Friday, February 03, 2012

Just Business - Employee Control Fraud, Gresham's Dynamic, and the Race to the Bottom in Health Care

Since Enthoven called for the break up of the physicians' "guild," and handing over its supposed power to managers, (see post here) managers have taken over from physicians and other health care professionals as leaders of health care organizations.  Unfortunately, most of these managers are generic, often lacking knowledge and experience in health care, and understanding of its core values.  Instead, such generic managers may rely on the current management dogma.  The perils of doing so are illustrated by an analysis of the recent expose of conditions at Apple manufacturing plants in China.

The Apple Expose

The New York Times summarized in a landmark article how bad it is to work in factories building Apple products under contract in China.  Workers endure harsh conditions, toiling up to six days a week, 12 hours a day.  Meanwhile, banners remind them to "work hard on the job today or work hard to find a job tomorrow."  Workers may be exposed to hazardous, even poisonous materials (like n-hexane used to clean components).  Workers have died in explosions due to inadequate control of combustible dust. Over 18 workers at one factory attempted or committed suicide within two years.

The article suggested that while Apple managers may be well-intentioned, and "want to improve conditions in factories," the bottom line is more important:
that dedication falters when it conflicts with crucial supplier relationships or the fast delivery of new products.

In fact, because of its rigid insistence on cost control, its suppliers are sorely tempted to push their workers too hard:
Apple typically asks suppliers to specify how much every part costs, how many workers are needed and the size of their salaries. Executives want to know every financial detail. Afterward, Apple calculates how much it will pay for a part. Most suppliers are allowed only the slimmest of profits.

So suppliers often try to cut corners, replace expensive chemicals with less costly alternatives, or push their employees to work faster and longer, according to people at those companies.

'The only way you make money working for Apple is figuring out how to do things more efficiently or cheaper,' said an executive at one company that helped bring the iPad to market. 'And then they’ll come back the next year, and force a 10 percent price cut.'

'You can set all the rules you want, but they’re meaningless if you don’t give suppliers enough profit to treat workers well,' said one former Apple executive with firsthand knowledge of the supplier responsibility group. 'If you squeeze margins, you’re forcing them to cut safety.'

William Black's Analysis: Employee Control Fraud and the Race to the Bottom

Writing in the Huffington Post, William K Black showed how Apple executives' relentless focus on cost could drive a race to the bottom. He began by analyzing Apple executives' explanation for out-sourcing their production:
'We shouldn't be criticized for using Chinese workers,' a current Apple executive said. 'The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need.'

He noted that it is absurd to suggest that the US does not have workers with the technical skills necessary to build Apple products. He suggests, however, that these are not the skills that matter.
The suppliers want engineers and managers who will selectively apply their substantive skills. American engineers and managers cannot be counted on to provide the necessary selectivity. Apple's suppliers' often seek managers willing to order their workers to exceed the lawful workweek, to refuse to pay them for significant portions of the wages they have earned, to unlawfully employ child labor, and even to coerce abortions.

So, in the n-hexane example,
The engineer did not order the workers to use the nerve poison because he hated the workers. It was 'just business.' The nerve poison reduced cleaning time, so an engineer knowingly ordered the workers to use it and scores of other engineers did nothing to prevent the usage.

Note that Black calls this employee control fraud, deceiving the employee that he or she is working in a reasonably safe environment, and that employee health and safety is a concern, when in truth the only concern is the bottom line.

So what Apple executives, and by analogy, other multi-national corporate executives want are underlings, particularly middle and line managers who will do anything, anything to cut costs and improve the bottom line. This will produce the race to the bottom:
What we are observing is the essence of a Gresham's dynamic in which bad ethics drives good ethics out of the market.

Two aspects of this Gresham's dynamic are obscene, and both are produced by neoclassical economics dogma. Calling this process 'creative destruction' is baseless and dishonest. It is the fraudulent destruction of honest businesses, professions, and labor.

Black concluded:
firms that are anti-employee control frauds are likely to commit other forms of control fraud. Apple and its Western counterparts have driven the creation of an Asian network of fraudulent firms that has distorted international trade, hollowed out U.S. manufacturing, and created a bizarre hybrid: quasi-communist crony capitalism. It boggles the mind that theoclassical economists celebrate the corrupt result as the essence of creative destruction. The network is corrupt. It will not play by the rules. Firms like Apple help create the perverse incentives that encourage the network to cheat. Surviving U.S. manufacturing firms are whipsawed by the powerful Gresham's dynamic that the frauds produce. U.S. firms and workers are constantly pressured to reduce wages and workforce to try to compete with the foreign frauds. This is the 'Road to Bangladesh' strategy that has caused U.S. working class wages to stall for decades. Europe is retreating along this same road at an even more rapid rate. The Gresham's dynamic tilts the world in favor of fraudulent firms operating in fraud-friendly nations.
The Race to the Bottom in Health Care
Note that we have written about numerous examples of executives of US health care organizations putting revenue ahead of the health care mission, ahead of workers' morale, ahead of patients' and the public's health. Some of these examples involve executives of nominally non-profit organizations that are supposed to have charitable purposes. (Look under our heading of mission-hostile management.)

