Shkreli: Product of Capitalism or Red Tape?

Martin Shkreli, hedge fund manager and founder of Turing Pharmaceuticals, has been described as the “most hated man in America” and an example of “everything that is wrong with capitalism” due to his company’s acquisition of the rights to the drug Daraprim and the jacking up of the price from $13.50 to $750 per pill. While incentives (a word typically associated with capitalist rhetoric) obviously played a role, it may not be due to the supposed exploitative underpinnings of capitalism and for-profit business. Blogger Will Wilkinson makes a number of important points over at the Niskanen Center on the perverse incentives created by regulation:

Bringing a copy of Daraprim to market would require filing an Abbreviated New Drug Approval with the FDA…The FDA is notoriously slow and the process is expensive…Shkreli was willing to pay such a huge sum because he could see that no Daraprim copies were in the regulatory pipeline, meaning that, for a time, he would have a monopoly and could reap monopoly profits by callously demanding exorbitant prices from patients who have no alternative to the drug. The scandal of Martin Shkreli’s profiteering tells us very little about capitalism, per se, but it does tell us a lot about the perverse market incentives that overzealous regulation can create.

Drawing on an argument made by economist Alex Tabarrok, Wilkinson points how difficult it is to get a generic drug approved in the U.S., noting that “it’s illegal to sell imported generic versions of the drug that have not been independently approved by the FDA. Some of these generic brands have been blessed by European countries with perfectly sane and safe drug approval processes, but the U.S. won’t recognize foreign vetting, and insists on wasting resources, time, and lives with redundant oversight…If “capitalism” is a system of competitive markets in which prices adjust with supply and demand, then it definitely wasn’t capitalism, in that sense, that led Shkreli to charge $750 for something that costs pocket change on a free market. The culprit is a regulation…that makes it illegal for Americans to buy well-tested, imported generics on the open market.”

Finally, he places growing inequality at the feet of rent-seeking:

In an important new essay in National Affairs, Steven Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, points out that a fair number of the top 1% of earners owe a sizable part of their incomes to regulatory barriers to entry. Doctors, dentists, and lawyers all profit from licensing schemes that limit competition. Car-dealerships are, more or less, politically-granted concessions protected from competition. Government contractors and consulting firms that specialize in regulatory compliance reap outsized gains from heavily politicized markets. “[R]ents are pervasive in the fields of finance, entertainment, and technology,” Teles observes...[I]f Teles is right, regulation-loving progressives will need to reconcile themselves to the fact that the economic inequality and injustice they deplore may be driven in no small measure by regulations they might otherwise favor. This suggests that fighting inequality requires more than taxing America’s Martin Shkrelis more heavily—though it may require that, too. Pushing for a more equitable economy also means pushing for reforms like ending the ban on the importation of prescription drugs that have been deemed safe by, say, Canada or Germany. Which is to say, well-targeted “deregulation” is the egalitarian’s friend.

Wilkinson concludes by stating that “Martin Shkreli’s brazen legal fleecing would be impossible in an unfettered market. He bought himself a monopoly made entirely of health-and-safety red tape.” And while outrage is warranted, “we ought to be outraged also because Shrkeli’s racket is a straightforward consequence of stupid over-regulation and symptomatic of the way badly fettered markets generate injustice.”

Cell Phone Techno-Panic: Am I Missing Something?

Sherry Truckle has a new book out, and so she’s making the rounds in interviews and articles. I’d like to know if any of our readers have read the books and can recommend them to me as genuinely interesting or just the latest techno-panic. According to an NYT article, her first book, Alone Together was “was a damning report on human relationships in the digital age.” The book focused on robots and made the case that:

When we replace human caregivers with robots, or talking with texting, we begin by arguing that the replacements are “better than nothing” but end up considering them “better than anything” — cleaner, less risky, less demanding. Paralleling this shift is a growing preference for the virtual over the real.

Her new book is Reclaiming Conversation, and it drops the focus on robots to talk about the lost (?) art of face-to-face conversation.

I’m skeptical.

First, as this XKCD comic illustrates, there always seems to be someone around to tell you you’re doing it wrong. No matter what “it” is. And a lot of the criticism of cell phone usage seems to fall into this category.

Then there’s the simple fact that we’re always panicking about something. And it’s not even like cell phones are the first technological innovation to threaten the art of conversation. How about, I dunno, the newspaper?

