greed

The row about the proposed takeover of AstraZeneca by Pfizer is not going away. I heard the most succinct argument against it on yesterday’s radio 4 PM programme, made by Professor Sir Alan Fersht, currently Master of Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, and a distinguished and much decorated chemist.

As far as I can tell the bones of the issue are these:

Pfizer is a massive US company with a dubious track record of producing new drugs from within the organisation. It does however have a history of taking over smaller companies that are more innovative, absorbing their research findings, and increasing its profits.

AstraZeneca is a considerably smaller (but still the world’s 7th largest pharmaceutical company), highly successful British-Swedish company with a good record of innovation, and, as Prof Fersht said, plenty of drugs in the pipeline. It is financially stable and employs a substantial number of staff of all grades in the UK.

The main reason for Pfizer’s proposed takeover seems to be a) to acquire AstraZeneca’s research assets, and b) to avoid paying higher taxes in the US.

There are lots of political arguments being bandied around, and surely this all boils down to greed. This is the Starbucks/ Google/ Amazon issue in reverse in some ways. Last summer there was outrage about American companies avoiding paying their taxes in the UK; now we seem to have an American company that wishes to pay taxes in the UK to avoid paying more in the US.

The government, thus far, has stuck its head in the sand. They have fallen back on the argument that politicians have no right to interfere with the business of large companies, and that those companies are answerable to their shareholders who must make decisions. Unfortunately, as has been alluded to be several commentators, shareholders and hedge fund managers are driven by a desire to make money, often in the short rather than long term, and tend not to have altruism as one of their guiding principles.

 

Greed is a common theme in the world of big corporations. The Co-op has been in the news a lot recently for all the wrong reasons, and as with AstraZeneca there must be a lot of people waiting anxiously for news about their job security. I don’t imagine that those at the top spare any thoughts for their employees in the staff cafes, the maintenance staff, the secretaries, many of whom may be totally dependent on low paid jobs to keep a roof over their heads.

Last night’s news reported that Paul Flowers, the former boss of the Co-op, had pleaded guilty in court to using drugs, including cocaine, crystal meth, and ketamine over an 18 month period. I was fascinated to read that his sentence was a total fine of £525. This for a man who was reportedly on an annual salary of £132,000 whilst at the Co-op. I am actually completely in favour of decriminalising all drugs, but that is a different argument. I will be interested to see what sentence is handed out to the man who was charged with supplying Flowers – I strongly suspect that it will be custodial.

Flowers betrayed many people in the course of serving his own greed – not only the numerous employees of the Co-op who stand to lose their jobs, but also the trust of the people that he ‘served’ as a Methodist minister, and the people who donated to the drugs charity Lifeline of which he was a trustee. The Methodist church suspended him last year, but unbelievably say that only now, after his drugs offence, can they proceed with disciplinary hearing against him. I find this quite extraordinary – the implication is that being guilt of a drugs offence may lead to his excommunication (or whatever Methodists do) whereas his financial offences could be overlooked. Personally I would have rated the seriousness the other way round.

Greed is a premeditated, callous, thing, that creates a refusal to empathise with those who are less fortunate. It leads to the ‘dog eat dog’ ethos of big business, where it doesn’t matter who you trample over on the way, as long as you get to the top. It is the antithesis of society. Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing as society; Cameron lauds the ‘big society’. Thatcher was probably more honest – in her world she believed that if you weren’t strong enough/ didn’t have the will to survive then you perished. Pure Darwinism. Cameron believes in the big society of the fit, enthusiastic, well educated, well connected helping similar people who didn’t have the good fortune to be born well connected. The Tories believe in shrinking the state because in their world there is no need for the state. Those who are unwilling or unable to climb over their fellow citizens have only themselves to blame.

These are not good times for championing the weak and vulnerable.

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