In fact, just yesterday, Dr Carl Elliott, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, summarized how pharmaceutical companies have out-sourced clinical research. The resulting commercial clinical research have generated conditions as bad for the research subjects as those endured by the Chinese electronics workers above:
If the past decade had an emblematic moment for clinical research, it was probably November 12, 2005, the day when Bloomberg Markets published its cover story, “Big Pharma’s Shameful Secret.” In that issue, Bloomberg reporters laid out the story of SFBC International, a contract research organization in Miami that was paying undocumented immigrants to test the safety of new drugs in a seedy motel. The SFBC owners had converted the lobby into a large waiting area with plastic chairs, and they were housing their research subjects six to a room. The medical director of the research site was unlicensed to practice medicine; the Institutional Review Board that approved many of the studies was owned by the wife of the company vice-president; and the converted motel, which had been cited for fire and safety violations, was eventually demolished. Nonetheless, SFBC had become an astonishingly successful enterprise. Just a few years before the Bloomberg Markets report, Forbes had named SFBC one of the most admired small businesses in America. Virtually every major pharmaceutical company had tested drugs with the company. In fact, with 675 beds, the converted motel was the largest research facility in North America.
Note: see our relevant posts here on SFBC International, and on contract research organizations.

Moreover, such out-sourcing has produced the sort of race to the bottom described by Black, but this time involving one of the US most important health care institutions, academic health care:
the more important reason is money. In medical schools, faculty members are often expected to generate their own salaries, either by seeing patients or getting grants and contracts. Likewise, academic departments are often expected to be financially self-sufficient, with as little support as possible from central administration. 'Eat what you kill' is the phrase used, without irony, by medical school deans and department heads. And if you are not killing it with NIH grants, you probably need to be killing it with AstraZeneca or Pfizer.

This system has not been good for human subjects, but it has not been good for academic physicians either. According to a recent study of over 5,000 faculty members at U.S. medical schools, 51 percent of respondents said that the administration is only interested in me for the revenue I generate.' Thirty-one percent said that their institution discourages altruism; 27 percent said that it does not reward clinical excellence; and over half said that it does not value teaching. Nearly half of respondents were considering leaving their current jobs; almost a third were considering leaving academic medicine altogether. Asked if their values lined up with the medical schools where they worked, over half said no. And just in case you are wondering why these physicians are not standing outside the building with picket signs, protesting the injustice of the system, the survey offers another clue. Thirty percent of respondents agreed with the statement, 'I am reluctant to express my opinion for fear of negative consequences.' [This was from an abstract by Pololi L et al.  See our relevant post here.]

Of course, this survey does does not exactly match up with the happy propaganda disseminated by the media-relations offices at most medical schools. Instead, it offers a picture of alienated, demoralized physicians, unhappy in their jobs, pressed to work according to values that repel them in order to prop up an institution that views them primarily as instruments to generate profit. In this environment, contract research makes perfect sense. It may not require much intellectual work, but it pays the bills and keeps the authorities happy. And if medical schools don’t really value intellectual work anyway, that may well be enough.
So the pressures on medical school faculty are little different from those on corporate middle management.  Their only role is to make money, mainly so that the top leaders can become multi-millionaires, and woe unto them if they object.

What is missing in all this is any organized opposition to the race to the bottom. As long as top executives can make nearly unlimited money, as long as they can do so by making their subordinates put revenue ahead of all else, as long as there are no countervailing forces, the race to the bottom will continue.

To stop it, we need some combination of efforts by honest government regulators, professional and trade organizations, civil society organizations including non-profit organizations and NGOs that really care about patients' and the public's health, and finally an activated, and properly outraged public.

As long as we think that a laissez faire policy allowing continual market dysfunction to continue, the good times for executives will keep rolling, over all of the rest of us.


Steve Lucas said...

In reading this post I could not help but be reminded of Sears. Many decades ago Sears would find a manufacturer with excess capacity and offer them a contract covering their material cost and making a contribution to their overhead, but not profit. This is termed marginal pricing.

A year later they would offer the company a larger contract that would take up some of their normal production, but increase their plant usage and make the workers happy. At some point Sears would be the company’s major customer and the company would be producing large quantities of product, often in competition with their own, at no profit.

At the same time Sears would have a “sale’ selling a product at cost, but offering easy financing. I remember in my undergraduate program looking at some Sears’s financials and realizing they made no profit on their retail operations, every dime of profit came from financial activity.

Moving forward I can see the Apple production model as an extension of this marginal pricing concept of many years ago. The other reality is that at some point the American manufacturer would cut Sears loose, Sears would look for another company to produce its product since everything had the Sears label, and was made to Sears’s specifications.

The Chinese companies do not have the luxury of dropping Apple. Apple will be the sole customer and the unit count will be so high as to magnify even the smallest increase in profit. These razor thin margins combined with high unit counts offer management an incentive to abuse their workers and cut corners.

Interestingly manufacturing is moving out of China as productivity can no longer be gained through raw manpower but by increasing automation and employee skill levels. China is no longer the low cost producer as throwing people at a problem is more expensive than planning and building an automated production facility.

Sadly, and once again, those who will suffer will be the front line workers.

Steve Lucas

InformaticsMD said...

Workers endure harsh conditions, toiling up to six days a week, 12 hours a day. Meanwhile, banners remind them to "work hard on the job today or work hard to find a job tomorrow."

What would you expect from a country that holds Marx in highest esteem? Signs that say "Kumbaya" are low on my list.

'We shouldn't be criticized for using Chinese workers,' a current Apple executive said. 'The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need.'

Age bias also factors in here, as does the inability of generic HR managers, and the incompetent, to evaluate "skills."

InformaticsMD said...

I should also add that, the iMac G5 model that I purchased in late 2004 and cost me well $1000 over had many systematic failures. Like these.

Problems? Cheap components (such as capacitors) and poor thermal design, clearly rushed into production.

Mine was hardly used. It gets turned on once in awhile, but I am waiting for it to die.

-- SS

Anonymous said...

I believe Al Gore has been on the board of directors of Apple for the last decade. Why don't you write to him?