Friday, December 18, 2015

Everything You Know About Martin Shkreli Is Wrong—or Is It?

[ed. I told myself I wasn't going to post a single word about Mr. Shkreli. But like the man himself, I'm reneging on that promise (because this is such a good read, and because the wall-to-wall news he generates every day is clogging up my internet connection). In any case, he's proving to be a fun diversion from what's really scary and just plain deceitful.]

I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but I liken myself to the robber barons.” So says Martin Shkreli, the 32-year-old hedge-fund manager turned pharmaceutical-company C.E.O., who achieved instantaneous notoriety last fall when he acquired the U.S. rights to a lifesaving drug and promptly boosted its price over 5,000 percent, from $13.50 a tablet to $750. The tsunami of rage (the BBC asked if Shkreli was “the most hated man in America”) only got worse when Shkreli said he would lower the price—and then didn’t. An anonymous user on the Web site Reddit summed up the sentiment bluntly: “Just fucking die will you?”

“The attempt to public shame is interesting,” says Shkreli. “Because everything we’ve done is legal. [Standard Oil tycoon John D.] Rockefeller made no attempt to apologize as long as what he was doing was legal.” In fact, Shkreli says, he wishes he had raised the price higher. “My investors expect me to maximize profits,” he said in an interview in early December at theForbes Healthcare Summit, after which Forbes contributor Dan Diamond summed up Shkreli as “fascinating, horrifying, and utterly compelling.” (...)

Although Shkreli is a minor part of a much bigger issue, every morality play needs a villain, and, oh, what a perfect villain he is. He is an avid user of social media, where he relishes portraying himself as a wealthy young hedge-fund guy. He tweets obnoxious snapshots of labels of $1,000-plus bottles of wine like 1982 Lafite-Rothschild, along with selfies inside a helicopter buzzing over Manhattan or posed next to a life-size chess set by a pool in the Hamptons. In one tweet, he linked to a video of Eminem’s “The Way I Am,” which goes, “I’m not Mr. Friendly, I can be a prick….I don’t mean to be mean but all I can be is just me.”

Actually, he’s such a perfect villain when viewed from afar that it’s almost impossible not to like him more up close. He swerves seamlessly among obnoxious bravado, old-world politeness, purposeful displays of powerful intelligence, and even flashes of sweetness. He is slight and pale, almost vampirish, with dark hair, which he has a habit of twirling. He’s oddly twitchy (you can see this in the many lengthy livestreams he does of himself analyzing stocks) and fast-talking, especially when it comes to the scientific details of how drugs work. (“Most pharmaceutical C.E.O.’s don’t even know where the spleen is located,” he says.) He defends his actions as both irrelevant in the larger scheme of things (“Dar­a­prim is 0.01 percent of healthcare costs in the U.S.”) and in keeping with the American tradition. He pulls up a chart of the price of admission to Disney World, which has skyrocketed from $3.50 in 1971 to $105 today. “Now, that’s price gouging,” he says, laughing.

In one breath, he calls himself a capitalist and in the next an altruist—the latter because, he claims, his real goal is to invent new drugs for rare diseases. Turing recently announced discounts of Dara­prim for hospitals, and Shkreli says that for people without insurance it will cost only $1 a pill. For everyone else, insurance, which he argues is paid for by corporate America’s profits, will cover the cost. “I’m like Robin Hood,” he continues. “I’m taking Walmart’s money and doing research for diseases no one cares about.”

Of his social-media presence, he says, “Anyone who knows me knows I am not that guy.” When I ask why he does it—and the speculation among those who know him ranges from an overbearing need for attention to an Asperger’s-like inability to see things the way other people do—he says, “I’m not sure I have all the answers.” The identity he creates, he says, is “an extremely weird form of sarcasm.” Neither the Hamptons house nor the helicopter belongs to him, and the text accompanying the helicopter shot reads, “Let’s take the boat out on the bay and forget your job for just one day.” Do a quick Internet search and you’ll find that these lyrics belong to a dark song by the punk band Blink-182: “Why do I want what I can’t get / I wish it didn’t have to be so bad.” Of the outraged response to many of his tweets, he says, “It’s fun to see people get so animated.” He adds, “Authenticity is really important to me.”

But it’s hard to know which manifestation of Martin is authentic. What muddles the picture even more is the arena in which he operates: small biotech companies, some of which thrive thanks to loopholes, legal frauds, pipe dreams, and stock promoters—and a smattering of real science, just enough to ignite fantasies of fame and fortune. Those who know how to game the system can make huge profits without creating anything of value. “Welcome to the underworld,” says one investor.

Shkreli is unquestionably brilliant, and he has an almost cult-like group of true believers, both online (“You’re a god,” wrote one Twitter follower) and in the real world, where he has engendered tremendous loyalty among some investors and employees. But in his wake he has left a tangled trail of blowups, lawsuits, disillusionment, and outright hatred. He’s facing criminal prosecution over his actions at one of his previous companies, Retrophin. “Sociopath” is a not uncommon description of him. “Malicious” is the word another person uses. Shkreli says that the harsh words don’t bother him and adds, “I am perfectly well, short of some mild anxiety, a deviated septum, and a fractured wrist.” Everyone agrees on this word: complicated.

by Bethany McLean, Vanity Fair |  Read more:
Image: Nigel Parry