Martin Shkreli rose to fame last year when, as CEO of drug company Turing Pharmaceuticals, he bought the rights to the drug Daraprim and jacked up the price by over 5000% overnight. When the news about Daraprim, a drug used to treat toxoplasmosis (a parasitic infection that can develop in young children and some cancer patients, as well as, most notably, people with HIV/AIDS), was reported in the New York Times, Shkreli became the smug, weaselly face of America’s opportunistic pharmaceutical industry—and a real-life super-villain in his own right.
Epithets sprang from a media anxious to quickly paint a caricature for their readers and watchers. ‘Pharma Bro’ was an early one, and later on he became, a little less imaginatively, ‘the most hated man in America’. Even the presidential nominees ragged on him. Hillary Clinton used the case of Daraprim as an example of runaway corporate greed, before announcing a policy that would try hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for price gouging. Bernie Sanders turned down a $2700 campaign donation (the individual donation limit) from Shkreli, opting instead to pass it on to an AIDS clinic in Washington. In justification, Sanders’ spokesman called Shkreli a “poster boy for drug company greed.”
The most infuriating thing for the masses of haters was that, far from being humbled, Shkreli seemed to revel in the attention. After the first wave of public outrage, Shkreli told NBC that he would cancel the increase and lower the price again, citing his wish to appease a misunderstanding public, but the price never went down. He cancelled the cancel. In fact, he later went on to tell Forbes that he regretted not raising the price even higher when he had the chance (that is, before he resigned from Turing), so that he could’ve made more profit. What happened in between the promise to lower the price and the resounding rejection of the idea, amounted to Shkreli’s transformation into full troll.
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It became super easy to dislike Martin Shkreli. In his first appearances on television following the price hike, he had the air of a high intellectual, stooping to explain the basics of pharmaceutical economics to his interviewers. He nods and smirks along to questions, and occasionally catches himself furrowing his eyebrows in a condescending expression he would go on to refine and own. Commenters online suspected him of being a robot that was having a go at expressing human emotions. But he at least engaged with questions. In a near monotone, he gave in-depth arguments for the price increase; a mixture of pre-worked PR-speak and genuine responses. During the interviews, though, something else became apparent. With his nervous laugh and awkward, shifting posture, you can’t help but feel something underneath his performance—he is incredibly self-conscious.
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Shkreli is only thirty-two years old. He entered Wall Street as an intern, and worked his way up, Wolf of Wall Street-style, to manage his own hedge fund—MSMB Capital Management. A medical textbook-memorising prodigy who, according to a former colleague, is “the smartest guy in the room;” Shkreli is undeniably nerdy. And with a chip on his shoulder from dropping out of an elite Manhattan school for the intellectually gifted (he recently made a million-dollar donation to the same school), it’s no surprise that he felt the need to prove himself. The route he appeared to take, though, was an interesting one. Abandoning earlier attempts to cast himself as the good guy, he embraced his villain status wholeheartedly. He started using every opportunity he could to remind people of his personal wealth, knowing full well the natural connections people would make between his money and his price-gouging as CEO of Turing. Soon after the Daraprim increase, Shkreli was the winner of an auction for the only copy of the new Wu-Tang Clan album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. It cost him two million dollars.
Then Shkreli took a dive into deep weirdom. A spat with Wu-Tang rapper Ghostface Killah, that started with Ghostface calling him “that shithead” in a TMZ interview (for apparently both the Daraprim increase, and for withholding the new Wu album from the public), led Shkreli to post his own diss video in response. In the video Shkreli, flanked by three masked goons, swills a stemless glass of red wine and warns Ghostface, “don’t ever fucking mention my name again.” His next stop was a congressional hearing, where he appeared in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to answer questions for an investigation into rising drug prices. Pleading the fifth amendment, he refused to answer any questions bar one (“is it pronounced ‘Shkreli’?” “Yes, sir”), and spent his time before the committee smirking and giggling, and rolling his eyes in the face of questions and pleas. In one of the only places that he might’ve found a receptive, and important, audience for his claims—that the raising of the price was to cover research costs for a new, better drug that would supersede Daraprim—Shkreli scoffed his way to an early exit.
Shkreli claimed that his obnoxious behaviour was a “social experiment.” And while certainly a lot of it appears to be a put-on, it’s harder to tell whether it’s a guy playing up his own assholism in order to make a point, or whether it’s the performance of someone who has never been comfortable in their own skin, trying to find some kind of identity. Not a robot trying on human feelings necessarily, but a nerd who has finally, suddenly, found himself on top, and is toying with the idea of a values system.
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Shkreli was arrested in December last year on securities fraud charges. He posted his five-million dollar bail straight away, but the early-morning march through a crowd of photographers, in the hands of FBI agents, managed to make a dent on his ego—if only temporarily. The charges relate to his time in the hedge fund game, where he is accused of running a Ponzi-like scheme in paying off investors of one fund (MSMB) with assets from another (Retrophin), and lying to others about losses he was making. He denied all the charges, instead posting the tweet (that sounds like it was wrung out by a gauntlet of expensive attorneys), “I am confident I will prevail. The allegations against me are baseless and without merit.” For most people, separating the dodgy hedge fund guy from the pharmaceutical CEO is hard, if they see any point in trying to separate them at all.
