When business takes a stand

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.


So much of what happens in the US seems to revolve around Texas.  It’s a huge, rich, diverse state, with influence that stretches far beyond its boundaries.  I mean, you rarely hear about how the politics of Rhode Island affect the nation.  I’m just saying.  Don’t hate me, people of Rhode Island! All eight of  you! Which is still about six more people than read this blog…

That’s why, for example, when Texas experiences outbreaks of whooping cough and measles, it makes the news.  The state is a bellwether for certain cultural and societal trends like the anti-vaccination movement.  And it’s in this context that two recent developments in how businesses are interacting with Texas are fascinating.

Let’s talk textbooks and the death penalty.

The Huffington Post recently put up an article about textbook makers, creationism and Texas.  The textbook reviewers in Texas are closely watched across the nation because of the influence they have on textbook publishers.  Since publishers (currently) produce only a few versions of a given textbook, a large market like Texas can influence not only the textbooks used in Texas schools but in other states’ schools as well.  This year some on the Texas review panels recommended the inclusion of creationism in biology textbooks, in addition to evolution.

And then, the publishers said “no.”  No to including references to “creation science” and intelligent design in the textbooks to be printed.  No to voices in one of their biggest markets suggesting adding non-scientific material to a textbook for teaching science.

Economic theories talk a lot about the power of the market, making rational decisions, and weighing all the costs and benefits of actions.  I think one could view this decision by the publishers in different ways, many of them purely rational and economic.  Perhaps they looked at the rest of the US and suspected creating biology textbooks with creationism in them might sell well in Texas but overall might come out a loser across the US as a whole.  Maybe there was a calculation about the public relations hit they might take.  One could also be cynical and say the publishers see that in the near future textbooks will likely be custom built on the fly for different markets using electronic versions–kind of the Chinese restaurant approach to building a curriculum–and therefore see no point in acceding to one specific group when in the future all groups can be served.  But I prefer to think there was also a simple desire to just draw a line.  On this side is science and all that requires in the way of experimentation, falsifiable hypotheses, and the need for proof.  On that side is religion, one of the great influences on human civilization and culture, and emphatically based in belief, not science.

As for the death penalty, a couple of recent news stories (such as these from NPR and The New Republic) have described how states are finding it difficult to carry out the death penalty because of a shortage of the drugs used for lethal injections. Numerous drug companies have chosen to either stop producing drugs used in the standard lethal injection cocktail (Hospira, in 2011), or have limited sales only for non-death penalty uses. In some cases, when drugs are supplied by non-US companies, local laws would completely ban further shipments if those drugs were used for executions.

Since the drugs used in lethal injections also have important medical uses, a ban by a foreign supplier would not just affect capital punishment but also standard medical treatment in hospitals across the US.  The influence of this was seen when Missouri chose not to try to use a specific, common sedative (propofol) to replace sodium thiopental, and instead halted executions until a different substitute drug can be found.

What does this have to do with Texas?  Texas has by far carried out the most executions of any US state–506 since 1976–about five times more than the next state down the list.  Because of the drug shortages, Texas, among other states, has begun working with compounding pharmacies to manufacture the drug cocktails needed for executions.  However, in other states the scarcity of these drugs has been driving a hard look at capital punishment in general, with some states choosing to abolish it.

Whether that trend will continue I don’t know.  Will Texas be a lagging indicator in this case?  But both of these stories illustrate how networks can be disrupted from unexpected directions. Sometimes businesses are viewed as suppliers, simply making products without any concern for what’s done with those products and an interest only in making a profit.  But it’s good to get a reminder that for a lot of companies it’s not just the bottom line and that they can and will take a stand.

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