The inexorable Law of Unintended Consequences by @BloggersRUs

The inexorable Law of Unintended Consequences

by Tom Sullivan

Photo by htmvalerio via Flickr / Creative Commons.

The drug company Allergan has found a creative way to skirt the limitations on its patent for an eye medicine called Restasis. Joe Nocera explained last week at Bloomberg View he had heard CEO Brent Saunders speak at a conference speak of how drug prices had gotten out of hand. His company had a "social contract" with its patients, Saunders said, sounding statesmanlike. And now?

Late Friday afternoon, Saunders and Allergan showed their true colors: The company announced that it would transfer the patent rights to one of its most important drugs, the eye medication Restasis, to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe. No pharmaceutical company has ever done anything like that before.

For the Native American tribe, the deal will generate a nice chunk of change: a $13.75 million upfront fee, and $15 million a year in royalties for “licensing” Restasis to Allergan. In the news release disclosing the deal, the tribe said its entry into the patent business would help make it less dependent on its casino in northern New York.

For Allergan, the deal means that, with the patents in the hands of a sovereign entity -- which is the legal status of any officially recognized Native American tribe -- potential generic competitors trying to overturn Restasis’s patents at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board will be stymied. Once the transfer takes place, the tribe plans to file a motion to dismiss those proceedings on the grounds that the patent office has no jurisdiction over a tribe. Assuming this is a winning argument -- and it will surely be contested -- Allergan’s Restasis monopoly, which reaps in the range of $1.5 billion a year, will continue.
But this is what businesses do. As the scorpion said after stinging the frog, "It is my nature."

Wall Street calls the Allergan deal "innovative." Nocera calls it sleazy, plus "sneaky, unscrupulous and just plain wrong." Worthy of a Trump business, he didn't add.

John Lanchester offers a lengthy New Yorker review of how the history of our civilization has been shaped by non-legal innovations. Technology of the non-digital variety having existed long before science, mastering fire and soap have had longer-lasting and more profound impacts on humanity than the iPhone. Yale political science professor James C. Scott examines just how profound in “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.”

Scott revises the conventional narrative that the Neolithic Revolution in which humans shifted from being hunter-gatherers to growing crops and domesticating animals gave birth to complex societies twelve thousand years ago. A gap of four thousand years separates people living in settled communities and the adoption of agriculture and animal husbandry.

Lanchester writes:
Our ancestors evidently took a good, hard look at the possibility of agriculture before deciding to adopt this new way of life. They were able to think it over for so long because the life they lived was remarkably abundant. Like the early civilization of China in the Yellow River Valley, Mesopotamia was a wetland territory, as its name (“between the rivers”) suggests. In the Neolithic period, Mesopotamia was a delta wetland, where the sea came many miles inland from its current shore.

This was a generous landscape for humans, offering fish and the animals that preyed on them, fertile soil left behind by regular flooding, migratory birds, and migratory prey travelling near river routes. The first settled communities were established here because the land offered such a diverse web of food sources. If one year a food source failed, another would still be present. The archeology shows, then, that the “Neolithic package” of domestication and agriculture did not lead to settled communities, the ancestors of our modern towns and cities and states. Those communities had been around for thousands of years, living in the bountiful conditions of the wetlands, before humanity committed to intensive agriculture. Reliance on a single, densely planted cereal crop was much riskier, and it’s no wonder people took a few millennia to make the change.
When finally they did, civilization bloomed. And cities and states and writing. What was different about grain as opposed to root vegetables or legumes? They grow underground or ripen at different times. Grains are visible and ripen at the same time, making them easier to quantify and tax. The earliest writing was used for bookkeeping and the earliest tablets were “lists, lists and lists,” says Scott.

Lanchester continues:
It was the ability to tax and to extract a surplus from the produce of agriculture that, in Scott’s account, led to the birth of the state, and also to the creation of complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs (soldier, priest, servant, administrator), and an élite presiding over them. Because the new states required huge amounts of manual work to irrigate the cereal crops, they also required forms of forced labor, including slavery; because the easiest way to find slaves was to capture them, the states had a new propensity for waging war. Some of the earliest images in human history, from the first Mesopotamian states, are of slaves being marched along in neck shackles. Add this to the frequent epidemics and the general ill health of early settled communities and it is not hard to see why the latest consensus is that the Neolithic Revolution was a disaster for most of the people who lived through it.
The Law of Unintended Consequences is a bitch.

Lanchester spends the remainder of his essay wondering if perhaps humans weren't better off before agricultural technology radically reshaped the way we live. Hunter-gathering societies were much flatter and less acquisitive. Bushmen who haven't yet been assimilated still live that way, with social mechanisms to prevent members from treating other tribe members as inferiors, writes James Suzman in “Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen.” They put about seventeen hours a week into finding food and another nineteen hours into domestic chores. Are our lives so much better?

We are still promising ourselves that technology will free us from the drudgery of work even as our work-weeks lengthen and our prospects shrink. Our technology, we believe, will eventually create a world where, as John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930, "the struggle for subsistence" is over, "the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance," and we will view the love of money as kind of disease itself. How divorced from reality that dream seems today.

Which brings us back to the Allergan corporation acting according to its nature rather than to its CEO's words. The legal technology of the corporation, as I have argued for years,
... the corporate model, this legal technology for engaging in what Robert Nozick describes as "capitalist acts between consenting adults," has metastasized into a system where humans serve what they created. The corporation has gone Skynet. And as in the Terminator series, there is no system core to shut down.
The "core" is now woven into our daily lives. Corporations touch every aspect of our them, as agriculture did before their invention. How long before anthropologists and political scientists are examining the radical reshaping of civilization that accompanied the Corporate Revolution?

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