Is it possible to achieve the promise by world leaders to eradicate poverty and hunger without changes to our economic system?
The United Nations General Assembly has formally adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which among other things promise to end poverty and hunger on the planet by 2030.
As world leaders, pious do-gooders and wheeler dealers congregate in New York at this time of the year, Pope Francis has stolen the limelight. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping is not getting the same attention. The first Latin American pope visited Cuba before showing up in the US and has ruffled many feathers. In a stirring speech at the United Nations, he championed the environment, assailed inequality and declared that “lodging, labor and land” are the “absolute minimum” for every human being.
As Bob Dylan once sang in 1964, “The Times They Are A Changin’” and even the institution that once enthusiastically engaged in the Inquisition is now infected by left-leaning tree-hugging sentiments. It was not always so. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan set out to roll back the excesses of the 1960s. They believed in Darwinian dynamism and the zeitgeist of their era was captured by Gordon Gekko, a character in the 1987 film titled Wall Street. In a dramatic speech a la Hollywood, Gekko decried deficits, blasted bureaucracy, advocated shareholder rights, extolled the evolutionary spirit and declared that “greed is good.”
Martin Shkreli, a New York hedge fund boss-turned-pharmaceutical entrepreneur, is the modern-day Gordon Gekko. Turing Pharmaceuticals, Shkreli’s company, bought rights to a 62-year-old drug named Daraprim. This drug treats toxoplasmosis, a parasitic affliction that affects people with compromised immune systems such as those suffering from cancer and HIV/AIDS. It costs $1 to manufacture a pill of Daraprim. It was being sold for $13.50, but Shkreli raised the price by nearly 5,500% to $750. In an interview with the BBC, he claimed that he was only selling an Aston Martin for the price of a Toyota instead of the earlier price of a bicycle. The profits, he argued, would be ploughed back into research to develop newer and better drugs.
Shkreli’s actions and comments led to outrage. A storm raged on Twitter. Even pharmaceutical groups that, in the words of The Washington Post, have a reputation for circling their wagons and protecting their own have given Shkreli the boot. The truth is that Shkreli, the son of immigrants, is only emulating other pharmaceutical companies. In 2014, the US Congress summoned Gilead Sciences to explain the $1,000-a-day or $84,000-a-course price tag for Sovaldi, its hepatitis C medicine. There are other similar cases.
At the heart of this issue is a simple question: Is greed good?
Proponents of this philosophy believe that human beings are self-interested if not selfish. They function best when they are left to pursue their interests. Prices act as signals for society to allocate resources efficiently. Furthermore, decisions are made instantaneously through demand and supply, obviating the need for a cumbersome, tardy and oppressive bureaucracy.
Opponents of this philosophy contend that markets are unjust. Some have too much power because they own too many of the world’s resources and make most major decisions. More importantly, markets fail to consider long term issues such as environmental pollution that is threatening the health of billions in emerging economies, causing extinction of other species and leading to climate change on a scale that might imperil human survival itself.
Markets have been on a roll since the 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 made economists the new high priests of society and markets were seen as salvation. Yet they have not fulfilled their promise even in the US, the Holy Land of the modern economic system.
Health care is a classic example of the limits of markets. Uncle Sam spends 17.1% of its $17.5 trillion GDP on health care. Yet Americans do not live as long as Germans, Swedes, Japanese, Australians and the Canadians. Despite Barack Obama’s health reforms, far too many Americans still do not have any access to health care.
The United Kingdom is a society that has long embraced markets and provided the intellectual underpinning for the current economic system, starting from Adam Smith. It is home to the bustling City of London, the mecca of finance. Yet the UK flinches at greed in health care. In the aftermath of World War II, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party government implemented the National Health Service (NHS) that even Margaret Thatcher did not dare to destroy. Health care is now considered a right in Britain and in Europe. Surprisingly, these supposedly inefficient Europeans spend much less on health care than the purportedly efficient Americans.
Intellectually, Shkreli is just articulating what many in Wall Street and the Republican Party hold as an article of faith. If Shkreli cannot make profits, he will have no incentive to produce drugs or make new ones. It is not from the benevolence of doctors, scientists or executives that we expect lifesaving drugs or treatment “but from their regard to their own interest.” Even Hillary Clinton who has spoken out against price-gouging accepts this premise.
Yet it might be time to try something different. This has been a week when the CEO of Volkswagen has resigned because of the “diesel dupe” in which his company’s cars were able to change performance when being tested. To boost profits, the German giant was selling cars emitting nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above the legal limit in the US. Pope Francis is right in saying “that a true “right of the environment” does exist” and similarly there is a true right to health care. The third Global Goal promises “healthy lives” and “well-being for all at all ages.” This cannot be achieved through the self-interest of people like Shkreli.
Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that human beings have a natural tendency to care about the well-being of others. Hence, he argued for education for all that would be funded by the public purse. This implied that the haves would fund the schooling of have-nots, at least in part. This principle has been accepted and extended to health care in most rich countries. If the US accepts this principle and sets out to reform its avaricious, opaque and expensive health care system, the world will be a healthier place.
*[You can receive “The World This Week” directly in your inbox by subscribing to our mailing list. Simply visit Fair Observer and enter your email address in the space provided. Meanwhile, please find below five of our finest articles for the week.]
A Picture Can Save a Thousand Lives
The graphic nature of published images showing a dead Syrian child is a “game changer,” says Chaker Khazaal.
As viewed by most of the world, a Turkish police officer carries the lifeless body of a Syrian child, washed ashore on one of Turkey’s prime tourist resorts. The toddler, later identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, was found face down in the sand. Observers on the beach captured images of this heartbreaking moment, and the photographs and videos dominated social media and international news outlets.
Aylan was one of a dozen Syrian refugees who drowned in a failed attempt to cross the Mediterranean to reach the Greek island of Kos. The boy’s mother and 5-year-old brother were found further along the beach—both had drowned.
Circulation of these images multiplied at an alarming rate, sparking online controversy over the ethics of showcasing photographs of a deceased child.
Several news outlets eventually opted to publish the pictures. In Britain, newspapers across the political spectrum united in a decision to feature them… Read more
Soviet Strategy is Back in the Kremlin
Russian military involvement in Syria risks a possible escalation in the four-year old civil conflict.
Since the NATO alliance used United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 to launch an offensive against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011 without coordination with Moscow, Russia’s lost political and economic interests in Libya have contributed to the Putin administration’s more assertive policies in Ukraine and Syria.
Recent press reports suggest that the Russian military build-up in Syria includes tens of thousands of regular and irregular troops, 240 tanks and attack aircraft sorties over Idlib province. Since the conflicts in Libya, Ukraine and Syria began—including the Russian annexation of Crimea—US-Russian relations have hit a post-Cold War low.
In this new frosty era, where uncertainty, conflict and a refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe have led to new international strategic openings for the Kremlin, Soviet strategy is back. Its features include Vladimir Putin’s world outlook, which is far less pro-Western than that of Dmitry Medvedev or Boris Yeltsin before him—they searched for… Read more
India’s Long Quest for Modernity
In this special edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Atul Singh, the founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of the organization.
India is well-known for its inefficient legal system with archaic laws that hobble its economy. While the country is trying to forge ahead by increasing its investment in infrastructure and curbing money laundering, far too many of its colonial-era laws do not make any sense.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been started repealing out-of-date laws, he will need up the ante to keep his promise to axe 1,700 outmoded laws. Reforming a glacial-paced judicial system, along with improving enforcement of existing laws will improve rule of law, which is now a faint notion instead of daily reality. India needs new legislation that is drafted clearly and rigorously.
Although foreign investment has been flowing into India recently, more reforms will increase this inflow enormously at a time when much of the world is in economic turmoil. The current government has tried to push through new legislation to attract… Read more
Hajj 2015: The Precarious Balance Between Pilgrimage and Consumerism
The fine line between consumerism and religious credibility has been eroding at pilgrimage sites around the world.
Preparations for this year’s Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken by devout Muslims at least once in their life, have been marred by the collapse of a crane at the Grand Mosque, which killed more than 100 people. The tragedy came just over a week before the pilgrimage was set to get underway and has raised serious questions about the repercussions of rapid construction growth in Saudi Arabia.
The Hajj is one of the world’s largest faith gatherings, attracting increasing numbers of pilgrims in recent decades—from around 30,000 in the 1930s to more than 3 million in 2012. This is a striking case of an ancient religious practice transformed by modernity. In earlier times, the arduous journey to Mecca faced its dangers—many pilgrims perished crossing the deserts of Arabia or drowned in sea crossings—and the time it took restricted numbers considerably.
From the 19th century onward, better transport and health facilities… Read more
Corbyn Faces a Grand Task to Transform Labour
What lies ahead for Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labour Party?
When Jeremy Corbyn squeaked onto the ballot for the British Labour Party’s leadership race, he was a 100-1 outsider. Nobody expected him to win—least of all a demoralized, fragmented and weak left. While his victory is a huge boost, the odds in the war ahead remain stacked against both him and us.
This is not defeatism, nor must it be confused with or degraded into a rejectionist cynicism that values hermetically sealed ideological “purity” over risking one’s predictions of failure by engaging with what is still an imperfect and limited reformist phenomenon. It is, however, a necessary starting point for developing any effective strategy. That strategy, clumsy and error-ridden as it will inevitably be, must be based on expectations of lengthy and patient engagement, rather than on any illusions of a power that Corbyn’s win does little to increase.
More specifically, if Corbyn’s support base is to develop resilience, it must create its own autonomous capacity to organize… Read more
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard