Thursday, April 21, 2005

Comments on anti-corporation, anti-profit attitude

I’d like to comment once again on this anti-corporation, anti-profit attitude that keeps popping up in posts to this blog.

Point 1:
You folks at the lab are subject to a constant stream of unwarranted and unfair abuse from anti-war and anti-nuclear groups. These often picture you all as sort of Dr Strangelove types, captive to the military-industrial complex, chuckling evilly in your laboratories and obsessed with killing people and destroying cities. You who work here know that is a terribly naive, unfair and inaccurate view, and that in fact you are just very bright but otherwise ordinary scientists and engineers and technical people and support people working at your nation’s behest, among other things, to produce and maintain the weapons systems that, in the end, prevented the loss of millions of Allied and Japanese lives in a bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands in World War II, and prevented the subsequent enslavement of Europe by the Soviet Union.

I would suggest to those of you who are so adamantly anti-corporation that you are being equally unfair and naive. Corporations are no more evil than your own lab is. They too are made up of ordinary people, most of them just like you, just trying to make a living in the world and feed their families. There are a few bad apples in the corporate world, just as there are everywhere else, so we get the occasional Enron or WorldCom, but to tar all corporations because of the evil of a few outliers is no more fair than to tar all science with the evil of a few Dr. Josef Mengeles (look him up, if you are too young to remember…)

Point 2:
Profit is not a dirty word. You owe the cars you drive and the gas you fuel them with, your mountain bike, the medicine that keeps you and your family healthy, the food on your table, the clothes on your back, the house you live in, and computer you are reading this on, your pension, and thousands of other things that make your life safer and more comfortable to profit-making companies. Indeed you and I who ultimately work for the US government owe our very wages to profit making companies, either directly through corporate taxes or indirectly via the personal taxes paid workers on the wages they earn working in companies. If you really object to the profit motive, feel free to move back to one of the few subsistence farming or hunter-gatherer tribes still around, but don't expect the comforts you are used to. And if you are still infatuated with Marxist myths, go read some history about what life was and is like in socialist countries.

In fact, if you were designing a social system as a scientist or engineer, you would eventually have to invent something like profit to make it work. Profit is both the incentive that encourages people to work and to take risk, and the feedback mechanism that steers that work and risk-taking relatively efficiently toward areas that meet social needs or desires. Socialism’s failures are precisely in those areas. In socialist economies the optimal individual strategy is to work as little as you can get away with and take no risks you can avoid, and the economic disasters in most socialist countries shows the result.

Point 3:
The claim that if a corporation takes over LANL you will be reduced to a pit manufacturing facility shows a failure of reasoning. The lab may indeed eventually be reduced to a pit manufacturing facility, but if it is, it won't be because a corporation is helping to run the lab. It will be because the lab’s customer, the DoE and NNSA, decide that is the only thing they will fund at LANL. In life the Golden Rule applies: he who has the gold makes the rules! Whoever ends up running the lab, whatever university and whatever industrial partner, will in the end be constrained by what the customer wants and is willing to pay for. So if you want to ensure the continuation of pure science at LANL (and I personally think it would be exceedingly short-sighted not to), stop worrying about who will win the contract and spend your energies marketing your pure science ideas to your customers – the DoE, NNSA, and Congress.

Bill Godwin



Comments:
Good post.
 
A well reasoned post. Thanks.

Scott Watson
 
More like bushels of bad, wormy apples. My family's employment experience with US corporations over the last 50 years is almost completely bad. The companies were big, famous ones in aerospace, oil, computers, food industry, etc. They operated on the premise as long as something was legal or you didn't get caught it was okay. Ethics be damned. Bid low and make it up on the inflated change orders. Manipulate the market and then charge all it will bear (a reasonable profit wasn't enough). Arrange kickbacks to the big bosses from suppliers. Pay the big bosses 100 times what the average company employee is making while changing the employee defined benefit retirement to a pitiful lump sum. We've personally witnessed and experienced these crimes. Not one of the companies was "clean or decent". I've been talking to my colleagues at Sandia and life under LM is not all wine and roses, increased productivity and wise, sage management. I suspect if they contrive to gain the Los Alamos Laboratory contract it will be the next leg in the "race to the bottom" (except for the big bosses of course). It will be interesting to see if the Lab employees are better or worse off in the new contract.
 
