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Friday, January 5, 2007


Lying as Business Strategy

Those of you who take The Wall Street Journal probably caught Wednesday's story about the efforts of Abbott Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company, to sell more of a very lucrative AIDS drug. The challenge for Abbott was that one of their lower-margin drugs was widely used in conjunction with a competitor's drug, in lieu of a more expensive Abbott uber-drug. The Journal obtained documents revealing some of the strategies Abbott considered for reducing use of its lower-margin drug.

I'll say up front that I'm not someone who thinks drug companies make too much money -- quite the contrary, it's precisely in critical fields like medicine that we want to see large profits, so that more brains and resources are attracted to them. So I have no problem with a company trying to make a buck, or a billion bucks.

According to memos obtained by the Journal, however, Abbott executives considered ideas like taking the lower-margin drug off the market and telling people that they had to do so in order to ship it to poor countries in Africa. Another alternative was to convert the pill form to a syrup that they described as tasting "like someone else's vomit."

Caught out by the press, Abbott did the usual corporate spin, claiming that the executives were "just brainstorming."

Apparently, lying is a plausible enough option at Abbott Laboratories that its executives feel comfortable considering it as a possible action item. That's what Abbott admits, in effect.

I'm not sure how one cuts out such a cancer once it has permeated an organization's culture. And if anyone doubts that Abbott's culture is threatened by a lack of integrity, consider the coda to this tale: after settling on a strategy of raising the price of its lower-margin drug by 400%, Abbott tried to counter outcries by posting on its website misleading data about the drug's cost compared to alternatives. The FDA later ordered it to take the misleading information down.

To be fair, one never knows, when reading a newspaper account, whether all the relevant facts are being presented. What seems clear, however, is that Abbott executives considered telling a disgusting lie about helping poor people in Africa, and that they see no problem contemplating such a lie.

People like this are a far greater enemy to markets and liberty than anyone in the hapless Democratic party, because they reinforce stereotypes of corporate executives as unprincipled brigands. They should be ashamed of themselves. Unfortunately, that's probably unlikely.


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Wednesday, January 3, 2007


Silence is Golden

Imagine that you wanted to foster among the public and the press the impression that Christians are ignorant, mean-spirited buffoons. How might you go about it, were you a clever person? Rather than attack Christians directly, you might instead find yourself a puffed-up, theologically ignorant preacher, and give him a nationally televised cable program focused on current events. Maybe you'd even have him run for president a few times, so everyone could enjoy his ill-considered ruminations, delivered in the smarmy, self-righteous tones of a Hollywood actor doing an over-the-top impression of a Christian. You might invent, in other words, Pat Robertson.

Now the right reverend Robertson delivers us his 2007 prediction, straight, he says, from the lips of the Almighty: a terrorist attack on U.S. soil that will yield "mass killing." Scary indeed. The problem is, Robertson often gets it wrong. In 2006 he predicted that storms and "possibly" a tsunami would batter the U.S. coasts. In 2005 he prophesied Social Security reform. (I am not making this up.) "I have a relatively good track record," Robertson says, but "sometimes I miss."

This is a fascinating admission, for those of us who bother to read the Bible, because it turns out that the good Lord anticipated the likes of Robertson. To wit, Deuteronomy 18:21-22: "You may say to yourselves, 'How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD ?' If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him."

Unfortunately for Pat, the Bible also calls for false prophets to be put to death. Robertson, you might recall, is a bit harsh toward those he perceives to be outside God's favor. He famously claimed that Ariel Sharon's stroke was a punishment from God, that Hurricane Katrina was God's judgment (raising the question: are Hugh Hefner's live-in girlfriends evidence of God's blessing?), and that tinpot dictator Hugo Chavez ought to be assassinated.

I wonder how he might respond to the news of his own Old Testament-mandated execution for being a false prophet. Fortunately, true Christian teaching asks us to extend grace and mercy even toward those who deny it to others.

Still, it would be nice if he would pay a little more attention to the book of Job: "Men listened to me expectantly, waiting in silence for my counsel." If only.


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