People might assume that I’m happy to see Martin Shkreli hauled off to jail. But I’m not. He’s the hedge fund wunderkind who raised the price of Daraprim from $13.50 to $750. He got a lot of attention for this clearly greedy move, but it was actually a sign of hubris because it caused another company — seeing an opportunity — to enter the market and sell the drug for $1. So there never was much indication that he was anything but a con a man. The problem is that I just don’t see how he is that different from the fools that millions of people worship on Shark Tank.
There is something very wrong with our capitalist system. I’ve noticed this again and again throughout my life. It is not brilliance — much less the ability to improve the world — that is key to business success. For many, like Mitt Romney, making money is mostly about being in the right place at the right time. But for many more, it is about being ruthless. And the distinction between legal ruthlessness and illegal ruthlessness strikes me as almost semantic. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that someone like Shkreli isn’t clear about the distinction. It is almost certainly clear that Mitt Romney did far more harm in his legal business career than Shkreli did in his career even if all the charges against him stick.
I think this is what happens when you have a society based on the idea that nothing matters but profit. Yes, I know there are courses on business ethics. But it strikes me rather the way war crimes tribunals work — namely, you only face them if you lost the war. As it is, if Martin Shkreli really is worth $100 million, he may manage to get out this legal bind. Our system is, after all, set up so that it is really hard to convict anyone who can mount a good defense.
As it is, there is only a small amount of Shkreli’s career that has landed him in jail. And it has nothing to do with him jacking up the price of Daraprim — a move that certainly caused harm and could have cost lives. But that was a move that was widely praised (or at least apologized for) in the business press. What he’s in trouble for is not all the harm that he has done, but rather for the specific harm that he’s done to members of his own class. As Michael Hiltzik noted, that’s mostly what this is all about.
I’m getting tired of all this. When Martin Shkreli burst on the scene as a price gouger, I didn’t see much of the outrage. He was doing, after all, what we generally praise business people for doing. If he had quintupled the price of the drug up to $67.5, I doubt anyone would have noticed, even though that change would have been excessive. There just seems to be a certain hypocrisy in our society. We expect them to be anti-humanists. In fact, we praise them for being so. We hold them up as demigods. So I feel no schadenfreude toward Martin Shkreli — just sadness for a badly misguided civilization.