Bill:

You are assuming way too much; even those of us with, as you might say, more "liberal" persuasions aren't nearly so naive as you suggest. Per se, profit is not bad, and those who pursue it are not all bad. You'd have to be an old-time-y, died-in-the-scratchy-wool communist to seriously believe that.

But your final paragraph undoes the straw man you set up for us: Corporate America is most assuredly in charge now--in charge of both houses of Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Judiciary, top to bottom. As one of your neocon favorites, David Brooks said after the 2000 election: "Get over it! The people who own the country now run it again."

No one can argue that the 2004 election cemented in that little fact of life (or, as you so pithily put it, "He who has the gold makes the rules!"). So, if you, or anyone else, is interested in the future of science at Los Alamos National Laboratory, it is nothing more than simple common sense to "worry about who will win the contract" and just what their real agenda is.

-Brad Lee Holian
 
Just a postscript:

My own personal views, honestly put, about the two leading candidates for the contract are: (1) UC, disappointment; (2) LockMart, nervous wait-and-see trepidation; (3...) please, just leave it to #1 or #2.

If we could get a direct response--even here on The Blog--from UC President Dynes or C. Paul Robinson, that would be impressive.

-BLH
 
I have no problem with profit. What I hate is that when a corporation takes over my profit( salary and especially benefits) go down, the corporation profits go up -- well maybe not what the stockholders receive but the salaries of the top management and the price of their toys go up.
Given a choice between my profit and profit for upper management, I prefer my own profit which is better under UC.
By the way, the weapons the protected the free world were invented under UC, not a corporation.
It is yet to be proved that a corporation can even do real science -- at least to many of us at LANL.
 
A couple of comments, Brad. (1) You assume I am a neocon - bad assumption, and (2) actually, a study of US economic history will show that the current situation isn't really new at all. Corporations have had undue influence in this country for at least the last century, and the unscrupulous ones have bought Congressmen of both parties and evaded laws when they could for just as long. Human institutions, whether they be religious, academic, military, commercial or government, are all imperfect and subject to abuse by the imperfect humans who run them. What is true of Democracy is also true of free market economies -- they are messy and imperfect and subject to abuse, but thus far they seem to be substantially better than the alternatives that have been tried.

Bill
 
Myself, given the choice of a UC benefits package, but tied to completely inept management of the lab, or LM, with their demonstrated superior operations of natl labs, and the unknown of what their benifits package might look like, I'll take LM in a heartbeart.

Goodby, UC. Don't come back.
 
Re, 8:45

Oh, oh. Look out Brad. Serious competition in the "straight thinking" arena. Careful, now, Bill's about to eat you for lunch.
 
Point 1 - Most of us ignore the anti-war and anti-nuclear groups. They are the fringe, less important than the anti-war protestors of the 60's and 70's. In fact, some of us were those protestors. If LANL were moved to the midwest, there would be no protestors with their ridiculous signs on Aug 6.

Point 2 - I don't believe that many of us at LANL are antiprofit. In fact, more and more of us are opposed to the monopolistic contracts awarded at LANL. We believe in a profit based society. LANL is not profit based. LANL is more interested in doing many jobs the easiest way possible and then bragging that they are saving taxpayers' dollars. They'd save more of those dollars by getting rid of office managers, chiefs of staff, etc.

I am anti coporation because when LM assumed control of Sandia, they moved their purchasing to their Seattle office, and small Albuquerque businesses failed. We can't afford that here in northern New Mexico. Even though LANL run by a coporation will probably have to pay more gross receipts taxes, the community will not be as vibrant as it would be if there were profitable small businesses. Currently, the lack of a program that actively supports small Los Alamos businesses hits me right in my pocketbook because my taxes go up while LANL pays a small amount of gross receipts taxes which don't make a dent in the County budget. It is gross to be part of the large slothful entity south of the bridge contributing so little to the community and bragging about what it does contribute.