From a Liquid-State article about newspapers surviving (or not) in a digital age.

So that’s why I’m curious: has anyone read Sherry Turkle? Is there more going on? Becaus I have only read articles about her and listened to interviews of her, and in those cases the conversation never seems to go beyond the “gee, golly, phones are scary!” talking point, along with the obligatory jokes about how much the interviewer / author depends on their phone. (Isn’t the irony hilarious? No. It’s tiresome.)

It’s not that I think there are no legitimate concerns. I think there absolutely are. Technology (phones, laptops, tablets) are generally a bad idea in the classroom, and they can easily cause problems in the home. I’m not sure when I’m going to get my kids devices of some sort, but I’m planning on holding out as long as possible. (They do have an old iPad, but it was a very conscious decision to have one device they have to share, because that forces actual interaction when they decide what to watch / play together.) And I am not saying there’s no such thing as too much phone time. Yesterday I zoned out for like an hour playing Civilization Revolution 2 on my phone between 5pm and 6pm, and that was definitely sub-optimal parenting.

On the other hand, all those stories about how couples on dates ignore each other for their phones or how people create this fake version of themselves on social media for public consumption: I dunno. That’s bad, yeah, but I feel like there are some pre-existing conditions in those cases. I don’t imagine that the kind of people who can’t look away from their screen to see the person they are sharing a meal with would be hitting it out of the park without a phone. And when it comes to fake versions of ourselves: I think the underlying problem there is a society that prizes career and advancement over home and community, to the point where people habitually uproot themselves and move cross-country to find work. Doing so severs ties with family and friends and more or less obliterates the idea of a “home,” and the way folks desperately reach out for connection on social media seems like just a symptom of the underlying problem.

Now, there is one thing that does stand out to me as genuinely dangerous, and that’s this (quoting from the NYT’s descripton of Turkle’s first book again, with emphasis added):

When we replace human caregivers with robots, or talking with texting, we begin by arguing that the replacements are “better than nothing” but end up considering them “better than anything” — cleaner, less risky, less demanding. Paralleling this shift is a growing preference for the virtual over the real.

Sci-fi authors have been worried about the idea of people losing themselves in virtual reality pretty much since the idea existed. The starkest and most full-fleshed example comes from Dani and Etyan Kollins’ book The Unincorporated Man. Without spoiling the plot, the setup is that a rich billionaire has himself cryogenically frozen in the late 21st century. Not long after that, virtual reality really takes off, and it turns out that people are super-addicted. The result is that society completely collapses, and there are some pretty horrific vignettes of, for example, families saying goodbye to each other as the world crumbles, plugging themselves into their virtual realities, and then enjoying their last hours or days as they starve to death. By the time society recovers (and unfreezes that rich billionaire, who is the protagonist in the first book), virtual reality is strictly forbidden by legal and social taboos and there are museums to indoctrinate each rising generation about the dangers of VR.

This is just the most vivid account of the danger I’ve read, but there are other folks who–for example–think that the solution to the Fermi paradox is that every time societies get close to having viable space travel they also have viable virtual reality, and they invariably choose virtual reality because it offers the chance to engineer an environment specifically to scratch every last possible psychological itch a sentient being can have. If all our desires can be catered to with perfect precision, why bother with anything in the real world ever again? So, instead of the stars, every sentient race just collapses into their own solipsistic virtual paradise. (Whether this means they all die off, as in The Unincorporated Man, or just maintain a level of lonely, self-sustaining production to keep the VR lights on is unspecified.)

So don’t get me wrong: tech can be scary. There may be quite legitimate things to fear. But is Turkle one of those, or just another “something new scares me” hand-wringer?

Linker: “Democrats are going to pay a price for defending an unreasonably maximal position on abortion”

805 - Linker Abortion Piece

Damon Linker does not pull any punches in his most recent piece for The Week: Why liberals should support banning late-term abortions. I very much doubt that liberals will pay attention, but they should.

Linker’s central point is pretty simple: United States laws on abortion are so radical that they are out of touch with both American public opinion and “that notorious backwater of oppression for women, Europe.” Citing the recent defeat of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, he compares abortion advocates to the NRA:

That an activist would operate this way — strong-arming senators to champion views that harmonize with a mere 14 percent of the country — isn’t surprising. Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, and their opinion-journalist allies are acting precisely like the NRA and its champions on the right, warning receptive politicians ominously, “Give an inch and the enemy will take more than a mile next time! No compromise allowed!” And so we get no restrictions on late-term abortion, just as we get no serious federal gun control.

