On Consequences: Martin Shkreli and the Reshaping of Accountability

Back in early March, the internet rejoiced. An avalanche of schadenfreude thundered off of screens everywhere, for lo, Martin Shkreli was going to jail.

The country’s most punchable pharmaceutical executive was sentenced to seven years in prison, and as despicable as Shkreli may be, that gleeful reaction may not have quite fit the crime. It makes sense, though, when we realize: this wasn’t just about him. When the judge’s gavel dropped, Shkreli became an embodiment of our need for consequences for maleficence. The reason we cared so much about that little Rumplestiltskin motherfucker wasn’t about Shkreli, but about everyone else.

Over the last couple of years, the country has found itself in a sort of reorganization of the concept of “consequences.” Infractions that once seemed obvious, with easy and predictable outcomes, have turned into out-of-reach jokes, things to angrily flail at while the perpetrators skate by; other bad actors, meanwhile, are suddenly facing downfalls that would have been unthinkable in a previous era. We find ourselves powerless and all-powerful all at once, and collectively confused about what to do about it and where we’ll end up when the dust settles. Shkreli was a release valve.

In the political realm, the rational among us have watched, eyes glazing over with horror, as all the precious checks and balances we learned about as kids as if they were carved into stone tablets by some democracy-loving deity were exposed for the honor system they are. They operate, it turns out, with at least a presumption of good faith; when that breaks down there is nothing.

Jared Kushner can revise his financial disclosure forms dozens of times, his only punishment being a slight waiting period before receiving permanent security clearance and access to all the secrets our government has to offer. Scott Pruitt can lie, blatantly, to Congress during his confirmation hearings, and still coast through in order to spend his next year and a half using taxpayer money on a crocodile-filled moat surrounding his office and a luxury stealth dirigible armed with artillery cannons (can’t be too careful, there have been threats). Greg Gianforte can literally bodyslam a reporter, unprovoked, and then lie to police about it, and still happily win an election and serve his term in Congress.

This isn’t to suggest that politicians were at some point held accountable for all bad actions (one word: Chappaquiddick), only that our current situation upends what we previously understood to be the natural order of things. For all the collective bleating about “our precious norms!” we haven’t really worked through what to do when they’ve been violated. This stems from a question of mechanisms more than anything else. We want X to mean Y — lie to Congress, you don’t get to run a federal agency. But we all skip over the HOW of the equation — how, exactly, does X result in Y? How would you like Ivanka Trump to truly be held accountable for semi-blatant corruption while working as a government employee? We’ve spent so long focused on outcome that we never really learned to assess process. As a result, we sit helpless while the Ryans and McConnells of the world — the people with the power to actually enforce a negative outcome — blow up the system.

Meanwhile, in a few arenas outside of politics, something like the opposite is happening, where the X in question is suddenly leading to a Y we were unfamiliar with only a few years ago. Thanks to #MeToo, men that for decades — centuries, millennia — suffered no consequences at all for their bad behavior are suddenly faced with rapid downfalls. And outside of that ongoing reckoning, the ease with which we can record bad actors in daily life leads to potentially serious social consequences that also would not have previously existed — watch the racist lawyer sprint down a New York street away from the tabloid reporters, and just try to suppress a satisfied giggle. Roseanne Barr went from racist tweet to cancelled show in the span of 30 seconds, give or take.

I don’t think these conflicting trends are unconnected. We have rounded some sort of corner in recent years — maybe, just spitballing here, after we failed to jail any of the dickwrinkles who tanked the world’s economy in 2008 — and now it seems there is a widely shared thirst to hold people accountable for actions that used to slip through, or to claw back what we feel has been lost in politics. The social arena, though, is one where we, the thirsty, have some modicum of control. The exceptionally brave people who triggered the #MeToo avalanche, the heightened awareness that we should all record the bad person doing the bad thing — we can help set those consequences in motion.

Perhaps predictably, this isn’t seen by all as a perfect outcome. Each time a new #ShittyMan is outed, the conversations about due process and online mobs resurface; and it isn’t, by a long shot, always just a “conversation,” instead featuring a secondary level of harassment and vitriol toward the victims or others around them that acts to spread the consequences out, as if the world isn’t quite ready to point the laser beam solely at the deserving target.

And before we go patting society on the back for the change in fortunes, consider the fact that many of these men, from Louie CK to Matt Lauer, are reportedly “plotting” their comebacks. What does that say about the consequences they suffered, the loss of jobs or of social standing or of money? Were they meaningless? What will the next person suffer? This feels like a reflection of the sheer newness of this reorganization — we don’t yet know what to do with the fallen, and in some ways we lack a sort of hierarchy of malfeasance. Harvey Weinstein has been indicted for rape — no one is saying Aziz Ansari deserves that. What does he deserve? The conversation is happening at the same time as, undoubtedly and unfortunately, the next set of infractions. How do we enforce the laws as the laws are being written?

