Capitalising on Human Suffering

Martin Shkreli, the CEO of a large pharmaceutical company that recently acquired the rights to a drug used by HIV and cancer patients, has brought the shocking callousness of unchecked capitalism into the spotlight.

Last month, Turing Pharmaceuticals bought the rights to manufacture and sell Daraprim in the United States. Daraprim is used to treat toxoplasmosis, a parasitic and life-threatening disease that affects people with compromised immune systems.

Despite being classified as an essential medicine which should be affordable to the general population by the World Health Organisation, Turning Pharmaceuticals has raised the price of Daraprim extortionately, from $13 per 75mg pill to a massive $750 per pill. Each 75mg pill costs only $1 to produce. It is a single source pharmaceutical product, which means Turing Pharmaceuticals is the only company in America that has the legal right to produce and sell this potentially life-saving drug. Patients can’t take their business elsewhere.

Let’s really put that into perspective. For each Daraprim pill sold, Turing Pharmaceuticals will make a $749 profit. Around 2,000 Americans use the drug every year, with the average treatment course lasting around three weeks, at a dosage of 75mg per day. That means Turing Pharmaceuticals stand to make a profit of $27,258,000 from Daraprim sales every year, while the average American earns just $27,000 a year, barely enough to cover the cost of a three-week course of treatment.

Though most Americans who require treatment for Toxoplasmosis will be covered by their health insurance, some won’t, and insurance companies (too motivated by profit), will be forced to raise insurance premiums and/or make their policies stricter so as to avoid paying out huge sums to people in genuine need.

While most people are shocked and disgusted by Martin Shkreli’s brutal, cold, and calculated effort to make obscene profits off the backs of other people’s misfortune, the business of capitalising from human suffering extends far beyond this story.

 Weapons

Another example of bi business profiteering from human suffering has been brought to public attention recently through a campaign by Amnesty International. Until their recent advertising campaign, few people were aware that every two years a huge defence and security equipment exhibition called the Defence Security and Equipment International is held in London Docklands. Essentially, this is a trade show where arms dealers can display the latest technology in weaponry to military representatives, some from countries renowned for human rights abuses such as Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International, who have attended the fair a number of times, have reported that illegal torture equipment and weapons such as cluster bombs, leg irons, and electric shock batons have been advertised at the event. The trade show, which hosted 1,500 exhibitions in 2013, is owned by Clarion Events, a company that organises numerous such trade shows, and reportedly turns over £200 million every year. While arms companies profit from torture and (often illegal) wars, Clarion Events profits from introducing the arms dealers to totalitarian regimes at fairs like DSEI.

War

Profiteering from war might start with arms dealers, but that is by no means where it ends.One hundred and thirty-eight billion dollars of US taxpayers’ money was spent on securing contracts with private companies during the 2003 Iraq war, for services such as security, feeding troops, and replacing infrastructure that had been destroyed during the US-led coalition invasion.

Private mercenaries played a huge role in the war in Iraq, with companies such as the infamous Blackwater reaping large monetary rewards for providing armed “security personnel”. In August 2008 alone, there were 7,121 armed “private security contractors” deployed in Iraq.

The American company Halliburton was the biggest contract winner, securing $39.5 billion from the US government in exchange for their services during the invasion and subsequent occupation. This included a $7 billion deal for rebuilding Iraq’s oil infrastructure, a contract that would have given Iraq’s economy a huge boost had it been awarded to an Iraqi company or the state, as opposed to a multi-billion dollar US corporation.

What is perhaps most disturbing about these contracts, is that they were what is known as “cost-plus”. When a company is awarded a cost-plus contract, as well as having all their expenses covered, they are guaranteed to be paid a certain amount on top, in order to ensure that they make a substantial profit. Such contracts provide little incentive for these private companies to minimise costs. In fact, the opposite is true; they provide an incentive for contractors to spend more than necessary, as every extra dollar spent means extra profit.

It seems war is a profitable business.  Foreign corporations literally made billions of dollars from the deaths of 224,000 people, 165,000 of those being Iraqi civilians.

Incarceration

War is not the only atrocity private companies are profiting from. Private prisons are proving to be another lucrative business.

The US has 5% of the world’s population, but more than 20% of the world’s prisoners. It has more prisoners than China, Russia, and Iran. Despite decreasing crime rates, the prison population has grown by 721% since the 1980’s, with over 500 per 100,000 people being incarcerated in 2010The adoption of draconian “tough-on-crime” laws by the US government in the 1980s, such as mandatory minimum sentencing for minor drug-related offences, has been a large contributing factor to the dramatic increase in incarceration rates, with the majority of inmates serving long sentences for non-violent offences.

The private prison industry has been reaping huge rewards from the mass incarceration of US citizens that began in the 1980s, when the complete management of entire prisons began to be handed over to private corporations. Corrections Corporations of America, the biggest private corrections company in the US, was the first private company to be awarded a contract that covered the complete operation of an American jail in 1984. Now CCA manages more than 65 prisons across 19 states, and in 2015, the company’s revenue was more than $1.7 billion.

The privatisation of prisons isn’t limited to the United States. In 1992, under John Major’s Conservative government, Wolds Prison was opened as the first privately managed prison in the UK. Under the government’s Private Finance Initiative, 25-year contracts were awarded to private companies for the construction and management of new prisons. Of 150 prisons in the UK, 14 are managed by three private companies, G4S, Sodexo, and Serco, and it is estimated that these companies make a 7% return on their investment. Privatisation doesn’t seem to lead to efficiency either; in 2013, the Ministry of Justice awarded only one private prison their highest performance rating, while two were awarded the lowest rating and another two the second lowest rating.

These private prison corporations are profiting from people’s suffering. Many people in prison are addicts serving sentences for drug-related crimes, and a large number of those incarcerated in the US have mental health problems and a history of being abused. In 2012, there were an estimated 356,268 people with severe mental health problems locked up in US jails.

Often such problems are only exasperated by a punitive justice system that makes criminals out of vulnerable people. Following release and supposed rehabilitation, ex-convicts struggle to find employment because of their criminal records. In the US, ex –convicts lose their right to vote and are not entitled to state benefits, housing, food stamps, or student loans. This is a recipe for re-offending. Imprisonment not only removes vulnerable people from society, it makes their reintegration following incarceration very challenging.

The rise in the business of profiting from human suffering is a reprehensible result of a society moving away from state ownership to an increasingly privatised money making machine that is the globalised economy. The hands of private businesses are reaching into the darkest corners of our world, grabbing at every possible opportunity to make a profit. But making money from disease, war, and crime is not only immoral; basic economics shows that a growing market is a profitable one. For every sick person, every war, and every crime, there is money to be made, so there is a strong motive for businesses with interests in these “industries” to want the rates of these horrors to proliferate. We will never eradicate disease, achieve world peace, or eliminate crime while corporations are making billions from humanity’s biggest crises.

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