Random Thoughts

Money, Institutions and Unintended Consequences

Money is the root cause of all evil is an oft reviled adage, which is true but also false. Money is the repository of value and the lubricant that leads to the progress of commerce, culture and civilization. The Middle ages of Europe stand as monumental evidence of lack of progress. The clear absence of the lack of a store of value leads to absent motivation on the part of humanity to work beyond the fulfillment of daily necessities and thus live like other animals which do not indulge in needless slaughter because storing dead carcasses of gazelles does not benefit cheetahs. The meat will spoil before it can be consumed. It is the ability of pepper to permit the preservation and consumption of stale meat that led to the Europeans to seek a passage to the Indies.

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks and the blockage of the land route of commerce led to the downfall of trading Venice and the innovations of Prince Henry, the navigator to find a sea route to the wealth of the Indies. Columbus was seeking a Western passage to India that led to his misnaming the natives of America as Indians. The invention of refrigeration was a superior innovation to the preservation of meat by Eskimos using the frigid Northern climate. Sanskrit, the unacknowledged and relegated to a status lesser than it deserves, has an interesting dual meaning of a single word "Artha". It means meaning, but also means money like in Chanakya's "Arthashastra" or economics.

Economics itself is derived from the Greek Oikos meaning household and Nomos meaning management. Thus Herodotus's Nomes or managed provinces of Egypt. The problem of money is that while it is an excellent means to an end and a necessity for commerce, progress and survival, it has a tendency to instantly metamorphose like the proverbial visual illusion of the line drawing of a three dimensional cube. It reverses itself because of the constraints of the organization of human visual cortex and flips from being an essential means to an end, to becoming an end by itself, due to the organizational constraints of the human neocortex. This fatal fault of lucre stems because its penumbra has a patina of power and this makes it a dually addictive and intoxicating substance. The only thing that poses a serious rivalry to it is sex, as the myth of the Judgment of Paris and the resultant Trojan War documents. The power of carnal desire is more primitive, visceral and written into our genes as exemplified by its supreme orgasmic ecstasy and suppression of caution and cortex, tempting us into fatal traps of AIDS or gambling with the security of life, family, wealth and career as Clinton proved.

My weekly rant has specific goals. All of us are aware of Parkinson's laws which state that
"Work expands itself to fill the time allotted to it". In my clinic days as a young physician I noticed that the OPD ended at the scheduled time irrespective of the load of patients. Everyone slowed or speeded their rate of patient evaluation to minimize their individual burden.

The second law states that "the amount of time allotted to any matter is inversely proportional to its importance". This is the nature of bureaucracies because they bring down the analysis to the lowest common denominator in the hope of creating consensus.

The third law states that "delay is the deadliest form of denial". A Snoopy cartoon states, "There is no problem so large that it cannot be swept under the rug", and "Doing the right thing is like peeing in your pants while wearing a dark suit. You get a warm feeling but nobody notices". Bureaucracies have a tendency to become self-sustaining and expanding. The Pentagon and myriad other bodies like the corrupt Red Cross, United Way and others prove that by their wasteful unaccounted spending or undeserved remunerations to the top executives, while masquerading as a charity.

The current salaries of many University Presidents and the ridiculous pay of University football coaches when compared to the relatively measly pay of professors, shows glaringly misplaced priorities. An unnamed university which had scrapped its sports program, had to reinstate it as its donations by alumni fell precipitously. This dependence on donations has led to a biased alumni children admissions programs which sneak in below the radar, while everyone excoriates the unfairness of affirmative action. This disguised quota system is leading to a devastation of the Indian education and government. I am painfully aware of the millennia of injustice in India and centuries in America, but best redress is to offer the downtrodden free education or coaching to enable them to compete on level ground for meritorious admissions. The selfish need of politicians to garner captive vote banks precludes an honest redress of past grievances.

Drug companies in general and American ones in particular are notorious for wasting their resources on marketing of me-too minor modifications of successful drugs of competitors, or for making marginal modifications of prior successful drugs to retain an extended exclusive patent. The shenanigans in the case of Claritin, the replacement of Propulcid by Nexium, the newest modification of cheap anticonvulsant Dilantin and the current brouhaha of Cox-2 inhibitors are well documented in Marcia Angell's book on "The Truth About Drug Companies". The real tragedy is that she had to leave her position as the Editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine possibly because of economic conflicts.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal documented the shameful behavior of Columbia University in using legal means, like a money hungry enterprise to try to extend its expiring patents by legal chicanery, to continue generating a few hundred million dollars of revenue. It is indeed shameful that a supposed bastion of knowledge has to stoop that low for pecuniary reasons. The protest of Harvard students for the underpayment and exploitation of the cleaning crew further substantiates the dismal level to which these institutions have sunk. The abuse of charitable deductions by the wealthy to fund think-tanks that provide succor to their minions espousing biased agendas, while pretending to be sober and impartial policy mavens, is the worst example of charity being misused in the pursuit of money and power, and is the most egregious example of a tax statute's unintended consequences. The Cato Foundation, the Heritage Institute and several others stand out as an abomination of the hidden agenda of the wealthy, to influence public policies for personal or class benefit, to the detriment of the common weal.

The point I wish to emphasize is that the termites who are in charge presently have reached the foundations of American society. They are gnawing at the roots of our institutions. They have corrupted the media who are the guardians of government, a naturally corrupt institution and are now decimating the universities and education and the intellectual foundations by giving shelter to partisan guerilla thinkers whose allegiance is not to the nation's welfare, but to use their elevated pulpit to advance partisan agendas under the camouflage of unbiased and enlightened public policy. It is a matter of brief time before the whole edifice crumbles into dust.    


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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