Corporate responsibility? Don’t make me laugh.

America's #1 problem? It's gone from "We the people" to "We the shareholders". Can capitalism be better than this?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Corporate social responsibility or CSR is everywhere—and which company now doesn't have CSR? All the major banks that screwed America in the financial crisis, and the world, that sold out our economy and tried to make a killing selling toxic mortgage products and didn't come clean to the American people or regulators about what was going on, paid billions of dollars in fines for fraud. Almost all those banks, like most American companies, have CSR departments and they'll go and they'll do some, you know, they'll have shovels, they'll do something with shovels. They'll do something with some poor country. They'll go to some community and they'll even teach like a financial literacy class, like, "Don't fall prey to financial fraud—of the kind that we perpetrated." This whole idea that you can sell kids poisonous drinks that give them diabetes while making a playground; that you can build the Dakota pipeline or invest in the Dakota pipeline while sponsoring a climate change gathering with your CSR; that you can push for a health care system that only gives people benefits if they work 30 hours a week, thus tempting many employers to only employ people 29 hours a week and then say you're in the business of empowering workers or being the best first job in America or whatever.

The reality is, many, many companies are trying to fight on both sides of a war. In their main operation, in their lobbying activities, they are pushing for an America that is merciless. And then, understanding the need to brand themselves, understanding the need to soothe a little bit of the public anger in this age of rage, they give a little back. They throw some scraps at us. And what is so sad is that all too often it works.

"Conscious capitalism." That's a good one. Again it's this idea that we can make capitalism more conscious, more humane, simply by wishing it were so. Whereas, in fact, the problem with our brand of market capitalism in American in 2018 is that it's a capitalism purely driven by the needs of shareholders, and that investors needs have come to so predominate, that the needs of communities, the needs of workers, of employees of those companies and various other stakeholders are completely marginalized. And until we change that structure, simply calling for capitalism to be more conscious doesn't really work. I mean, conscious capitalism was supposed to describe Whole Foods, for example, until it got taken over by a private equity firm.

Then you get a word like innovation. We talk about innovation. Innovation is treated as its own good, just, "More innovation! Everybody's got to innovate!"

Well, innovation means make things new, and here's the problem: we've done a tremendous amount of innovation in America over the last generation. What we didn't get a lot of out of that innovation was progress, if progress is defined as 'most people's lives getting better'. In fact, in the era of innovation, we've also seen the odds of social mobility, of out-earning your parents, for example, fall from 90 percent to 50 percent. A crap shoot, right? So yes, great, we have a lot of new stuff, a lot of "new shit has come to light," as they said in that movie. But the reality is that hasn't gotten people paid more, that hasn't made people's lives more stable, that hasn't helped people afford housing, that hasn't helped people educate their kids better. So we've got a lot of innovation but it's not the same as progress, and progress is the more important of the two.

The private sector is useful for many, many things, and it will always be the lion's share of our economy. I'm happy—having been to countries where there are government-run airlines that are not very good, I'm happy that we have private air travel in this country. I think it's in general—I mean look, it's not the best but I'm happy to have that be something that's done privately. I'm very happy the government didn't make my iPhone!

I think we have a heritage in this country of private enterprise and private endeavor that is, at its best, creative, that builds things, that makes life better for people. And none of what I argue is to suggest that that should go away. What I argue is that our private enterprise at its best has always sat on a foundation of certain institutions that we share in common. It's hard to imagine building a company like Apple without thinking about public schools in America. All the Apple employees who went to them, all the people who went to them and invented technologies that were used in what Apple builds, all the people who were educated by teachers who themselves went to public school, whether or not those people went to public school. It is hard to think about any worthy private thing in American life that has been built without a heavy reliance on the institutions we share in common.

And so we owe a responsibility to tend to that garden and to make sure that those things are healthy. And in recent years that relationship has simply got out of whack. Private endeavor has continued, flourished—profits are soaring, innovation is soaring, but it has stopped working for most people. And I say in the book: a successful society is a progress machine. Into one side goes the inputs of innovation and fortuitous developments, and on the other side comes out shared progress. And that machine is just broken down. And we just need to fix that machine so that when good things happen to us people's lives get better. It's that simple.

  • Most companies are trying to fight on both sides of a war, says Anand Giridharadas. They want to make a merciless profit and also get good PR. The result? Irresponsible company practices covered up by disingenuous 'corporate social responsibility' initiatives.
  • "'Conscious capitalism.' That's a good one," he says. "The problem with our brand of market capitalism in American in 2018 is that it's a capitalism purely driven by the needs of shareholders." Shareholders are now America's ruling class. Citizens? The lowest priority.
  • We're obsessed with innovation, but what we should be focused on is progress. The difference? Innovation just makes things new. Progress makes people's lives better. "Great, we have a lot of new stuff," Giridharadas says. "... in the era of innovation we've also seen the odds of social mobility—of out-earning your parents, for example—fall from 90 percent to 50 percent."
  • Public good and private greed are out of whack. The solution? Don't tear down private enterprise, just make sure public infrastructure like schools and health care are well supported, and that wages rise in a meaningful way.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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