But the truth is there seems to be a few distinct Martin Shkrelis in operation. At times it’s really hard to reconcile the different versions of him. In one of his least guarded interviews, on conversation streaming site Blab, he talks with a man who is HIV positive and, unbelievably, Shkreli comes across as a genuinely nice person. Maybe because the stakes are low here, no national media, no emblazoned epithets to perform under, he is relaxed and sincere. He patiently waits for the man to work through his emotional statement and question, and then goes about responding to him with real empathy. It actually seems important to him that the guy understands where he’s coming from. He goes on to say that a few people close to him have HIV, including his publicist. He says that toxoplasmosis is a rare disease, even for people with AIDS, and that Turing gives away 65% of its drugs for free. In a similar point, made in an interview with Vice, he says that the $750 price tag of Daraprim isn’t for individuals, but for rich insurance companies, and huge corporations, like Walmart. He encourages anyone who needs the drug but can’t get it to contact him.
In that Vice interview, while the line he sticks to isn’t new, the character he plays is maybe the most bizarre of all. The interview takes place in his Manhattan apartment, and he goes to great lengths to put on the most pretentious show he can muster. He refuses to walk anywhere, choosing instead to whiz around on one of those stupid two-wheeled hoverboards. He and the interviewer drink a 2005 Petrus magnum (“let’s open a really nice bottle” he says — average price about $6000NZD), and the interview literally happens over a game of chess (“so you play the Sicilian defence frequently, or…?”). He is totally unbearable. What is blazingly obvious is that, while he is keen to broadcast his shining generosity of spirit in the murky world of greedy big-pharma corporates, what he really wants people to know is that he’s cool. His two-million dollar Wu-Tang album sits prominently on the coffee table.
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For most people, the headlines were enough. Shkreli was “The CEO That Hiked Price Of HIV Treatment Drug” or the “AIDS-Drug Price Gouging CEO.” It made sense to us that sooner or later someone like him would emerge out of the demented orgy of corporate America. While the consequences of this particular price rise probably won’t be as severe as the coverage made it out to be (though there are still valid concerns about the effect on insurance premiums, and whether hospitals will still be able to stock the drug. Also it is part of a wider trend that sees old, cheap drugs being bought solely to ratchet up the price, which freaks out pretty much everyone without a state drug-buying agency. Viva Pharmac), Shkreli will likely live on as a villain, in his role as the honorary Face of Big Pharma. And this brings a really interesting problem to the American people.
In the Blab conversation, the man talking to Shkreli ties himself into knots trying to frame his question. “I’m a huge advocate for capitalism” he says, and “you’ve done well for yourself, congratulations on that, I have no issue with it, but….” He goes on to say that Shkreli has effectively withdrawn an essential drug from a poor community, and he would like him to explain his reasoning behind it—to justify himself. But the question is a non sequitur. A responsibility to any group, especially poor communities, has never been part of succeeding in capitalism. The cognitive dissonance churns in the guy grilling Shkreli: he clearly has it in for him, but how could he really be that bad a person, if all he’s done is play by the rules to make himself a tidy profit? In fact, shouldn’t Shkreli actually be applauded for fulfilling the American dream? The son of Albanian immigrants who worked janitor jobs to support him, he capitalised his way to a multi-million dollar fortune. Americans have come up against the natural result of the unregulated market capitalism they are so proud of. And they are upset, it would appear, that the people who make use of the market aren’t nicer.
Ghostface Killah made another video in response to Shkreli’s goon/wine one. After a few insults that seem pretty lightweight coming from a gangster rapper (like “that fake Peter Pan cat” and “the man with the twelve year old body.” Interestingly he also touches on the slipperiness of Shkreli’s character, pointing out “he ain’t got a real bone in his body”), Ghost brings up the Daraprim increase. “You a killer, man” he says, “you don’t do that to the people, man. They need that.” Ghost then pleads him, as much as a founding rapper of the Wu-Tang Clan can, to lower the price of the drug. Then he turns the camera to his family members, who continue the message in custom T-shirts that have Shkreli’s face and the words “2 MIL SUCKER” printed on them.
At the congressional hearing a Republican congressman asks Shkreli, his voice nearly cracking, “what do you say to that single, pregnant woman, who might have AIDS, no income, she needs Daraprim in order to survive… What do you say to her?” (He pleads the fifth). Another member of the committee tells him solemnly, “I wanna plead with you, to use any remaining influence you have over your former company, to press them to lower the price of these drugs.” But their appeals are flawed, if heartbreaking. They talk to a single person, a small player at that, as if he is their only hope of changing an entire system.
The idea of regulation is almost taboo in American politics, even in the wake of the devastating 2008 financial crisis that was the result of years of banking deregulation. These people of power, congress folk and rappers alike, are hamstrung to stick up for humanity in the face of a huge, uncaring economic system. But it is that system—the freedom for people to do whatever they want—that defines what it is to be American.