February 15, 2016

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Speaking before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the embattled ex-CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, Martin Shkreli, defended his choice to increase the price of an HIV-fighting drug the best way he knew how: by invoking his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent, beguiling his questioners.

Last fall, Shkreli hiked the price of Daraprim by more than 5,000%”€”from $13.50 a pill to $750. Outrage followed, and the drug producer went from conniving, eccentric businessman to pariah. He justified the price inflation by claiming that what his company charges is still below the cost of its competitors.

Shkreli has, thus far, handled the public scrutiny with his socially awkward style of hubris. He gave an interview to Vice News defending his business practices by passing the blame along to corporations. He told the alternative news outlet, “€œWe sell our drugs for a dollar to the government, but we sell our drugs for $7.50 a pill to Walmart, to ExxonMobil, to all these big companies, and they pay full price because f—- them, why shouldn”€™t they?”€

“€œShkreli has the reach and the wealth to do something genuinely good for society. Except he won”€™t put aside the stupid antics.”€

For such a whip-smart guy, Shkreli has never taken the time to learn basic economics. Large corporations don”€™t take high prices on the chin. They pass them down to consumers by offering a lower supply. Shkreli’s Robin Hood routine ends up screwing over poor people in the end.

And he wonders why he’s the “€œmost hated man in America.”€

Shkreli is having a blast poking fun at celebrities and revealing the absurdity of our legal system. But what is he really accomplishing? He claims to be doing the Lord’s work by exposing the pharmaceutical industry as a sleazy, profit-obsessed death machine. But then he turns around and bills companies that buy his lifesaving drugs, transferring the cost to those who need it.

Is there really a guiding principle here? Or is this just goofing on people for the sake of goofing?

Unfortunately, I suspect it’s the latter. Shkreli has the reach and the wealth to do something genuinely good for society. Except he won”€™t put aside the stupid antics. That makes his continual trolling a waste of his and everyone else’s time.

In a recent missive in The Atlantic, former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier adeptly scrutinized one of the biggest pests in modern society: the purposeless critic. Societal appraisers serve a useful function when their insight is applied with a focus on beauty, goodness, and truth. Without that foundation”€”which is one of the West’s lasting contributions to mankind”€”then all criticism devolves into useless “€œtakes.”€ “€œA take,”€ Wieseltier writes, “€œis an opinion that has no aspiration to a belief, an impression that never hardens into a position.”€

Anyone can pass judgment. It takes someone of discriminating intelligence to form a worthy opinion. But more important, an opinion should have the authority of truth behind it. There must be purpose in evaluation. “€œA take asks for no affiliation. It requires no commitment,”€ Wieseltier declares. Trashing something without providing a better alternative is no better than lopping the king’s head off with no plan for just rule after.

As it is with criticism, it is with trolling. What else is trolling but levying criticism on the target of ridicule?

The Founders were the original American critics (and trolls). They wrote under noms de plume to chip away at the legitimacy of British control. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was like a long Facebook post passed around the thirteen colonies. They tossed tea into the Boston Harbor to protest unfair taxation.


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