In politics, there is less hand-wringing because we have far less power. What exactly can you, or I, or any of us, do about Jared Kushner’s financial disclosure forms? Call your Congressman? An incredible amount of commentary surrounding these political and politics-adjacent violations is relegated to simply describing the act in question: “The President of the United States is getting his foreign policy from Fox and Friends.” “This is a US Ambassador ranting about the ‘liberal media.’” What else do we have? It’s almost a form of wish-casting: by stating the thing aloud, we want there to be some sort of remedy for it, but we don’t have any actual solution in hand. The push in the opposite direction from Ryan and McConnell and so on, to let all these powerful people do literally whatever the hell they want without reprisal, could represent a sort of last gasp. The mob is coming, build the wall.

When Shkreli was sentenced, it might have looked like a crack in that wall — an avatar of the last bastions of consequence-free existence staring down the firing squad. It is a small crack, though, its import yet unknown: Shkreli didn’t even go down for the things we hated him for. The price gouging of life-saving drugs, the absurd attacks on Hillary Clinton and on female journalists, the perpetually smug shit-eating grin — no, he went down for unrelated financial crimes, a modern-day Al Capone.

That’s a far more banal consequence than I’d guess most are actually looking for: sure, it’s nice to see a multimillionaire actually pay for his malfeasance, but it’s not necessarily what we want. It may be X leading to Y, but it is not the correct X, the desired X. It wasn’t even a crime against the less powerful that brought him down: he went away for defrauding investors in his hedge funds, which aren’t exactly the playground of the downtrodden.

And, it must be said, the progress we are maybe, possibly, sort of making can be remarkably lopsided. Al Franken resigned from the Senate under pressure from his own party; Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, accused of far more than Franken was, stuck around for months before resigning abruptly to avoid an ethics ruling against him (which, yes, would have been a consequence), then refused to pay back the $84,000 in taxpayer money he had used to settle a harassment claim, and then promptly took a job as a lobbyist. One of these things is not like the other.

Most on the left would probably rather stick to the moral high ground on these sorts of things, and hope that the right catches up some day. But for now, the hints of progress — the downfalls of Weinstein and Cosby, Roy Moore’s loss and yes, Shkreli’s imprisonment — are stubbornly accompanied by failures. That cartoon robber baron Don Blankenship, fresh off of a laughably short stint in prison for causing the deaths of 29 coal miners, can still pull in twenty percent of the primary vote and then announce a third-party bid just for giggles is as good a symbol as any: the axe came for this particular goblin, but it didn’t cut all that deep. Though Black Lives Matter and associated movements have made a major dent in how police brutality is perceived and discussed, the vast bulk of cases still see those cops get away with pretty much anything, including murder. And still we’re stuck with Jared and Ivanka, and Pruitt and Zinke and Carson and all the merry members of the richest and most corrupt Cabinet in history, all still out there happily grifting away.

And of course, all of these feel like previews to a finale that may never arrive. The President himself sits at the cosmic center of these competing trends, with his own host of #MeToo accusers to go right alongside his endless list of norm-shattering and Constitution-violating acts. The things he does daily, from the tweets he farts out from the ninth tee at his own course to sudden reversals on economic policies that almost have to be related to his own business interests feel more out of reach to us common folk than ever — there isn’t even a Congressperson to call — but the same people who gloried at the sight of Shkreli’s tears are all eyeing Trump’s personal guillotine, the Mueller investigation, with semi-baited breath.

From our current perch, it seems hard to imagine the changes we’re seeing find their way to the White House. But maybe that’s the logical conclusion to all this — if Mueller’s findings lead to Trump’s downfall, it would feel in some ways like a return to normalcy: blatant criminality means you can’t stick around all that long in polite society. Or, if it’s the Cohen hush money or even a more thorough reckoning with the women he harassed or assaulted that somehow hastens an end, we would clearly have arrived at a new normal when it comes to holding bad men accountable.

Or maybe neither one happens, and the entire Trump family — by name, by marriage, by political appointment — somehow survives all of this unscathed; whether this reorganization succeeds on some semblance of a linear path is by no means assured. And if it fails, either with the cementing of political malfeasance as an openly allowable act or with a reversion to the anything-goes era of harassment and assault and racism, it will be a painful pill to swallow. But at least it might be a cheap pill, because Shkreli isn’t around to jack up the price.

Science journalist. Find examples of my work at www.davelevitan.com.