Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tax breaks for pharmaceuticals??? Here's a better idea

Offering financial incentives to pharmaceutical companies to encourage the development of vitally needed antibiotics, as suggested in an article in the New York Times last week, is like the battered wife trying to buy her alcoholic husband’s affection by pouring him another drink.

What’s next? Tax breaks to gun companies for installing trigger safety locks? To food companies for reducing the amount of corn syrup they dump into junk food? To oil companies for safer drilling rigs? How soon until we offer more tax breaks to the financial giants if they promise not to take advantage of us so badly the next time around.

Paying companies to act responsibly not only feels wrong, it won’t work. It encourages the poor behavior which created the problem and sets up a Pavlovian cycle that elicits yet more bad behavior in the expectation of yet more reward.

Unfettered, unfiltered capitalism commoditizes everything; you, me, our water, even the air we breathe. Everything is measured only by its financial value, its usefulness in making a profit. If it can’t make money, it doesn’t count, and any collateral damage caused in making the big dollars is beside the point. In the pharmaceutical industry one such externality is the buildup of drug-resistant bacteria in our industrial farms through the overuse of antibiotics.

As Einstein said, not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. This short-sighted, bottom-line approach may have worked long ago, when natural resources were vast and the negative consequences of selfish behavior were small, but times have changed. We need a new approach to help solve some of the challenges facing us today.

Let’s support a whole new approach to business that willingly puts purpose before profit and that doesn’t need to be bribed to do so. We don’t have to reject the free market – on the contrary, if the market is free then it can be open to motivations-and metrics-- other than profit. After all, in any complicated system, no single metric is enough to ensure the best overall outcome. There’s no single metric for health. It’s a balancing act that requires many systems to act together in harmony for the greater good. Healthy blood pressure won’t prevent pancreatitis. Good cholesterol won’t prevent cavities. And just as you cannot cure obesity with Big Macs, you cannot effectively wean Big Pharma off its profit myopia by offering them more money to act responsibly.

We can no more afford to heed the siren song of the profit imperative than we can personally afford to give in to the fat and sugar imperative our bodies request. This vestige of our ancestors is no longer necessary to sustain us, and in fact now causes us harm. Most of us realize we should not eat as much as our bodies tell us to – that we need to make healthier choices even at the risk of affronting our ravenous id.

So too does business need to rethink old drives. A new business model, Social Enterprise, doesn’t preclude profit, but makes it one of many metrics of health, not the raison d’etre. The primary goal of social enterprise is its ability to make a contribution.

There are many companies currently operating under this model. Some, such as OneWorld Health and Medicines360, are non-profit pharmaceutical companies aiming to develop affordable medical solutions. They’re looking for cures to diseases which have been ignored by Big Pharma’s bean counters, who predict a lack of the requisite return on investment, either because there aren’t enough sufferers to make it worthwhile (i.e. highly profitable), or the sufferers are too poor to pay. Companies like OneWorld Health are going where the profit imperative will not.

What’s more, these socially conscious companies tend to be small, startups, which economists agree are the engines of future economic and job growth. So, investing in these kinds of companies will create more jobs, create more competition, and engage not just the pocketbooks, but the hearts and minds of those who want to make a difference.

Einstein’s warning that we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create them has never been more relevant. Let’s think outside the box, and beyond the bottom line. There’s nothing wrong with contributing money, or even tax dollars, to help a company grow. But why invest in the bloated, exploitative system that brought us to this sorry pass? Let’s put some money toward our own evolution by giving social enterprise ventures a boost.

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