America’s Shkreli problem

On Friday, Martin Shkreli was sentenced to seven years in prison. What if anything does Shkreli’s fall tell us about America?

Shkreli’s early life exemplified the rags-to-riches American success story. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in April 1983, to parents who immigrated from Albania and worked as janitors in New York apartment buildings. Shkreli attended New York’s Hunter College High School, a public school for intellectually gifted young people, and in 2005 received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Baruch College.

But a few years later, Shkreli turned toward shady deals. He started his own hedge fund, betting that the stock prices of certain biotech companies would drop. He used financial chat rooms on the Internet to savage the companies he bet against, causing their prices to drop and his bets to pay off.

In 2015, Shkreli founded and became CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Under his direction, Turing spent $55 million for the U.S. rights to sell a drug called Daraprim.

Developed in 1953, Daraprim is the only approved treatment for toxoplasmosis, a rare parasitic disease that can cause birth defects in unborn babies, and lead to seizures, blindness, and death in cancer patients and people with AIDS. Daraprim is on the World Health Organization’s list of Essential Medicines.

Months after he bought the drug, Schkreli raised its price by over 5,000 percent, from $13.50 a pill to $750.00.

Shkreli was roundly criticized, but he was defiant: “No one wants to say it, no one’s proud of it, but this is a capitalist society, a capitalist system and capitalist rules.” He said he wished he had raised the price even higher, and would buy another essential drug and raise its price, too.

In February 2016, Shkreli was called before a congressional committee to justify his price increase for Daraprim. He refused to answer any questions, pleading the Fifth Amendment. After the hearing Shkreli tweeted, “Hard to accept that these imbeciles represent the people in our government.”

Shkreli was subsequently arrested in connection with an unrelated scheme to defraud his former hedge fund investors. In anticipation of his criminal trial, Shkreli boasted to the New Yorker magazine, “I think they’ll return a not-guilty verdict in two hours. There are going to be jurors who will be fans of mine. I walk down the streets of New York and people shake my hand. They say, ‘I want to be just like you.’”

During his trial, Shkreli strolled into a room filled with reporters and made light of a particular witness, for which the trial judge rebuked him. On his Facebook page he mocked the prosecutors, and he told news outlets they were a “junior varsity” team.

He retaliated against journalists who criticized him by purchasing Internet domains associated with their names and then ridiculing them on the sites. “I wouldn’t call these people ‘journalists,’” he wrote in an email to Business Insider. He said on Facebook that if he were acquitted he’d be able to have sex with a female journalist he often posted about online.

After his conviction, Shkreli called the case “a witch hunt of epic proportions, and maybe they found one or two broomsticks.” As she imposed sentence last Friday, the judge cited Shkrili’s “egregious multitude of lies,” noting also that he “repeatedly minimized” his conduct.

I ask you: How different is Martin Shkreli from other figures who dominate American life today, even at the highest rungs?

Shkreli would do whatever it took to win, regardless of the effects of his behavior on anyone else. He was arrogant and boastful. He believed that the norms that other people live by didn’t apply to him. His attitude toward the law was that anything he wanted to do was okay unless it was clearly illegal—and even if illegal, it was okay if he could get away with it.

He showed contempt for anyone who got in his way—whether judges, prosecutors, members of Congress, or journalists. He scorned and derided them publicly. He remained unapologetic for what he did; presumably he’d do the same in a heartbeat. He was utterly shameless.

Sound familiar? America has a Shkreli problem.

Martin Shkleri will spend the next seven years of his life in prison. I can’t help but wonder what will happen to the other unbridled narcissists now in positions of power in America, who also blatantly defy the common good.

This post originally appeared at RobertReich.org.

Robert B. Reich is the chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley and former secretary of labor under the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the 20th century. He is also a founding editor of The American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. His film, Inequality for All, was released in 2013. Follow him on Twitter: @RBReich.

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