Hope and Obama

Before I start writing this post, a brief disclaimer; I am not American, do not live there and do not have extensive first-hand experience of the political situation over there. This post is inspired entirely from stuff I’ve seen other people talk about online and a few bits of joining the dots from me, but if anyone feels I’ve gone wildly off-target please drop me a line in the comments. OK? Good, let’s get started.

The ascendency of Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency of the USA in 2009 was among the most significant events in recent history. Not only did he become the first black person to sit in the Oval office, he put the Democrats back in power (representing a fairly major shift in direction for the country after eight years under George Bush Jnr.) and manage to put his party in control of Congress too, the first time any Democrat leader had been in that position for quite some time. With bold claims regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which had been… talking points  during Bush’s time in charge, and big plans regarding the US healthcare system, this had all the hallmarks of a presidency dedicated to making change happen. Indeed, change was the key buzzword during Obama’s campaign; change for the punishing effects of US society on its young and poor, change for the recession-hit economy, and even change for the type of person in the White House (Bush had frequently been portrayed, rather unjustly for a man of notoriously quick wit, as stupid and socially incapable by satirists and left-leaning commentators, whilst even the right would find it hard to deny Obama’s natural charisma and intelligent, upright bearing) were all promised to voters, and it was a dream many took with them to the polling stations.

One of the key demographics the Democrats targeted and benefited from with this ‘pro-change’ style campaign was the youth vote; early twenty-somethings or even late teens, many of whom were voting in their first elections, who had grown up both physically and politically during the Bush administration and railed against his management of everything from the economy to the welfare system with all the ardour and uncluttered train of thought of young people everywhere. I should know: living through the period as a young person in a left-leaning family getting my news via the liberally-inclined BBC (and watching too much satirical comedy), one could hardly escape the idea that Bush was an absolute moron who know nothing about running his country. And this was whilst getting daily first-hand experience of what a left-wing government was like in Britain- I can imagine that to a young American with a similar outlook and position at the time, surrounded by right-leaning sentiment on all sides, the prospect of a Democratic president dedicated to change would have seemed like a shining beacon of hope for a brighter future. Indeed, the apparent importance of the youth vote to Obama’s success was illustrated during his 2012 re-election: when the news broke that Microsoft were planning on releasing a new Halo videogame on election day, conspiracy theorists had a wonderful time suggesting that Microsoft were embroiled in a great Republican plot to distract the youth vote by having them play Halo all day instead, thus meaning they couldn’t vote Democrat*.

Now, let us fast forward to the 2012 election. Obama won, but narrowly- and given he was up against a candidate whose comments that he ‘didn’t care about the very poor’ and thought that the windows in passenger aircraft should be able to be opened were very widely circulated and mocked, the result was far too close for comfort (even if, despite what some pundits and conservative commentators would have had you believe, all the pre-election statistics indicated a fairly safe Democrat victory). Whilst the airwaves weren’t exactly awash with anti-Obama messages, it wasn’t hard to find disillusionment and cynicism regarding his first term in office. For me, the whole thing was summed up by the attitudes of Jeph Jacques, the cartoonist behind the webcomic ‘Questionable Content’; reading through his back catalogue, he frequently had to restrain himself from verbalising his Obama-fandom in the comments below his comics during the 2008 election, but come election season in 2012 he chose to publish this. That comic pretty much sums it up: a whole generation had been promised change, and change had refused to come on a sufficiently large scale. The youthful optimism of his rise to power was replaced by something more akin to the weariness Obama himself displayed during the first live TV debate, and whilst I’m sure many of these somewhat disillusioned voters still voted Democrat (I mean, he still won, and preliminary statistics suggest voter turnout actually rose in 2012 compared to 2008), the prevailing mood seemed to be one less of optimism than of ‘better him than Romney’.

Exactly what was to blame for the lack of the promised change is a matter of debate; apologists may point to the difficulties had getting such radical (by American standards) health reforms and similar through a decidedly moderate congress, followed by the difficulties had trying to get anything through when congress became Republican-controlled, whilst the more cynical or pro-Republican would probably make some statement referring to the corporate-sponsored nature of the Democratic party/American political system or suggest that President Obama simply isn’t quite as good a politician/person (depending on the extent of your cynicism) as he came across as in 2008. Whatever the answer, the practical upshot has been quite interesting, as it has allowed one to watch as an entire generation discovered cynicism for the first time. All these hopes and dreams of some brave new vision for America went steaming face first into the bitter reality of the world and of politics, and the dream slowly fell apart. I am not old enough to definitively say that this is a pattern that has repeated itself down the ages, but nonetheless I found the whole escapade fascinating in a semi-morbid way, and I will be intrigued to see if/when it happens again.