Point 3 - I believe that the best solution for LANL and the community is to set up the Los Alamos Institue which would be funded by all the pure science and nonweapons funds now sucked into LANL and supporting too much of the gross overhead. This will ensure that the community remains healthy because tax dollars will be returned to the County.

Now, for those folks who think that our County wastes too much money, studies questions too much, etc., I suggest that the example for this is south of the bridge. And that example needs a top down restructuring - let it be funded by weapons work, move the nonweapons and pure science research across the bridge, contract back to LANL specific expertise, develop a real program to spend locally, and really become community based.
 
Cripes, I'd be happy to see our purchasing deparment move anywhere else, if it made them efficient. Out of town, out of state, doesn't matter. Their system is totally broken.
 
A scientist or engineer can do their best science or engineering anywhere. With LANL under a private company, here is the problem: politicians who control the finances to the parent corporation (LM) on multiple fronts can influence the impact of findings of scientists and engineers relating to national security via influence on senior executives. They can even be pressured to change their judgments by threats to their careers and livelihoods. To safeguard pork for constituents and profits for cronies, inconvenient reports can be supressed or classified beyond communicability. They can do it by many subtle means, and I assure you with the utmost gravity, it is being done today at a national lab near you. I repeat for emphasis, this is happening right now, and it is a national tragedy. Of course, a roll-over UC management can do the same thing, but let's hope if Paul Robinson comes in, he can take a stand against the mil/ind/pol complex when it matters. He has said that Sandia tells people things they do not want to hear, even when it hurts Sandia's prospects for funding. Let's hope that will characterize LANL under LM/UT. The reason we get paid a little more and have some more benefits than a lot of the private sector is this: when you work on arcane and noncommercial national security topics, there is very little market out there in the real world. You can't give anyone a list of your publications because they are classified. For those of you on staff who work "pure science" and can jump to the university, this is not a problem. But I assure you, it is a difficult choice to make, deciding whether to cave in to pressure to change or downplay a technical finding and keep your career or even job...or do the right thing and fight with integrity as the taxpayers have a right to expect. I am not a liberal. I am not anti-profit, or anti-corporate. I am pro-integrity in the public interest...and anyone who wants to hold up corporate America as a role model for ethics and social responsibility has a tough sell, as far as I am concerned.
 
'A scientist or engineer can do their best science or engineering anywhere. With LANL under a private company, here is the problem: politicians who control the finances to the parent corporation (LM) on multiple fronts can influence the impact of findings of scientists and engineers relating to national security via influence on senior executives."

You mean, just like has happened with UC running the show?
 
Yes, purchasing is totally broken, foreign travel is broken, support services in general are broken (don't let me get started on CCN), our foreign nationals whom LANL recruits are treated like CRAP, and LANL has steadily gone down the tubes since the demise of the AEC.

However, that does not mean that those of us who continue to live here, raise our children, have grandchildren here, and pay taxes should have to shoulder so much of the burden for our community. We must have a healthy business community supported by LANL.
 
