Victory means exit strategy, and it's important for the President to explain to us what the exit strategy is.    The Honorable Governor of Texas, George W. Bush

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.    Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Root of It

Imagine somewhere on the great prairie a fertile ground that is Democracy, and that from and within this nutrient rich soil has grown a great oak called Capitalism. Within the code that this wonder has followed from germination is the knowledge that roots are to be pushed down that will gather the resources necessary for growth and stability.

Assume that our tree is thus far a successful example. Incidental to this success is another bit of code. As the oak matures it ceases to develop the network of its fine roots and turns its efforts toward sinking deep tendrils. These are a type of insurance against drought, an interesting aspect, but let’s back up a bit.

What if this last bit of code were corrupted? What if our now eternally mad for growth tree continued to build a root structure far more dense than a proper code would intend? Nutrients would soon be scarce as the once fertile ground would dry and fissure, exposing the foundation of the tree to the harsh elements. The tree might wither for some time, or in its weakened state suffer a calamity. In any case it wouldn’t last as it might have.

How much is enough? How thoroughly can we be mined by the wealth machine before there is nothing left? How much more can we be set against each other in the workplace, squeezed of every last bit of productivity while our economic realities are finely engineered to maintain us at the breaking point?

In this latest era, and particularly from the ascension in the eighties of the free market ideology, it is widely held that unbridled capitalism is panacean. Corporations are filled with enthusiasts who push the roots of market development into every cubic centimeter of society. The defining maxim being applied to every human endeavor is that profit must at all (non-fiscal) cost be maximized.

This brings me to the trigger of this thinking about oak trees and choking death.

UW Madison is, at the moment, in the forefront of stem cell research. Since the eighties, universities have been allowed to sell the discoveries made in the course of their research to the highest corporate bidder, and the University and corporate community expect to do very well indeed in this new field.

Inevitably research in this critically important area will suffer from corruption of the scientific ideal as it is molded to ensure the development of commercially attractive outcomes. Inevitably the most creative efforts will be thwarted. Inevitably the most talented will lose momentum and many will sour altogether on the entire process. Many have already moved on but will find that there is nowhere to go.

All over this country our universities are for sale. Always regents and legislators toss up their hands and mutter, “Economic reality.” It wasn’t always this way.

Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh long before tax supported research was up for auction. What were the priorities in definitely un-socialist 50’s America? The State of Illinois, for one, appropriated one million dollars and received over two million federal dollars to distribute the vaccine for free.

Today there’s a market driven root or two through any similar asset. Breakthroughs in health care derived from stem cell research will be anything but free, the deal is already done.

And how many Salks are losing their enthusiasm and focus as the scientific process becomes $cientific? How will an Alexander Fleming have the flexibility to consider the accident in his Petri dish made by some Penicillium notatum that happened to blow in from downstairs?

How do we ensure the longevity of the richness of our imaginative minds?

How will the fertile plain of democracy continue to fuel our effort?

How does the oak know when enough is enough?


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