News footage from the recent appearance of Martin Shkreli before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform should be required viewing for American high school students. The former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, commonly referred to as “the most hated man in America” made headlines when his company obtained the manufacturing license for the antiparasitic drug Daraprim, which is used to treat patients with toxoplasmosis, including in AIDS populations, and raised its price by 5,556 percent (from U.S.$13.50 to U.S.$750 per tablet).
Shkreli’s smirking, eye rolling reaction to the House Committee’s questions about his company’s despicable actions may strike many as the isolated actions of a spoiled, entitled brat, but in fact his elfin visage could serve as the official face of much of corporate America, a land where heedlessly destructive actions are encouraged and consequences are virtually nonexistent.
Just ask the former CEOs and upper echelon management of banking institutions like J.P Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, whose combined adventures in toxic subprime mortgage lending helped wipe out a large chunk of the world’s economy in 2008.
If they’re honest, they’ll tell you this: On Wall Street and in major financial institutions across the globe, fraud, deceit, and illegal manipulation are not only overlooked but openly encouraged. They’ll also tell you that no one in their occupational sphere, not a single person, ever served prison time for their blatantly criminal, hugely destructive actions. Fines were paid by the companies, but no individuals ever saw the inside of a courtroom.
That’s the lesson that all Americans should have learned in recent years: Actions that would put the average citizen behind bars for decades are shrugged off as “institutional failures” in the corporate legal system. When a single welfare recipient tries to put one over on the state they are singled out, made examples of as part of the abhorrent lower class that is supposedly stealing our nation blind. And yet, when the above mentioned banks engage in welfare fraud on a grand scale by borrowing billions from the federal government at near zero interest and then sending that money back out, at 15-20 percent interest, in the form of housing loans and credit cards…well, that’s just good business.
And it’s not just Wall Street high rollers and bank executives laughing behind our backs. For two years, city officials in Flint, Mich. allowed their citizens to drink water so corrosive that it stripped the lead from the city’s water pipes. An official from the United States Public Health Services recently told the New York Times that it had measured lead levels of 150 parts per billion or higher in 26 Flint water samples, a level at which even the water filters that have been distributed to residents can’t make the water safe to drink.
Neither the state’s governor nor city employees nor the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, all of whom failed to properly vet the Flint River as a water source and to treat the water supply adequately, have been held officially responsible for the long term, potentially deadly hazard they’ve allowed to continue in Flint. Though a number of class-action lawsuits have already been filed against city and state organizations, it could be difficult for plaintiffs to win money because governments and officeholders are typically immune from paying damages.
And let’s not forget other recent, apparently blameless crimes against average citizens committed by government institutions and corporations, such as the leaking gas well in southern California’s Aliso Canyon, which to date has bled 96,000 metric tons of methane and caused health problems for nearby residents due to lack of oversight.
Or how about the water contamination problem that occurred at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune from 1953 to 1987, during which time service members and their families on the base bathed in and ingested tap water that was contaminated with toxic chemicals, leading to increased incidents of cancer. In August 2012, President Obama signed the Janey Ensminger Act into law to begin providing medical care for those affected by the contamination. But, despite tests that showed clear signs of serious problems with the base’s water supply and repeated warnings from lab employees hired to do those tests, no member of the U.S. Marine Corps has ever been held accountable.
Which leads us back to of Martin Shkreli. It’s tempting to say that his arrest on Dec. 17 on charges of securities fraud heralds a new day in the enforcement of financial crime laws, that, finally, hedge funds swindlers and corporate freeloaders will be treated to the same level of scrutiny and justice as average middle and working class citizens.
Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely the smirking manchild will ever see a single day of prison time. After all, he’s a winner, and you’re not.