Pharma’s market

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They’re the Senate’s most prominent pill pushers. As the New York Times
reported Saturday, Amgen, the biggest dealer on the biotech playground, persuaded the Senate Finance Committee to insert language delaying pricing regulations on its profitable dialysis drug Sensipar into the “fiscal bluff” bill passed earlier this month. The Times noted:

Amgen, whose headquarters is near Los Angeles and which had $15.6 billion in revenue in 2011, has a deep bench of Washington lobbyists that includes Jeff Forbes, the former chief of staff to Mr. Baucus; Hunter Bates, the former chief of staff for Mr. McConnell; and Tony Podesta, whose fast-growing lobbying firm has unusually close ties to the White House.

Amgen’s employees and political action committee have distributed nearly $5 million in contributions to political candidates and committees since 2007, including $67,750 to Mr. Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, and $59,000 to Mr. Hatch, the committee’s ranking Republican. They gave an additional $73,000 to Mr. McConnell, some of it at a fund-raising event for him that it helped sponsor in December while the debate over the fiscal legislation was under way. More than $141,000 has also gone from Amgen employees to President Obama’s campaigns.

These links — this network of corporate donors and prominent politicians — are precisely the sort of connections I want to analyze on this site. The donations, for example, are publicly recorded. A search on OpenSecrets.org for Amgen’s contributions to federal candidates in 2012 lists a quarter million dollars of donations to Senators: $118,500 to Senate Democrats and $131,500 to Senate Republicans. House members received nearly three quarters of a million dollars, $327,000 to Democrats and $395,500 to Republicans. Contributions to political action committees were also relatively even-handed: $30,000 a piece to the Democratic and Republican campaign committees for both the House and Senate, as well as $20,000 to the New Democrat Coalition and $15,000 to Congressional Trust 2010, a Republican campaign committee, among many, many other groups.

Over the 2007-2012 campaign cycle, Amgen was the fourth largest donor to Max Baucus, giving him $67,750. (The HMO Aetna was his largest, with $96,750; pharmaceutical giant Merck his third largest, with $67,900.) With $59,000, it ranked seventh among fellow finance committee chair Orrin Hatch’s patrons. (First was Fresenius Medical Care with $89,800; second Blue Cross/Blue Shield with $78,500. Fresenius Medical Care specializes in renal dialysis supplies, whereas Amgen makes dialysis pills.) Other Senate Finance Committee members with significant Amgen donations during that period were Mike Crapo ($44,500; his fifth largest donor), Pat Roberts ($40,350; his fourth largest), Mike Enzi ($39,500; his third largest), and Tom Carper ($35,500 ; his 14th largest.)

As John Godfrey Saxe said, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” And with a sausage fest like the US Congress, greater examination can only lead to dismaying revelations.

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Pill clip art courtesy of sweetclipart.com.

Laying the networks bare

social network clip-art
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Unemployed as of last Friday, I find myself with a bit more time to write than usual and a need to keep my programming skills polished. Also, I crave attention. The natural result of all this is that I’ve started my own blog. This post explains the motivation behind it.

The internet, as its name indicates, is a network. So is any ecosystem, be it an entire rainforest or the little park on top of the hill a couple blocks from my apartment. The signaling pathways that produce pain when I cut my finger, the immune and coagulation systems that respond instantly when my skin is pierced, and the neurons in my brain which retain the lesson that thumbtacks are sharp — all of these are networks, too.

And politics is a network. Every individual — every voter, activist, corporation or Senator — forms connections, exchanges information, influences other members of the network. The end result may be a new law, allocation of money, a war; but these results themselves act on the individuals, feeding back into the system and changing it, for good or ill. People die or are born, corporations start up or go bankrupt, mass movements take off or dwindle into history. The whole thing’s a tangle, and it’s easy to despair of ever comprehending how it works.

We can make a start, though. László Barabási mapped out a portion of the internet in 1999 and found that, far from being a random collection of pages and links, a few websites (hubs) had oodles of links pointing to them while most had less than a handful. This scale-free topology, as he called it, turns up all over the place in society: in links between actors and movies (the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game), between your sexual partners and mine (I hope you’re using a condom), and — I’m guessing — between politicians and the companies they patronize.

I’m a relative newcomer to network theory, but like many Americans, I’ve been observing politics for a long time. Since I learn a new discipline best by applying it to a concrete example that I care deeply about, I’ve decided to study computational network theory by applying it specifically to US politics. OpenSecrets.org provides the valuable service of listing, among other things, Congressional members and their donors. I plan to start with a relatively small set — the 100 Senators — and to analyze the links between each of them and their top 20 or so donors. I’ll publish all my raw data, my programs, and my results, and I welcome any helpful criticism and suggestions.

And of course I’ll talk about myself and my opinions, providing plenty of intimate and salacious details, with pictures. This is, after all, a blog.