Michael Heller on Examples of Gridlock

Michael Heller: Let me give you a life or death example that’s happening right now. Some years ago I published an article in Science Magazine outlining the basic idea, the idea that too many owners [commit] to too little prosperity, and as part of that discussion around that article, I was contacted by a number of drug company executives and one of them told me, he said, “I have, I’m pretty confident that I have a drug that will substantially advance treatment of Alzheimer’s which could affect millions of lives,” and when that drug came to market it could earn his company billions of dollars, but he had shelved the drug. He said, “I’m not bringing this drug to market.” And I asked him why and he explained was that to develop the drug, to bring it to market, he was going to need to acquire licenses to dozens and dozens of patents. Now, imagine this guy walking into an auditorium and imagine each of those patents that’s relevant to his drug owned by a separate person usually by some small biotech company and they’re each sitting there in their little chair with their patent on their lap and everyone of those owners believes that their patent like their child is only the most special and important patent in the world. For the drug developer, to bring his drug to market, he needed to negotiate, to successfully negotiate with every single person in that room. Now, it’s hard enough getting group of friends to decide where to go for dinner to a restaurant, but it’s really impossible when you have dozens or hundreds of separate patent donors. Each one of them believes that their patent is the most important to get everyone of them to come together and agree to let this drug go forward, and the drug developer discovered he simply wasn’t able to do it. The negotiations were too hard. Each of the separate patent donors demanded such a high price that in sum they demanded more than the potential profits from that drug. So what he did is he shelves that Alzheimer’s cure. He gave up the billions of dollars potentially that was on the table, because he simply couldn’t find a way to… there’s lots of impediments to drug research. Lots of drugs don’t work or they have side effects. But one of the problems on drug development that hasn’t really been focused on that I discovered and then talking about in this book is the problem, is a separate problem, not of side effects but of ownership effects, of ownership gridlock of too many owners. And what happens there is, what he did, what this drug developer did is he went to do a spin-off of existing drugs that already had intellectual property for it, so he can make money from spin-offs but he gave up the real, new, blockbuster drug that could have saved a lot of lives. Now, that is not an isolated example. In the last 30 years, we have seen drug research investment, drug R&D money going up and up and up and up. More, more money is going to the drug R&D. We have a whole new biotech industry based on drug R&D. But the number of new drugs that’s treat disease has gone down and down and down, and that’s really shocking. What you have is an increase in spending and a decrease in cures. You have a drug discovery gap and that gap isn’t an accident. That gap is caused by gridlock. We have lots more inventions of the pieces of the input that you need to make drugs, which is great, but lot fewer of the drugs that actually save lives coming out of the other end of the drug R&D pipeline and this isn’t just an accident. This isn’t just [happenstance]. This isn’t just automatic that it works this way. This is the outcome of a set of policy choices that we made, the county made, the United States made about less than 30 years ago. We decided that we wanted to get more private money into basic science and the way that you do that is you give more property rights if you discover stuff, so we changed the patent law and we changed how we encourage universities to deal with their scientists. Now, scientists are told in universities patent what you discover, commercialize it, and that’s great. So, the upside of those changes in the patent law and in how we treat university scientists over the last 30 years is that we created the biotech revolution and enormous amount of discoveries have come with that. There are almost 40,000 DNA drug patents in the last 30 years. So, the upside of those changes, of the choices that we made was to create a biotech revolution, but the downside, the part that no one consider before we made those changes that was invisible, that was hard to see, the gridlock side of the story is that now with, now, say, for example, you want to make a diagnostic, some sort of medical tool that’s going to diagnose something on your gene, and to make that tool, we need dozens or hundreds of little gene fragments. And if each of those little gene fragments is owned separately, you know, we can’t make the gene [chip]. It’s just too hard to negotiate. That’s another area, medical diagnostics is another area where we have a lot more information because of this biotech revolution, but a lot fewer of the tools that actually save human life. More ownership, less prosperity, that’s gridlock.

Question: Where else does this problem of gridlock exist?