My problem with corporations is that I grew up in a family supported by a major oil company. My father worked in offshore drilling as a member of middle management. He did a great job for about 19 1/2 years. Then they fired him. It took 20 years to be vested in the retirement system. Detectives followed me and the rest of the family and our phone was tapped in order to gather evidence against him.
My father took his skills and went into business for himself. We all lived a lot happier after that. My father made way more money than before. Sadly, his companies treated their employees even worse than he was treated by the major oil company. He had learned from masters.
Yeah, corporations are really great -- for top management. For their employees, they are often miserable places, even if they do a good job.
One thing, I can say for corporations is that they tend (notice I didnt' say "are") to be more efficient than government agencies. But the results of all this efficiency offer no benefit to anyone but the top management, and if they are lucky, the stockholders.
If they are unlucky, upper management drives the company into bankruptcy, shareholder stock becomes worthless and employee retirement funds become assets in the company's bankruptcy and they lose their retirement. Upper management may do 6 months in a minimum security prison then come out and get a job teaching at a major university. Consider Michael Milken who actually now has a giant foundation which does good for others. A good bankruptcy lawyer can preserve a substantial portion of any CEO's stash.
Welcome to the world of corporate finance! Read about Enron, World Com, Tyco and many others.
The articles of corporation in the US clearly state that the organization is in business to make money, otherwise they would be called non-profits such as the University of California. Whereas non-profits have many lofty goals which they may or may not follow, corporate goals are clearly stated -- make money for the stockholders. Any manager who doesn't will be fired. There is nothing in the articles of corporation about being nice to employees or giving them good benefits. The point of a corporation is to make as much money as possible, theoretically for the stockholders. Sometimes this money is shared with shareholders, but not necessarily. But the top corporate officers make millions and get millions for their retirement programs and fancy private jets to fly around in. They must return a profit, but the don't necessarily have to share that profit with stockholders.
After my experiences with corporate America, I am leary of those guys who say, "Trust me, I' from Corporation XYZ, I am here to help you." Corporations are focused on one thing and one thing only -- the bottom line.
 
All the counterarguments would be a lot more convincing if LANL (run by a non-profit) were doing as well as SNL (run by a corporation). Just about every abuse people think a corporation might bring to LANL seems to be already here, in spades, under UC.
 
Here are some stats on the ratio of CEO pay to Average Worker Pay over the
last few decades (Source - Business Week annual CEO survey):

1960 -- 41
1970 -- 79
1990 -- 107
2000 -- 525

Was the CEO of 2000 really worth almost 13 times the CEO of 1960? And
where does the extra cash to pay these exorbitant new salaries come from?
Corporations have changed during the last decade. They have become less
caring towards their employees. We use to have capitalism in this country,
where workers took risks, but also gain in the rewards. Today the workers
take the risks, but gain very little. We are, in many ways, no longer
a capitalist society. We have become a kleptocratic society. The longer
this trend continues, the worse off America will become.
 
Yes, it would be terrible if a corporation took us over. They would probably bring in an overpaid top management team who didn’t understand science or scientific research, and was clueless about how to run a lab right. But these folks would probably promote their buddies into high paying jobs, intimidate the workers, suppress free speech, take away benefits and fire dissenters. When they had an accident or got into trouble they would cover it up, lie, or if they had to, fire some low-ranking staffer as a sacrificial goat but protect management at all costs. Good people would leave, and the rest of us would live under a suffocating regime of terror and corporate paperwork.

No doubt they would have a Senator or two in their pocket, to protect their corporate backs in Washington and be sure they got their share of the yearly pork and juicy contracts. They would centralize purchasing, thus killing off local businesses, and they would run roughshod over the community, closing roads and the like without even asking anyone. They would let the lab buildings run down, and wouldn’t give a fig about how the community looked.

Corporate headquarters would be far away, probably in another state, and the top bosses would neither know nor care about the workers or the community. They probably wouldn’t even bother to answer letters or e-mails from the lab workers.

Yes, it would be terrible if a corporation took us over.
 
To 4/22/05 @ 08:14:12AM
Kinda' like what we have now?
 
Let's set aside political philosophizing and history lessons, and get back to Bill's most serious point:

"The lab may indeed eventually be reduced to a pit manufacturing facility, but if it is, it won't be because a corporation is helping to run the lab. It will be because the lab’s customer, the DoE and NNSA, decide that is the only thing they will fund at LANL."

Question to Dynes (UC) and Robinson (LM):

Will either of you fight tooth and nail to prevent science at LANL being subsumed by the pit factory?

-Brad
(What's this about a "free lunch"? Who's buying?)
 
Things that will probably change after Los Alamos is made into an LLC (no matter who runs it).

1) TSM's will be approved by the directors office and will have a uniform hiring process. People who are currently TSM's but dont' fit those qualifications will probably be reclassed.

