Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Logical Fallacies to Defend CEOs from Responsibility for their Companies' Bad Actions

There is now quite a kerfuffle over the US Department of Health and Human Service's threat to to stop doing business with the CEO of Forest Laboratories.  As we noted here, his company pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and misbranding, and agreed to pay a $313 million fine.  The major allegations by the government were that the company marketed antidepressants to children when they had only previously been approved for adults. Their marketing tactics allegedly included suppressing negative studies, and paying physicians to prescribe the drugs.

The kerfuffle involves a number of ostensible authorities and pundits defending the CEO, and challenging the government's attempts to hold him responsible for his company's actions.  The kerfuffle also provides some splendid examples of logical fallacies deployed in defense of the powers that be. 

Double Standards: Avoiding Blame for Failures While Taking Credit for Successes

The greatest angst seemed to be generated that Mr Solomon could be sanctioned for actions which he did not directly take. 

First, the Wall Street Journal reported that:
Forest Labs representatives said they were shocked when the intent-to-ban notice was received a few weeks later, because Mr. Solomon wasn't accused by the government of misconduct.

Forest is sticking by its chief. 'No one has ever alleged that Mr. Solomon did anything wrong, and excluding him [from the industry] is unjustified,' said general counsel Herschel Weinstein. 'It would also set an extremely troubling precedent that would create uncertainty throughout the industry and discourage regulatory settlements.'

Later in the same article, there was more dismay that Mr Solomon should suffer any negative consequences for the actions of someone else:
Lawyers not involved in the Forest case said the attempt to punish an executive who isn't accused of misconduct could tie up the industry's day-to-day work in legal knots.

'This 'gotcha' approach to enforcement runs the risk of creating a climate within organizations that is inconsistent with the spirit of innovation that is critical to the industry,' said Allen Waxman of Kaye Scholer LLP in New York, who was formerly an in-house counsel at a drug maker.
However, Mr Solomon is not a janitor.  He was the company CEO, and was paid a fortune ostensibly because he was responsible for everything going on in the company.

In fact, the most recent (2010) company proxy statement included this description of Mr Solomon:
We believe that Mr. Solomon's experience as a senior executive in our industry, his in-depth knowledge of our Company and its day-to-day operations, and his strong strategic vision for the Company qualify him to serve on the board. [italics added for emphasis]
These attributes presumably also justified his total compensation, which was $8,267,236 in 2010.

If Mr. Solomon's outsize compensation was based on his strategic vision, informed by his "in-depth knowledge of ... [the] Company and its day-to-day operations," how could his defenders claim he knew nothing and had no responsibility for its detailed and in-depth efforts to deceptively market antidepressants to children and adolescents? (See posts here and here for details of that marketing scheme as revealed in court documents.)  This appears to be a double-standard (as found in this alternative catalog of logical fallacies).

By the way, also note how Mr Waxman invoked the "innovation meme," i.e., that any regulation of the company or restrictions on its actions will prevent innovation. The same meme was invoked by a business school professor in one of the first attempts to defend this corporate executive from any attempts to hold him accountable for his company's bad behavior (see post here).  As I noted earlier, "innovation" is used so often to excuse almost any action by large health care corporations that I suspect the meme was developed by  corporate public relations.

Straw-Men and Double-Standards: Barring Mr Solomon vs "Imagined" Actions and Treatment of Foreign Leaders

Another protest was that the government's actions were disproportionate, especially how they treated other cases, as written by Robert Goldberg in the Spectator:
Now it turns out that Team O is tougher on drug company CEOs than it is on brutal dictators and a movement whose goal is wiping out Israel. The administration is applying a little used government approach to knee-capping executives it doesn't like by threatening that HHS won't allow Forest Laboratories to sell medications to Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health programs (which means every health plan under Obamacare) unless it tosses the company's CEO, Howard Solomon. According to news accounts, the action is being taken because government lawyers claim that just fining the company billions isn't stopping illegal behavior. But neither Mr. Solomon nor Forest has been found guilty of any wrongdoing.

Mr Goldberg also asserted, as in the examples above, that Mr Solomon was not personally found guilty.  This may be so, but given that his company gave him credit for all the good resulting from the company's day-to-day actions, denying his responsibility for day-to-day actions gone bad is a double standard.

