Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why rifts within the American Chemical Society will continue to grow

David Brooks had a recent column on the American economy and the divisions that he saw through libertarian economics professor Tyler Cowen's recent article in The American Interest:
His [Cowen's] work leaves the impression that there are two interrelated American economies. On the one hand, there is the globalized tradable sector — companies that have to compete with everybody everywhere. These companies, with the sword of foreign competition hanging over them, have become relentlessly dynamic and very (sometimes brutally) efficient. 
On the other hand, there is a large sector of the economy that does not face this global competition — health care, education and government. Leaders in this economy try to improve productivity and use new technologies, but they are not compelled by do-or-die pressure, and their pace of change is slower. 
A rift is opening up. The first, globalized sector is producing a lot of the productivity gains, but it is not producing a lot of the jobs. The second more protected sector is producing more jobs, but not as many productivity gains. The hypercompetitive globalized economy generates enormous profits, while the second, less tradable economy is where more Americans actually live. 
In politics, we are beginning to see conflicts between those who live in Economy I and those who live in Economy II. Republicans often live in and love the efficient globalized sector and believe it should be a model for the entire society. They want to use private health care markets and choice-oriented education reforms to make society as dynamic, creative and efficient as Economy I. 
Democrats are more likely to live in and respect the values of the second sector. They emphasize the destructive side of Economy I streamlining — the huge profits at the top and the stagnant wages at the middle. They want to tamp down some of the streamlining in the global economy sector and protect health care, education and government from its remorseless logic.
First of all, I'm not really interested in exploring the elephant-vs-donkey aspect of Brooks' column.

But I'm really struck by how this explains many of the great divisions within the American Chemical Society and its members. The big issues (open-access, #chemjobs, immigration lobbying, climate change and the leadership of ACS and the editorial direction of its flagship newsweekly (C&EN)) can all be seen as proxy wars between ACS' Economy I and Economy II members. Of course, there are battles within the Economy I and II sectors as well -- the management class (non-bench workers, PhDs, seemingly protected from the greatest pressures) versus the bench chemists, etc., etc.

An example of the irritation that can be engendered by Economy I and II debates is the battle between industry hiring managers and academics over training of young chemists. When industrial chemists say things like "academia needs to do a better job of training", academics tend to hear "you tenure-protected Economy II members have no idea what it's like over here in Economy I, and I'd like you to do for free what I used to pay for." When government and academic scientists (and the editor-in-chief of C&EN!) talk about the perils of climate change, industrial chemists hear "you Economy I people are making our way of life worse, and I'd like to change that by raising your costs and making it harder for you to do business." Even as both of these comments are obvious caricatures, I'll bet they sound familiar, at least.

I doubt the ACS can manage to solve these differences; they're with us and they always will be. But I think that Brooks is right -- the Two Economies are growing apart, and the split within ACS along that rift will only grow wider. 

18 comments:

  1. I see a major flaw in your theory - it is predicated on the notion that ACS is there to unite and represent chemists. It is not.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. OK, what do you see as ACS' real raison d'etre?

      Delete
    2. Different anon than above, but the cynical side of me says that membership is to maintain the tax-exempt status for their publishing company. They promote the study of chemistry so they have a continuous stream of content and customers for their publishing company.

      I belong to a number of other advocacy organizations, and I feel that every single one of them represents and advocates on behalf of me and my interests. The ACS only seems to advocate for two issues: (1) to protect the income from their publishing model, and (2) to encourage public funding for chemistry education (producing more chemists).

      I don't understand how (1) benefits the majority of their membership. Maybe the small subset of members who are paid journal editors. Aside from those in the Ivory Towers, I don't see (2) benefiting anyone.

      Delete
    3. ACS is a commercial publisher/lobbyist that uses its member body to justify its tax-exempt status and to leverage access to public-financed research results. And to line the pockets of its senior executives, but that of course goes without saying.

      Delete
    4. ACS treats its members like sheep. It reminds me of the Catholic Church (minus the pedophiles).

