ACUMEN Spring 2022

COLLEGE OF ARTS AND SCIENCES 9 equations to describe the dynamics of large complex ecological networks, and the goal there is to understand the relationship between complexity and stability in large ecosystems. “With first-passage percolation, think of water drops on a stone. The water molecules pass through the pores inside the stone at a certain speed, which can be modeled mathematically by some random variables. Eventually, the shape of the wet area will displace some pattern,” says Tang, assistant professor of mathematics. “And in the other project, consider atoms in an alloy, and they each interact with other atoms that are nearby. “Generally speaking, my research focuses on how simple rules between those particles at the microscopic scale may give you dramatically different behavior, when a parameter changes only a little bit. In statistical physics, this is called phase transition,” Tang says. “For example, in the spin glass model that I am studying, temperature is a critical parameter. In this model, when temperature is low, the atoms will prefer to stay in one or a few low-energy states and the metal will display some magnetic feature. When temperature is higher, the atoms will lose such preference and may rearrange themselves arbitrarily. And eventually, the metal is no longer magnetic.” The results obtained from these projects are not only important in probability theory, but also have wide applications in other branches of sciences, such as biology, statistical physics and data sciences. POLITICAL SCIENCE ETHICALLY CHALLENGED Private equity (PE) firms have one overarching goal: provide themselves and their investors with outsized profits, usually within four to six years of buying a company, then sell. PE has pervaded all aspects of our lives, from what we eat and drink and how we communicate to the retail outlets where we purchase food, toys, clothing and office supplies. Political scientist Laura Katz Olson, distinguished professor of political science, explores this highly secretive industry and their infiltration into the American health care system. In her latest book, Ethically Challenged: Private Equity Storms US Health Care, Olson examines the industry’s history, strategies and recent penetration into health services. She probes several areas, including specialized physician practices; dentistry; home health care and hospice; substance abuse and eating disorders; autism spectrum disorders; and emergency medical transportation. She says PE firms are acquiring relatively small businesses in these sectors and consolidating them, which has led to monopoly control, higher medical costs and lower quality of care. “Private equity firms are mostly interested in highly functioning companies,” she says. “Only a few specialize in failing places. They want ones that have good revenue flow because the magic sauce for massive earnings, if I can put it that way, is leveraged buyouts. They rely on piling huge debts on their investment targets, generally 70 percent or more of the purchase price. The PE firm only puts in roughly 2 percent of the actual equity. Their limited partners, which are usually public pension funds, put in the rest.” And, even better for the PE executives, Olson says, the monetary obligations are placed on the investee establishments, which are then solely liable for repaying them. As targets pay off what is owed, the equity value for PE firms climbs. PE managers often bleed the operations of the places they own to optimize the cash flow. In consequence, the cash-strapped businesses may have insufficient funds for their labor force, equipment modernization, technical innovations, R&D and other essential needs. “They’re taking over eating disorder enterprises, hospital emergency rooms, autism treatment facilities, dialysis centers,” she says. “If you are addicted to opioids, don’t be surprised if private equity is your treatment center or if it owns the ambulance or helicopter picking you up at a crash site.” PE investment in health care has significant implications for the type and quality of medical services we receive, the nature of our health care delivery system and for competition and prices in health care markets. Olson’s book is the first one to comprehensively address the issue. MICHAEL AUSTIN / THEISPOT.COM