Furthermore, Mr Goldberg's assertion that Forest was not found guilty is at best a quibble, and at worse, an untruth. As we noted above, the company pleaded (but was not "found) guilty to several charges, a felony and a misdemeanor.

Mr Goldberg then developed another kind of fallacy, this time by comparing the government's treatment of Mr Solomon with some hypothetical actions:
Can you imagine the administration using this tactic against health IT firms, unions, the New Black Panthers, ACORN, or investment banks? For different reasons for each, the answer is 'No.'
This appears to be a compounded set of straw men fallacies.  No one knows whether the government would use these tactics in future hypothetical cases.  What one may imagine could occur in such hypothetical cases is not directly comparable to what has occurred in the current case.  Invoking these imagined future actions amounts to invoking straw men.   
Mr Goldberg got even more imaginative, comparing the government's actions vis a vis Mr Solomon to its actions in the foreign policy realm:
Meanwhile the threat against Forest and its CEO is more draconian than actions the Obama administration is taking against Assad. The dictator who has slaughtered his people, aided Iran, built a uranium-enrichment facility, staged the Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon, and whose country is soon to be part of the UN Human Rights Council has received a stern warning from the president but nothing more.
Of course, it is one thing for a government agency to decide not to do business with an individual within the country whose company admitted to violating the law. It is another thing for a government to attempt to take "actions" against a foreign leader over whom the government has no legal authority.  So here is another kind of double-standard (see this alternative catalog of logical fallacies.)

Straw Man: The Case of Rituxan

Meanwhile, in Forbes, Charles L Hooper and David R Henderson argued that Forest Laboratories' actions do not merit any punishment at all, not of the company nor of Mr Solomon:
But it's bad to market unapproved drugs and to promote drugs for unapproved uses, right? Not exactly.

First, Hooper and Henderson argued that Forest Laboratories' off-label marketing of l-thyroxine (a thyroid hormone) was a mere technicality. This appears to be mainly a distraction, since most of the case involved marketing antidepressants.  In any case, they then argued that:
The fact is that off-label uses of drugs have saved lives. Consider Genentech and Biogen Idec's Rituxan, which the FDA approved in 1997 for relapsed or refractory CD20-positive B-cell low-grade non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL).

Of course, the Forest Laboratory case did not involve punishing physicians for off-label uses of any drug. It involved punishing Forest Laboratories and possibly its CEO for the marketing of drugs for off-label uses. The drugs involved were obviously not Rituxan. They did include Celexa, an antidepressant, which no one ever claimed is a life-saving drug (but which is a member of a class of drugs that may be ineffective and may increase the risk of suicidal ideation or even action in children and adolescents, the groups for which it was marketed off-label by Forest Laboratories).   So the attempt to invoke Rituxan, as if someone was proposing restrictions on its off-label use, was another straw man.   


So once again we see how logical fallacies are used to defend the powers that be in health care.  Once again, note that the these logically challenged defenses come from those with financial ties to the same powers that be.  (In addition to the affiliations noted above, Mr Goldberg is Vice President of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, which SourceWatch describes as a "pharmaceutical industry front group," while Charles L Hooper is "president of Objective Insights, a company that consults for pharmaceutical and biotech companies.")

Let us see if anyone can offer a logical argument why health care corporate CEOs should not be held responsible for their corporations' misbehavior, or if anyone without financial ties to such corporations is willing to defend such lack of responsibility. 

Meanwhile, to repeat again and again,  we will not deter unethical behavior by health care organizations until the people who authorize, direct or implement bad behavior fear some meaningfully negative consequences. Real health care reform needs to make health care leaders accountable, and especially accountable for the bad behavior that helped make them rich.


Afraid said...

They line up proponents at a 50 to 1 ratio to detractors so no matter what the truth is, they drown it out.

Im sure behind the scenes, there are a lot of lobbists calling in marks.

InformaticsMD said...

Now it turns out that Team O is tougher on drug company CEOs than it is on brutal dictators and a movement whose goal is wiping out Israel.

isn't that the 'reeductio ad Hitlerum" fallacy?

Can you imagine the administration using this tactic against health IT firms

No, I can't imagine THIS administration doing that, but in regard to a new administration that appoints HHS and FDA officials not subject to regulatory capture, I CAN imagine such an administration using this tactic against health IT firms that misrepresent or produce faulty IT that harms patients, or otherwise engage in unethical business practices.

In fact, I'll support it.

-- SS