Damn, I’m really going for conclusion-less posts at the moment…

*Interestingly, this kind of tactic has, so the story goes, been deliberately used in the past to achieve precisely the opposite effect. When Boris Yeltsin attempted to get re-elected as Russian president in 1996, voting day was designated a public holiday. Unfortunately, it was soon realised that many urban Russians, Yeltsin’s main voter base, were going to take this as a cue for a long weekend in the country (presumably hunting bears or whatever else Russians do in their second home in Siberia) rather than to go and vote, so Yeltsin went to the makers of telenovela (a kind of South American soap opera) called Tropikanka that was massively popular in the country and got them to make three brand-new episodes to be aired on election day. This kept the city dwellers at home, since many country spots didn’t have TV access, and meant they were around to go and vote. Yeltsin duly won, with 54.4% of the vote.

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Art vs. Science

All intellectual human activity can be divided into one of three categories; the arts, humanities, and sciences (although these terms are not exactly fully inclusive). Art here covers everything from the painted medium to music, everything that we humans do that is intended to be creative and make our world as a whole a more beautiful place to live in. The precise definition of ‘art’ is a major bone of contention among creative types and it’s not exactly clear where the boundary lies in some cases, but here we can categorise everything intended to be artistic as an art form. Science here covers every one of the STEM disciplines; science (physics, biology, chemistry and all the rest in its vast multitude of forms and subgenres), technology, engineering (strictly speaking those two come under the same branch, but technology is too satisfying a word to leave out of any self-respecting acronym) and mathematics. Certain portions of these fields too could be argued to be entirely self-fulfilling, and others are considered by some beautiful, but since the two rarely overlap the title of art is never truly appropriate. The humanities are an altogether trickier bunch to consider; on one hand they are, collectively, a set of sciences, since they purport to study how the world we live in behaves and functions. However, this particular set of sciences are deemed separate because they deal less with fundamental principles of nature but of human systems, and human interactions with the world around them; hence the title ‘humanities’. Fields as diverse as economics and geography are all blanketed under this title, and are in some ways the most interesting of sciences as they are the most subjective and accessible; the principles of the humanities can be and usually are encountered on a daily basis, so anyone with a keen mind and an eye for noticing the right things can usually form an opinion on them. And a good thing too, otherwise I would be frequently short of blogging ideas.

Each field has its own proponents, supporters and detractors, and all are quite prepared to defend their chosen field to the hilt. The scientists point to the huge advancements in our understanding of the universe and world around us that have been made in the last century, and link these to the immense breakthroughs in healthcare, infrastructure, technology, manufacturing and general innovation and awesomeness that have so increased our quality of life (and life expectancy) in recent years. And it’s not hard to see why; such advances have permanently changed the face of our earth (both for better and worse), and there is a truly vast body of evidence supporting the idea that these innovations have provided the greatest force for making our world a better place in recent times. The artists provide the counterpoint to this by saying that living longer, healthier lives with more stuff in it is all well and good, but without art and creativity there is no advantage to this better life, for there is no way for us to enjoy it. They can point to the developments in film, television, music and design, all the ideas of scientists and engineers tuned to perfection by artists of each field, and even the development in more classical artistic mediums such as poetry or dance, as key features of the 20th century that enabled us to enjoy our lives more than ever before. The humanities have advanced too during recent history, but their effects are far more subtle; innovative strategies in economics, new historical discoveries and perspectives and new analyses of the way we interact with our world have all come, and many have made news, but their effects tend to only be felt in the spheres of influence they directly concern- nobody remembers how a new use of critical path analysis made J. Bloggs Ltd. use materials 29% more efficiently (yes, I know CPA is technically mathematics; deal with it). As such, proponents of humanities tend to be less vocal than those in other fields, although this may have something to do with the fact that the people who go into humanities have a tendency to be more… normal than the kind of introverted nerd/suicidally artistic/stereotypical-in-some-other-way characters who would go into the other two fields.

This bickering between arts & sciences as to the worthiness/beauty/parentage of the other field has lead to something of a divide between them; some commentators have spoken of the ‘two cultures’ of arts and sciences, leaving us with a sect of sciences who find it impossible to appreciate the value of art and beauty, thinking it almost irrelevant compared what their field aims to achieve (to their loss, in my opinion). I’m not entirely sure that this picture is entirely true; what may be more so, however, is the other end of the stick, those artistic figures who dominate our media who simply cannot understand science beyond GCSE level, if that. It is true that quite a lot of modern science is very, very complex in the details, but Albert Einstein was famous for saying that if a scientific principle cannot be explained to a ten-year old then it is almost certainly wrong, and I tend to agree with him. Even the theory behind the existence of the Higgs Boson, right at the cutting edge of modern physics, can be explained by an analogy of a room full of fans and celebrities. Oh look it up, I don’t want to wander off topic here.

The truth is, of course, that no field can sustain a world without the other; a world devoid of STEM would die out in a matter of months, a world devoid of humanities would be hideously inefficient and appear monumentally stupid, and a world devoid of art would be the most incomprehensibly dull place imaginable. Not only that, but all three working in harmony will invariably produce the best results, as master engineer, inventor, craftsman and creator of some of the most famous paintings of all time Leonardo da Vinci so ably demonstrated. As such, any argument between fields as to which is ‘the best’ or ‘the most worthy’ will simply never be won, and will just end up a futile task. The world is an amazing place, but the real source of that awesomeness is the diversity it contains, both in terms of nature and in terms of people. The arts and sciences are not at war, nor should they ever be; for in tandem they can achieve so much more.

