Back in 2008 and 2009, as the global economy was on the verge of complete collapse, I wondered — I’m not sure how figuratively — when America would finally wise up and begin bringing the guillotines out on Wall Street. What the Masters of the Universe had done by gang-banging our economic system put the livelihood of each and every one of us in jeopardy and they didn’t care one bit about that. Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein, a key player in the whole debacle, at one point insisted that he and his investment bank were simply doing “God’s work,” making it perfectly clear that the arrogance of the Wall Street untouchables couldn’t be dealt with through ordinary means. Ironically, as Don DeLillo once wrote, these people lived in “in a tower that soars to heaven and goes unpunished by God,” so it would take drastic measures to dislodge them — and lobbing their heads off the way the French revolutionaries once did it sounded like the only sensible option.
Well, that never happened, but I swear to Christ if somebody doesn’t drag Martin Shkreli, kicking and screaming, to the guillotines for being such a contemptible asshole, I will have lost all faith in us. Shkreli is a 32-year-old venture capitalist and former hedge funder who founded a start-up called Turing Pharmaceuticals. Last month that company acquired the rights to Daraprim, a drug used to treat toxoplasmosis, which is a disease that can be deadly to people with weakened immune systems. Daraprim has been around for more than 60 years and it’s an invaluable tool in treating patients with HIV and cancer, but unfortunately — at least as Shkreli sees it — it’s just too goddamn cheap. That’s why yesterday Turing Pharmaceuticals hiked the price of Daraprim by 5500%, sending the drug skyrocketing from $13.50 a tablet to $750. Dr. Judith Aberg, who heads up the division of infectious diseases at the Incahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has already slammed the move, saying that gouging of patients who desperately need the drug could force hospitals to use “alternative therapies that may not have the same efficacy.” Meanwhile, Gawker has labeled Shkreli a “greed villain” and over the past 24 hours he’s basically become, rightfully, the most despised person in America.
So what does Martin Shkreli think of the backlash against him? He doesn’t give a single fuck. He’s already called Fierce Biotech‘s John Carroll — who spoke out about Shkreli — “such a moron,” adding that the price hike is “a great business decision that also benefits all of our stakeholders” and that “I don’t expect the likes of you to process that.” He’s also been retweeting anybody calling him a great businessman and attacking anyone criticizing him, even going to town on people with only a handful of followers. (In fact, I’d suggest right now that you seek him out on Twitter and eat him alive; if he responds to you let me know and maybe we’ll follow it up tomorrow.) But Shkreli’s offensive-defense might have reached its peak this afternoon when he appeared on Bloomberg TV to explain himself. If you want to experience something that will make you immediately imagine putting your fist into the soft, smirking flesh of this guy, just force yourself to watch every minute of the Bloomberg one-on-one.
Right off the bat, Shkreli, just oozing smug privilege, sets up what’s most important to him about having access to a drug that’s benefitted millions. “Ultimately the companies before us were just giving it away almost,” he says. “You know, the price that they were pricing it at was… $13.50… and you only needed less than a hundred pills, so you know, at the end of the day the price for a course of treatment to save your life was only a thousand dollars.” Right, because in a healthcare system where profit is more important than patients, there’s a price-tag on your life and it should be a hell of a lot higher than just a thousand dollars. Shkreli understands that desperate people and their caretakers will pay whatever it takes to, you know, not die. He later claims that “it’s only fair that we make a profit” and insists that because Turing Pharmaceuticals will be concentrating specifically on (gouging you for) Daraprim, if you’re suffering from toxoplasmosis you’ll now have “a powerful ally” in your fight against the disease — which is a little like saying that the ISIS militants who’ve taken you hostage are powerful allies in keeping you alive, since you avoid death only at their pleasure.
Martin Shkreli spends a good amount of the interview pretending to know something about medicine and generally bullshitting about his intentions. He claims that profits from the sale of Daraprim will go toward research for a better drug, which is nonsense given that Daraprim is a pretty damn good drug as it is. He also concern trolls about the possibility of toxoplasmosis to evolve and eventually not be treatable with the very drug he just bought. “If this bug evolves it will be a ticking time-bomb,” he proclaims. The ace up his sleeve he has for people who call him a greedy monster is the fact that he says Turing will never deny a patient Daraprim if he or she can’t pay, which sounds great until you consider that there are plenty of people who will be deemed financially secure enough to be able to afford the drug but who will be put deeply in debt if they need it. Also, as Carroll points out, insurance companies having to cover Daraprim will absolutely pass the cost on to consumers. Turing Pharmaceutical’s slogan is “Developing and Commercializing Innovative Treatmemts”; the company makes no attempt at hiding the fact that it’s strictly in it for the money.
It comes down to this: Only the most ruthless capitalist would be unwilling to admit that the way we care for the sick in this country is almost irredeemably screwed up. We’ve given an entity as unscrupulous and indifferent as the free market control over the single most imperative decision in human existence — literally, whether we live or die. Regardless of what the business-creatures in venture capital may have to say on the subject, healthcare and profit are two thoroughly antithetical concepts. Giving sociopathic pricks like Martin Shkreli the authority to stand on the edge of the arena and issue a final thumbs-up or down while we lay incapacitated or dying is like charging a lion with protecting the Christians. This is one of the most unconscionable facts about life in our country — it’s what separates the United States from the truly decent, civilized nations we like to criticize for their “socialized medicine.” Martin Shkreli is the fucking greedy little asshole poster boy for everything that’s wrong with our healthcare system and in another, more just era he would’ve been guillotined for his egomaniacal willingness to wallow in self-privilege at the expense of the lives of others.
But maybe in this case there’s another answer. Toxoplasmosis is the result of a parasite. Perhaps if we hold him down and dump an entire $2,250 bottle of Daraprim down his throat he’ll implode. Either way, we’ll be able to bill him for it.
This piece has been edited slightly since its initial publishing.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.