      Delete
  2. Really great post. As an employee, I believe you want to be in the second Economy. In the first Economy, you are competing with low wage countries. In order to compete, you either have to increase working hours or decrease wages, in order to compete with workers from lower wage countries. This is why we see wages for PhD chemists lower than they were fifteen years ago. In the second Economy, you only compete with workers from the US.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post! The problem is that money or wealth is created primarily in the first Economy while the second Economy exists on taxes or fees extracted from the first. We're seeing the consequences of this unsustainable situation in Greece, and I doubt the U.S. is all that far behind.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think things are a little more complex than that. I prefer to think of it as a symbiotic relationship.

      Delete
  4. Uh, so the phrases "private sector" and "public sector" weren't good enough? Assigning Roman numerals to familiar terms seems a bit silly, but I get the point Cowen is making. Globalization is changing (degrading?) the private sector much more than the private sector.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think anyone in the health care economy wishes to acknowledge their revenue sources and which one (Economy I vs. Economy II) it puts them in.

      Delete
    2. Good post. Always be wary of drawing black and white arguments but this one does resonate.. essentially the old capitalist vs. commie dichotomy. I think this can be applied to the environment too. The way that we all conscientiously recycle at home, but yet at work we take many jet flights for meetings conferences etc. without a thought, regardless of necessity. How many bottles do you have to recycle to earn a san franscisco-new york redeye? But we want to network, and we want to do succeed at work. And also the irony of commuting 2 hrs from the city to live in the countryside. Basically the same thing - economy I meets the demands of the capitalist system, regardless of environment or future sustainability, and dominates our work lives, economy II realizes what we are doing to the environment and is likely to become part of our culture at home.

      Delete
    3. True, something like 45% of health care spending comes from the government. I guess I assumed everyone knew that.

      But this I/II demarcation doesn't make complete sense, either. Most service jobs can't be outsourced, but barbers, plumbers, gardeners, and bank tellers aren't exactly living it up in Economy I.

      Delete
  5. Great Post CJ! It goes a long way to help explain why so many intelligent people perceive different realities, both inside the world of chemistry and also politics at large.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great post!

    While Economy II calls Economy I destructive, it concurrently demands cleverly disguised destruction. Economy II accelerates the destructive aspects and hinders the constructive aspects of Economy I. Economy II sees the massive destruction in its wake and happily goes on its merry way being the 'good guy' proclaiming cheap science education & prescriptions and 'protection' through heavy regulations.

    ReplyDelete
  7. The points made in the post and comments are excellent. The society is going to have an interesting decision to make regarding the financial philosophy of its existence. Are we satisfied with the utilitarian idea of the Publications division milking universities and other subscribers to support the "good" work of the rest of the society, or will we scale back the profits of this sector---to improve communication and promote our science, because this is what is "right"---and offset this loss with program cutbacks?

    In the long run, this decision might not even be up to the society (i.e., if the current publishing model fails).

    ReplyDelete
  8. David Brooks' columns are the only thing i miss since NYT went behind its paywall.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Ugh ...
    That's my primary response to this.
    These discussions are good at invoking thought as well as helping us to see divisions, which is why I would expect to see some of the comments here that we're seeing. (From CJs mouth "tenure-protected vs. industrial chemist")

    In my opinion, both camps (idealists who believe all things should be run either ruthlessly for profit or in an unending quest of utopian vision) are both terribly wrong. Some things (I believe education is one of them) need to be run with more of a vision-based slant while others (production of pharmaceuticals) need to be run more with profits in mind. It is just in their nature. It doesn't mean that either can't/shouldn't pick up aspects from the other. But each is always going to skew one way or another. And that's the point. They skew. They are not completely in one world or another. It is a spectrum. And the voices that yell the loudest are often the extremes here.
    Could education have more of a profit-based/training slant. Sure. Should it? I dunno. But, it will always skew towards its end of the spectrum.
    Should pharma care more about primary/basic research within its own walls. Sure. Should it?

    Lots of rambling here. But I think my larger point is that Economy 1 shouldn't claim to have all the answers for for what ails Economy II. And Economy II shouldn't claim to have all the answers for what ails Economy I.

    I personally don't want to see either sacrificed for the sake of the other.

    ReplyDelete