He didn’t stop there, either. Instead, he went on to conclude that:

. . . on the issue of abortion, liberals shouldn’t kid themselves about their ability to keep it up. Their position is untenable, and time isn’t on their side. Those who want to ensure that women keep complete reproductive freedom through the first 20 weeks of pregnancy need to back down on the second 20 weeks. Morality no less than politics demands it.


The entire piece is very, very good and worth reading all the way through. I strongly disagree with Linker about abortion (he is pro-choice; I am pro-life), but I very, very much agree with him on the key factors in this article. American abortion law is truly radical, it is not democratically supported at all, and the pro-choice lobby manages to maintain the status quo only by subterfuge. If Americans understood our laws today, they would not stand for them. An understanding of what the laws really permit–and a deepening understanding of the humanity of the unborn–is inevitable.

Here’s a quick note on why Americans don’t understand abortion law. Roe v. Wade set up a trimester system that allowed states to impose more regulation with each trimester. And so, in theory, the states have wide latitude especially after viability. That is why many people believe that abortion is already illegal or severely regulated later on in pregnancy. The problem is that in every case Roe calls for an exception for a mother’s “health.”

That sounds good and reasonable, but another, lesser-known decision (Doe v. Bolton) that was handed down on the same day as Roe v. Wade defines “health” so broadly that the health-exception basically nullifies any law that includes it.

Whether, in the words of the Georgia statute, “an abortion is necessary” is a professional judgment that the Georgia physician will be called upon to make routinely. We agree with the District Court, 319 F. Supp., at 1058, that the medical judgment may be exercised in the light of all factors – physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age – relevant to the well-being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health.

So “health” can include basically any factor that a physician decides to include. Which means that any law with a “health” exception is useless. It would be like passing a law that says you can’t drink alcohol unless the bartender thinks you need it. As a result, American abortion law is truly radical and late-term abortions are <em>not</em> illegal or harshly regulated, but in order to fully appreciate this you have to be aware of not only Roe (which everyone has heard of) but also Doe (which is much less well-known). As far as the general public is concerned, the pro-life lobby keeps trying to restrict abortion without exceptions for the mother’s health and that looks very bad and fits the narrative that social conservatives have declared war on women. The understanding that if the health exception goes in the law you might as well just not even bother passing it is little understood.


As long as this charade is maintained intact, the pro-choice lobby continues to operate from a position of strength, even though only 14% of the American public supports their position. But bills like the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act and the ongoing release of undercover Planned Parenthood videos are eroding that charade.

Time will end the horrific human rights abuse that is the American system of abortion-as-birth control. There will be a day when we look back on this time period with the same mixture of shame and incomprehension as slavery, segregation, and male-only voting. The Democratic Party can get out of the way, or they can take a turn understanding the true meaning of the phrase “the wrong side of history.”

JG: The Sheltered Ones

806 - Gaffigan and Father Nicholas

Here’s another great post from Junior Ganymede: The Sheltered Ones.

In the post, MC makes two points that seem a little dischordant at first, but really are not.

First, religious folks are not really as sheltered as people think. He makes this point first with an exchange from the Jim Gaffigan show in which Gaffigan is worried that local Catholic priest Father Nicholas will find his standup routine jarring:

Jim: Look, you may be exposed to some harsh language and sexual content.

Father Nicholas: I think I can handle it, Jim. When I was eight years old, I saw soldiers burn down my village.

Jim: Yeah, but was there cursing?

From here, MC extrapolates to the Book of Mormon Musical, which is all about a show (played to “Well-to-do New Yorkers, people who use “summer” as a verb.”) about how Mormon  missionaries (who sometimes actually, you know, go to Africa and live there for two years and eat the food and learn the  languages and dialects) are hopelessly naive and sheltered. Uh, ok.

MC is really, really right here. Involvement in a religious community–especially one like Mormonism–is going to bring you face-first into a lot of real, actual human experiences. The two-year missions that Mormon’s serve are one extreme example, but not an isolated one. MC has another, completely ordinary one:

“Sheltered” is whatever uncool people who don’t buy what we’re selling are. Sure, maybe you accompanied your dad to the hospital so that he could give a blessing of comfort to the old, dying sister you home teach. Maybe you heard her in such pain that you could barely stand to hear her breathe, but you stood there and sang her favorite hymn to her, out of tune, and she acted like it was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

But have you tried marijuana? Do you go to second base with your girlfriend? Pfffft. Then you don’t know what the “real world” is like.