2) TEC's and SSM's will be reorganized into one chain matching the GS state. People will be reclassed accordingly.

3) Directorates and Divisions will lose a lot of their decision making power. They wont be able to be little fiefdoms that can say "We use XYZ corp to run our networks." They might use XYZ corp, but that corp will be directed via the institutional items. [On the other hand the institutional groups will also lose their power on deciding things for themselves.. so it might even out.]

4) NNSA NAPS will be incorporated into the contract and followed. This means that a lot of things that were local decisions will be NNSA decided.

5) Foreign nationals will still get the short of it. NNSA/DOE rules on them are on the lines of more paperwork and moving of them further away from the main areas of the lab. If your division does CRADA, UCNI, OUO etc.. dont expect much leeway on this from Washington.

6) Expect more 'get over it' from whoever the Senator is at the time.

7) Expect a 30%-50% budget cut to all the national labs in the next 5 years unless a compelling (e.g. to the bottom line) case is made for some program or another. General science will be on the way out, and applied science will become more of the focus.

This will probably be the case no matter who the President, Congress, or who runs the place...
 
I will be that one thing that will come out of LM/UT is a structured series for TSM. DOE and HR have wanted this for over 20 years. HR likes it because it gives them more control and they will get to hire a lot of new people to administer the changeover and manage the never-ending upgrade process.
 
From a dinosaur. I'm one of those old people who has outlived my usefulness. I got to work on time and loved it. Work was fun, exciting, and rewarding. Bosses were tough but fair. We were a service group. If the work stacked up, all of us, Group Leader, Staff Members, Technicians and secretaries jumped in and just got the work done. Went to work early and stayed late. Didn't turn in overtime. If you had a doctor's appointment, just go and get back. You were an important part of the TEAM. Our group was given X number of dollars. We stayed within the budget. We used to say that Les Hawkins kept the budget on his cuff. Then he added the back of an envelope. Believe it or not, there were NO JOB DESCRIPTIONS! You were hired to do the job. Whatever the job was, you did it.

One of the most wasteful practices existed even then. If it looked like we wouldn't spend all of our budget, we were told to buy paper, pencils, whatever. "Use it or lose it." That has never made sense to me.

There were no program codes to worry about. No paperwork to fill out. If a light bulb burned out, just put in a new one. Women made coffee. Men opened doors. We had car pools to save on gas. Geez, some of us only had one car in the family. How antiquated could we be? But, guess what? The Bikini Tests went off. We worked a 5-1/2 day week. I had the best of it. Worked when working was fun. And then not so fun. I didn't need an incentive to retire. I skipped out the door and never looked back.
 
Gosh, if corporate management is so evil, how come Nanos got away with stealing $400 out of my paycheck last year? You know, when he "postponed" our annual raises to January and we lost three months worth of the paltry raise?

A real corporation wouldn't have even attempted this BS because of the threat of an employee class action lawsuit. Nanos/UC got away with it with the intent of redistributing the money that was allocated for all of us to a chosen few brown nosers.

Just another brick in the wall.
 
For those of you who believe, like Bill Godwin and (seemingly from the above posts) many others, that for-profit corporations are effective and benevolent long-term stewards of Science, or that "a good scientist or engineer can do his/her work anywhere", I invite yoiu to inspect the bones of the following deceased giants:
Bell Labs
DuPont Central Resesarch
Exxon Central Research
Kodak Central Research
Occidental Petroleum Central Research
and many, many "etc's".
Oh, and by the way - Sandia (run by LockMart) has half the per-capita publication rate of LANL or LLNL, does not allow staff to hold NIH grants - and many, many "etc's" antithetical to investigator-initiated Science.
 
There is a major difference between institutions that must get their funding out of company profits (Bell Labs, DuPont Central Resesarch, Exxon Central Research,Kodak Central Research, Occidental Petroleum Central Research) and a national laboratory (LANL or LLNL)created to conduct original research for the national good. I cannot envision Paul Robinson coming in here and destroying the laboratory's reserach program.
 
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