Michael Heller: All right. So, what we have now is a problem with drugs that should exist and could exist not coming to market, but it’s not just drugs that are suffering from the problem of gridlock. We are seeing gridlock all across the entire wealth creation frontier. This is a basic problem for the structure of innovation in America. Let me give you a very different kind of example from drugs, but one that’s maybe even more costly economically even if maybe not as costly in terms of human life, and let me [frame] that as a question. The question is this – what’s the most underused natural resource in America? It turns out it’s the airwaves. Over 90% of the airwaves in America is dead air, is completely wasted. And what that means is that it’s very hard to find the spectrum to create all of the next generation of technology that exist in many parts of the world and can’t be brought in the United States. So, United States just generation ago was the global leader in all the information economy, in wireless, in broadband, in the kind of technology that makes this conversation between us possible, and make the conversation between us and your listeners possible. That is really hard to imagine in this country in part because we have done such a bad job in organizing ownership of spectrum. We have, the way that we own spectrum in this country, nothing is visible, just like drugs are invisible. But, what we first set up spectrum ownership in the 1920s and we haven’t really updated it very much since then, so what you have is thousands and thousands of owners of small, tiny bits of spectrum dispersed across the country and dispersed across the radio dial. So, if you want to have, if you want to create technology that requires… or that lets you transmit some national wireless signal, that’s incredibly hard to put together. You have to assemble all this little bits from all over the country which is probably expensive. So, for example, if you have a Nextel phone with a Push to Talk, the way that Nextel is able to assemble its network was by buying up a bunch of taxi dispatch and pizza delivery licenses. So, we have a system that creates pizza delivery licenses but that makes it really hard to have national wireless. So, when you sort of compare those values, what we have is a system that creates, that allows for a lot of fragmented, low value uses that makes it really hard to create the next generation of, you know, for example, 3G wireless broadband, really high-speed wireless broadband that lets you watch television in real time on your cellphone. You can do that in Japan, you can’t do it here, and the reason you can’t do it is too many fragment owners and gridlock.

Question: What about copyright law?

Michael Heller: Let me ask you this, why does a hip hopper like Chuck D from Public Enemy today usually rap over a single sample? The early Public Enemy sound is one that has this collage of sound. They rap over a wall of clips that he assembled from dozens or usually even hundreds of different sources. That’s totally gone. That collage sound in rap music is totally gone. Now, some people may think, oh, it’s just a change in taste, but it’s not. The reason we don’t have the collage sound in rap anymore is also the problem of gridlock. Record companies started expansively interpreting what it meant to own a copyright, shrinking the zone of what’s understood to be fair use, the use that we can make without payment of other people’s copyrighted works, and the result has been that rappers, and in all kinds of other new media, artists and creators are scared off from creating the kinds of mash-ups and remixes that have led to so much of the real creativity of the cutting edge of art in the last generation. It’s really just being shut down. One more example, green power talk a lot about drilling in the Arctic or drilling in off shore, but the United States has the ability to create most of the electricity that it needs from renewable sources right here at home already. So, for example, wind power in this country, it’s just 1% of our total energy supply. It could easily be 20%. Most of the really powerful wind in this country is in the Midwestern plains from Texas to the Dakotas. We cannot get wind power from the plains to the places that people really want it, the coastal cities where people are willing to actually pay more for renewable power. Why? Because to get power from the plains in the cities, you have to transmit it and the transmission system of this country is broken up among roughly 500 different companies, each of which protects its own little piece and none of whom are willing to work together across state lines. Also, the problem of each state having its own regulatory system, being unwilling to cooperate with the next state over. So, we have the capacity to have clean, renewable wind power that would provide a significant percentage of the energy that this country needs, but we can’t get it from the places where it’s windy to the places that people want it. The point that these puzzles are nothing fancy, there’s nothing fancy going on here. The problem of gridlock is something that’s all around you once you know where to look. All the problems that I’ve given are really the same problem. Private ownership usually creates wealth, but too much ownership has the opposite effect. It creates gridlock.

In Big Pharma, too much ownership often blocks the development of new drugs, says Michael Heller.

7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

  • As the material that makes all living things what/who we are, DNA is the key to understanding and changing the world. British geneticist Bryan Sykes and Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project) explain how, through gene editing, scientists can better treat illnesses, eradicate diseases, and revolutionize personalized medicine.
  • But existing and developing gene editing technologies are not without controversies. A major point of debate deals with the idea that gene editing is overstepping natural and ethical boundaries. Just because they can, does that mean that scientists should be edit DNA?
  • Harvard professor Glenn Cohen introduces another subcategory of gene experiments: mixing human and animal DNA. "The question is which are okay, which are not okay, why can we generate some principles," Cohen says of human-animal chimeras and arguments concerning improving human life versus morality.

The ‘Lost Forty’: how a mapping error preserved an old-growth forest

A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service via Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
Strange Maps
  • In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
  • For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
  • Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
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Physicists push limits of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.

Credit: Aalto University.
Surprising Science
  • New experiments with vibrating drums push the boundaries of quantum mechanics.
  • Two teams of physicists create quantum entanglement in larger systems.
  • Critics question whether the study gets around the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
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