What can I say to this, other than simply: amen and amen.

MC’s second point is where the apparent dischord comes in. He points out that, quite rightly, the point of a family is to shelter children. That’s what they are there for. But wait, didn’t we just say that religious people aren’t sheltered? Well, it all depends on what you mean by “sheltered.” If you mean living in an antiseptic world where you pay someone else to cook your food and do your dishes and maybe change your kids diapers, then no: religious folk are not generally sheltered. But if you mean having a secure place to come home to that is safe with parents who guard the threshold from dangers spiritual and physical? Then yes: religious folks are very, very good at sheltering their children as they should be.

Obviously it’s not as cut-and-dry as “all religious people are actually deep and all secular people are shallow”, but that’s actually closer to the truth than the current trendy view of who knows and does not know what really happens out there in the world.

The Lion and the Robin

Aslan, from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Aslan, from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

G. has posted a short allegory (I believe it is his own) for the necessity of the atonement about a lion and a robin. I really like it, and you should read it. It begins:

In the grove in the evening, the lion heard a great racket from a father Robin and his brood and went to investigate.

“Friend Robin,” the lion said, “why do you make a fuss?”

The rest is not long, and is worth your time.

CDC Study: The Myth of Poor Families and Fast Food

Another nugget of “conventional wisdom” bites the dust:

Back in 2011, a national study by a team at UC Davis concluded that as American salaries grow into the upper echelons of middle income, so does fast-food intake…Now a new study, this time by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, weighs in on the matter. While the national survey did show that on a given day, roughly one-third of American children will eat fast food, the breakdown among income levels is pretty even.

As Roberto Ferdman points out in The Washington Post, “it’s the poorest kids that tend to get the smallest share of their daily energy intake from Big Macs, Whoppers, Chicken McNuggets, and french fries.” With the lowest-income families suffering the most disproportionately in the national obesity epidemic, knowing what Americans eat is a crucial part of addressing the problem.

RCR: The Mormon Option

807 - The Mormon Option

My good friend Betsy VanDenBerghe has an excellent post up at Real Clear Religion: The Mormon Option. In the post, she builds off of Damon Linker’s experiences as a non-Mormon professor at BYU. Despite having to abide some very strict rules, Linker found that:

strangely enough . . . within a system of strict behavioral requirements, academic freedom flourished. “I was perfectly free to teach whatever I wanted in the classroom. And I did,” including the radical writings of everyone from Machiavelli to Rousseau to Nietzche and his suggestion that “God is dead.” When a singular complaint arose about a scandalous scene in Aristophanes’ The Clouds, the department chair let Linker know “that I had his support. There was no reprimand” — nor demand for trigger warnings or syllabus alterations.

VanDenBerghe suggests that what is true for Linker is also true for devout members of strict religions:

Outsiders associate behavioral guidelines with intellectual and emotional ones, but dismissing believers as incapable of empathizing with those outside their belief system usually comes from those who have never experienced the congregations they disparage. If they went inside, they’d discover a big and surprisingly diverse world of believers moving along the straight and narrow path.

In addition, she points out that if you’re looking for diversity the politically progressive mainline protestant denominations are not the way to go, since they “tend to be whiter, older, and more educated.” By contrast, “It’s American Catholics, Pentecostals, and evangelicals who are less white, younger, and more economically and educationally diverse.” And Mormons, with our population brimming with folks who have served 18- or 24-month mission to strange lands (from Albania to Alabama) is a group that is particularly accustomed to the reality that there are lots and lots of different kinds of people and different ways of living out there.

Hey, maybe Bernie Sanders’ welcome at Liberty University wasn’t such a fluke after all, eh?

The Fragile Beliefs of Terrorists

Triumph of Faith over Idolatry by Jean-Baptiste Théodon (Wikimedia Commons)
Triumph of Faith over Idolatry by Jean-Baptiste Théodon (Wikimedia Commons)

Since 9/11, it has been conventional wisdom among many on the left, and especially among the New Atheists, that religious conviction is bad, bad news. The logic is pretty straightforward: it takes a very high degree of religious conviction to kill yourself in the name of God. You have to really, really believe. Meanwhile, folks who don’t believe are unlikely to do anything extreme. So we’d all be a lot safer and more comfortable if religious folks would just sort of calm down.

The conventional response from religious folks is that, well: yeah, sometimes great faith makes people do acts of great evil. But it also makes people do acts of great heroism, right? Mother Theresa, right? This is a qualified defense at best. It says, in effect, that there really is a link between religious faith and extreme actions. It doesn’t actually show that these great acts of evil an good balance out, and there really isn’t any good reason to suspect that they should. What’s the exchange rate between an extremist terrorist with a nuclear weapon and an extremist nun with a desire to help poor people in Calcutta?

But maybe the central premise needs to be reconsidered. Maybe it’s not great faith that leads terrorists into extremism. Thus, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek in an article for the New Statesman:

It effectively may appear that the split between the permissive First World and the fundamentalist reaction to it runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent Cause. Is this antagonism not the one between what Nietzsche called “passive” and “active” nihilism? We in the West are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the struggle up to their self-destruction. William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” seems perfectly to render our present predicament: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” This is an excellent description of the current split between anemic liberals and impassioned fundamentalists. “The best” are no longer able fully to engage, while “the worst” engage in racist, religious, sexist fanaticism.

However, do the terrorist fundamentalists really fit this description? What they obviously lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the US: the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by non-believers, why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating. In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated, by the sinful life of the non-believers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation.

This is an important new way at looking at the intersection between faith and social stability. (Hat tip to Miles Kimball, who cited the article in his own blog post.)

Prejudice and Favoritism Don’t Cancel Out

Michael Derrick Hudson
Michael Derrick Hudson

An interesting story has been making the rounds. A guy named Michael Derrick Hudson was having trouble getting his poetry published. So he decided to use a pseudonym. That, in and of itself, is of course perfectly benign. But the pseudonym he picked was Yi-Fen Chou. So, after 40 rejections under his own name, he got another 9 under his Chinese-sounding pseudonym before landing the poem in an anthology.

You can read all the rest of the details via New York Magazine: What a Poetry Kerfuffle Can Teach Us About Bias.

Here are some lessons worth taking away. First, let’s not pretend that using the Chinese-sounding name didn’t help Hudson. Obviously it did. The numbers bear this out (a little), but so does common sense and this is born out by the testimony of the guy who picked out the poem for the anthology (he admits reading it in a different way because he assumed the author was Chinese, and therefore being more open to it.)

So, does this prove that white males are really the ones being oppressed?

No, it doesn’t. It illustrates something that should be obvious but for some reason isn’t: bias is local. When you’re applying for a job it really doesn’t matter what the aggregate level of bias in the industry is. It matters what your specific (potential) boss thinks. And this trend can vary. So, do (for example) homosexuals face discrimination? In the NFL: probably. In Hollywood: probably not. Being of Chinese descent may very well hurt if you’re running for nationally elected office (I’m speculating, but it’s reasonable) or competing for CEO. But it actually helps out if you’re tying to get published.

This should make us all be a little bit more cautious about making wide, sweeping claim about privilege and prejudice.

And one more thing: I don’t think that prejudice and favoritism cancel out. Being given favorable treatment in one area of your life does not somehow make prejudice that you face in another area of your life go away. Just something to consider.

The Solar System to Scale

811 - Space Shuttle Atlantis Viewed from the ISS
The launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, as soon from the ISS, is also a wonderful glimpse into the scale of space.

You have probably seen this video already because everyone is sharing it, but I had to share it too. I have always wanted to do exactly this: go out to some giant field and set up a scale model of the Solar System and just wander around and try to drink in the sheer scale of it all. Little did I know that, starting with an earth the size of a marble, you’re going to need 7 miles of empty space to do the setup to scale, and that’s without including Plutos’ orbit. (It only goes out as far as Uranus.)

I’d really love to see this done as a permanent installation somewhere. I want to spend an entire day walking around, watching the planets move, imagining the delicate art of sending tiny craft across immense gulfs of emptiness to deliver rovers (or astronauts!) to alien worlds.

(If you’re receiving this blog post via email, you’ll have to visit the site to watch the YouTube clip. Sorry, they don’t embed in the emails for some reason.)