Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst you can drink!
I assume we’re all familiar with the concept of fake shortages. They are always paired with arbitrary price hikes. In a capitalist wonderland such as ours, there’s very little constraining the capitalist from charging whatever he, she, it, or they want.
“Whatever the market will bear.” That is, the highest price one can charge and still move product: that is the only price limit. That is the limit on the capitalist’s avarice. And if the poor people in the market can’t bear it, too bad for them. That’s why Martin Shkreli decided he could raise the price of an AIDS-related pneumonia drug about 650%. He figured insurance companies can’t deny their policy holders the drug. If you need a medicine, you need it. The sufferers who have bad insurance policies or otherwise can’t afford it, well, they’ll find the money or lose a lung. And what skin is it off Skhreli’s entitled behind if a few luckless losers die? He wanted that delicious money. Savory money, hot off the grill, dripping with loser blood.
Shkreli’s special expertise, besides driving stock prices down by pounding them with a barrage of negative rumors in order to collect on short sales, was buying the rights to sell certain drugs whose patents had lapsed, for which there was not yet a generic version being sold, and jack up the price astronomically. He had various methods to choke a competing drug’s distribution, quash generic alternatives, obtain regulations targeted to make his inflated option the only option.
Imagine if your job was to get up every morning and find a way to drive up health care costs for your own benefit, without a thought to whose lives would be destroyed. There’s nothing illegal about it. It’s a perfectly valid career choice under our system. Shkreli’s in jail now, but not for pharmaceutical extortion. See, he also enjoyed committing securities fraud. But don’t worry, he’s expected to be released this coming November, even though he was caught with a contraband cell phone with which he was still running his company from prison. You’re not supposed to do that, but we won’t increase your sentence, just take your phone away and make you promise
never to do it again. No punishment. Same as if you’re caught running your business from the Oval Office.
Again, Shkreli’s in prison for securities fraud, not for holding lifesaving medications hostage. The crime is what he did to wealthy investors or the SEC, not to regular sick people with inadequate means. It's a double standard we’ve seen before. That psychopathic woman famous for her fake blood testing device, affectedly-deep voice, and black turtleneck – some know her by her stage name, which is also her real name, Elizabeth Holmes. When she was convicted early this past January, the charges that stuck were all for wire fraud she’d committed by way of lying to her investors. She was found not guilty of defrauding the users of the fake device, who may have done anything from making minor lifestyle changes to undergoing expensive and drastic treatments based on her glorified pachinko machine’s baseless diagnoses.
These and countless other financial shenanigans cost us, the people, so much more than the taxation and regulation the USA seems terrified of, things that could actually deliver us guaranteed health care, not to mention housing, education, and food security. It’s the greatest trick the Devil ever played.
We the people have started noticing at least the treacherous tip of the iceberg of all this fraud, causing shipwreck after shipwreck of policy initiatives that might otherwise improve our lives. We’ve been watching these spectacles from our vantage point in the cheap seats. The deals are made above our objections and our heads, but the toxic fallout rains, blizzards, and buries us, much more readily than any of the wasted Wall Street gambling money ever trickles down, and we are rarely ever made whole.
Being forced to watch these nauseating dramedies has been, alongside public neglect and corporate opportunism during the Covid-19 struggles, yet another reason for what they’re calling The Great Resignation, where US workers, sick of being treated like carnival game marks by economic master con artists who constantly belittle our legitimate despair and precarity, have been quitting our jobs, hoping to find less-punishing ways to make a living than wage slavery.
We’ve now entered the capitalist retaliation phase, though, which we all suspected was imminent. Let’s call it “The Great Gouging.” Basically, what Martin Shkreli did with out-of- patent drugs, every large corporation is doing with the goods they’ve secured the rights to distribute – the worst offenders, of course, being the oil, gas, and electric companies. Except, unlike Shkreli, they don’t have to waste time manipulating regulations to gouge their customers. They only have to collude to raise prices, which they can do through any number of clandestine channels. They like to keep us in the dark, as if we can’t hear them juggling their accounts.
When an industry’s profits are higher than they’ve ever been, there’s no reason for the products they deign to provide to get more expensive. There’s no shortage. These are arbitrary price increases that pundits, the government, and the sellers themselves will all happily blame on Covid-19. “Well, if you’d just risked your lives going into work like we demanded, the prices wouldn’t be this high, Cratchet!” they all seem to say, if they even feel the need to explain their price-gouging to us plebes. And now they can use the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an excuse to gouge us even deeper. They’ve never even been required to explain why credit cards charge usurious interest rates, and they’ve always been ready to pile fees on and assess fines against us.
An old socialist friend in New Zealand I talk to over Zoom was commiserating with me about what an economic struggle it is to be an artist in the USA. And we got to talking about how, at one time, my theater company could actually make enough to pay to live in the city of Chicago, rent a space, and put on plays.
But that was back when the city of Chicago wanted college-educated artists – one Mormon developer wanted to rent to “artists and sucaltors,” meaning sculptors, I guess – to put a predominately white foot in the door, beginning the process of gentrification. Now – “now more than ever” as they say – the theater arts are expected to be a money-losing enterprise. Unlike other forms of lying.
And my Kiwi friend used the phrase, “feast or famine.” Except he didn’t say “famine.” He accidentally switched the m and the n. So he said, “it’s feast or fanime, Jiffrey.” And that’s
where we are right now. As the Feast or Phantom cycle of capitalist price manipulation turns on its axis, we’ve entered the Phantom phase.
Past guest of This is Hell!, the late economist Amarty Sen, won the Nobel Prize in economics for his research on the causes of famine. His work demonstrated that famines have little to do with food abundance. They’re all about inadequate food distribution. They happen even in years of record food production. Even farmers who grow the crops can be forced by rigged markets to sell at a low price, then subsequently find themselves unable to afford to buy food.
Famines are indeed Phantoms, but Phantoms that really do starve and kill. They are Phantoms created by the obeisance to the will of the profit-makers. Deadly Phantoms.
There’s an implication in the phrase, Feast or Phantom, though, that even apparent abundance might be manipulation. Back when propaganda against Cuba led to efforts to “Americanize” Puerto Rico, which in turn required shrinking the Puerto Rican population, which in turn required convincing many Puerto Ricans to move to New York, where companies happened to need cheap labor, suddenly reasonable airfares became available. Pan Am had long enjoyed a monopoly, but suddenly Eastern Airlines was allowed to offer direct flights to New York City.
People worry about communism creating centrally planned economic activity, yet here’s one among many instances of the capitalist impulse to suddenly over-supply, in this case to contrive an entire population of migrant workers, pressured through economic machinations to leave their homes on the basis of a vague promise. It’s not hard to think of other examples where somehow a rare commodity suddenly becomes cheap and available, not by accident but by design. New York didn’t suddenly get an influx of Puerto Rican newcomers because Eastern Airlines offered cheap flights. Eastern Airlines offered cheap flights in order to fulfill the wishes of capitalists that cheap labor come to New York, and that Puerto Rico glorify capitalism against the example of Cuba. Just like cheap cocaine in the form of crack magically appeared on the streets of LA, or cheap opioids in Appalachia, it was all part of a planned economy.
So, Feast or Phantom might be more accurately phrased, “Phantom or Phantom.” What choice! Just the everyday magical stagecraft of our economic overlords.
Get your rotten produce ready to throw during the curtain call. Maybe you can get it from Imperfect Foods! Wonder what that company’s about.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!