.  They were just your average Joe’s who enjoyed a beer on their front stoops after work and spent the weekends tending to their gardens and their cars.  The people you want to spend Thanksgiving dinner with, eating pumpkin pie in front of a football game.  Little people who liked watching the sunset over the river on a summer evening and telling stories to their neighbors.

I was in college in the 80’s.  I saw the rise of the MBA lifestyle, the business majors, the resurrection of Greek culture, the beginnings of networking.  We G-d damned independents thought we were so much smarter than them, hunkered over our P-chem textbooks and sodium sand organometallic reactions.  There would always be a job out there for those of us who used our brains.  Money?  Well, yeah, we expected to be paid well.  Maybe not stellar salaries but enough to enjoy the American Dream.  Greed wasn’t what we were after.  And there weren’t that many of us anyway.  My college graduated exactly 8 Chemistry majors in 1986.  Besides, wasn’t a college degree the path to success?  That’s what everyone told us.

But we were wrong.  It’s the people who handle the money who have a path to success.  While we were busy thinking, they were busy rewriting the rules.  And we were so busy.  Those of us who are female had careers and husbands who didn’t help out as much as they should have and children and daycare and forty things to do before we fell into bed at night.  The pace of life picked up and went at lightspeed.  Who has time to manage the money?  We trusted people to do that for us.  Even when we got our first 401k’s, most of us were content to just “set it and forget it”.

And the college educated toiled away while the MBAs and the marketers and sales people flourished and gave themselves bonuses and promoted themselves over and over again.  And the investors bought stock and frowned when the quarterly earnings didn’t endlessly increase their dividends.  And they demanded cutbacks and the MBA’s obliged and reduced the number of people who actually did the work.  And the remaining workers cheered because their portfolios grew.

And here we are.  The college educated are now the new working class.  We are expendable.  I heard an HR person at my company slip recently and tell a bunch of high school students that a starting BS scientist could expect to make $35K at my company but people who came in with marketing degrees made the top salaries.  Well, we’ve suspected this for a while now.  They also get the attention of the CEO’s.  If a marketer can’t figure out a way to protect his own job, he should find a new career.  And the MBAs sit in their offices and move the chess pieces around and try to figure out which production units to cut in order to increase their bottom line. We are all expendable.

So, now Tim Geithner and Barack Obama are working on a plan to stick hard working, soon to be out of work taxpayers with the bill for the investors who are going to take on the massive bad assets that the bankers cooked up to make money for themselves.  We should not expect these bankers and shareholders to take a haircut because that would be “crude populism” and class warfare.  Why is it any surprise to you that Obama would go this route, Paul?  As long as those of you in the media say it’s OK to treat us like the wretched refuse of our teaming shores, why shouldn’t Tim, Larry and Barry do whatever the hell they want with our money?

In order to get the economy back on track, we workers have to reclaim our dignity and demand accountability.  So, Paul, if you can’t say anything nice about us “crude populists” out here, please, say nothing at all.