Big Pharma

The pharmaceutical industry is (some might say amazingly) the second largest on the planet, worth over 600 billion dollars in sales every year and acting as the force behind the cutting edge of science that continues to push the science of medicine onwards as a field- and while we may never develop a cure for everything you can be damn sure that the modern medical world will have given it a good shot. In fact the pharmaceutical industry is in quite an unusual position in this regard, forming the only part of the medicinal public service, and indeed any major public service, that is privatised the world over.

The reason for this is quite simply one of practicality; the sheer amount of startup capital required to develop even one new drug, let alone form a public service of this R&D, would feature in the hundreds of millions of dollars, something that no government would be willing to set aside for a small immediate gain. All modern companies in the ‘big pharma’ demographic were formed many decades ago on the basis of a surprise cheap discovery or suchlike, and are now so big that they are the only people capable of fronting such a big initial investment. There are a few organisations (the National Institute of Health, the Royal Society, universities) who conduct such research away from the private sectors, but they are small in number and are also very old institutions.

Many people, in a slightly different field, have voiced the opinion that people whose primary concern is profit are those we should least be putting in charge of our healthcare and wellbeing (although I’m not about to get into that argument now), and a similar argument has been raised concerning private pharmaceutical companies. However, that is not to say that a profit driven approach is necessarily a bad thing for medicine, for without it many of the ‘minor’ drugs that have greatly improved the overall healthcare environment would not exist. I, for example, suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, a far from life threatening but nonetheless annoying and inconvenient condition that has been greatly helped by a drug called mebeverine hydrochloride. If all medicine focused on the greater good of ‘solving’ life-threatening illnesses, a potentially futile task anyway, this drug would never have been developed and I would be even more hateful to my fragile digestive system. In the western world, motivated-by-profit makes a lot of sense when trying to make life just that bit more comfortable. Oh, and they also make the drugs that, y’know, save your life every time you’re in hospital.

Now, normally at this point in any ‘balanced argument/opinion piece’ thing on this blog, I try to come up with another point to try and keep each side of the argument at an about equal 500 words. However, this time I’m going to break that rule, and jump straight into the reverse argument straight away. Why? Because I can genuinely think of no more good stuff to say about big pharma.

If I may just digress a little; in the UK & USA (I think, anyway) a patent for a drug or medicine lasts for 10 years, on the basis that these little capsules can be very valuable things and it wouldn’t do to let people hang onto the sole rights to make them for ages. This means that just about every really vital lifesaving drug in medicinal use today, given the time it takes for an experimental treatment to become commonplace, now exists outside its patent and is now manufactured by either the lowest bidder or, in a surprisingly high number of cases, the health service itself (the UK, for instance, is currently trying to become self-sufficient in morphine poppies to prevent it from having to import from Afghanistan or whatever), so these costs are kept relatively low by market forces. This therefore means that during their 10-year grace period, drugs companies will do absolutely everything they can to extort cash out of their product; when the antihistamine drug loratadine (another drug I use relatively regularly, it being used to combat colds) was passing through the last two years of its patent, its market price was quadrupled by the company making it; they had been trying to get the market hooked onto using it before jacking up the prices in order to wring out as much cash as possible. This behaviour is not untypical for a huge number of drugs, many of which deal with serious illness rather than being semi-irrelevant cures for the snuffles.

So far, so much normal corporate behaviour. Reaching this point, we must now turn to consider some practices of the big pharma industry that would make Rupert Murdoch think twice. Drugs companies, for example, have a reputation for setting up price fixing networks, many of which have been worth several hundred million dollars. One, featuring what were technically food supplements businesses, subsidiaries of the pharmaceutical industry, later set the world record for the largest fines levied in criminal history- this a record that persists despite the fact that the cost of producing the actual drugs themselves (at least physically) rarely exceeds a couple of pence per capsule, hundreds of times less than their asking price.

“Oh, but they need to make heavy profits because of the cost of R&D to make all their new drugs”. Good point, well made and entirely true, and it would also be valid if the numbers behind it didn’t stack up. In the USA, the National Institute of Health last year had a total budget of $23 billion, whilst all the drug companies in the US collectively spent $32 billion on R&D. This might seem at first glance like the private sector has won this particular moral battle; but remember that the American drug industry generated $289 billion in 2006, and accounting for inflation (and the fact that pharmaceutical profits tend to stay high despite the current economic situation affecting other industries) we can approximate that only around 10% of company turnover is, on average, spent on R&D. Even accounting for manufacturing costs, salaries and such, the vast majority of that turnover goes into profit, making the pharmaceutical industry the most profitable on the planet.

I know that health is an industry, I know money must be made, I know it’s all necessary for innovation. I also know that I promised not to go into my Views here. But a drug is not like an iPhone, or a pair of designer jeans; it’s the health of millions at stake, the lives of billions, and the quality of life of the whole world. It’s not something to be played around with and treated like some generic commodity with no value beyond a number. Profits might need to be made, but nobody said there had to be 12 figures of them.