A Funny Kind Of Populist
The rhetoric is merely going to ramp up. Fresh off an astonishing day of victories in three states, Rick Santorum, who as a Virginia resident represented Pennsylvania in the United States Senate, will continue to be described favorably by the mainstream media. The characterization by Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times was typical when today he remarked "Mr. Santorum, whose appeal has been built on a populist message and a loyal following among conservative voters..."
Rick Santorum for months has been described as a "populist," the candidate promoting a "populist message," or embodying "populism." Beyond the easy labels, however, lies an ugly reality. Dictionary.com defines populism as "A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite." ABC News' blog The Note tells of an appearance in Colorado in which
GOP contender Rick Santorum had a heated exchange with a mother and her sick young son Wednesday, arguing that drug companies were entitled to charge whatever the market demanded for life-saving therapies. Santorum, himself the father of a child with a rare genetic disorder, compared buying drugs to buying an iPad, and said demand would determine the cost of medical therapies.
“People have no problem paying $900 for an iPad,” Santorum said, “but paying $900 for a drug they have a problem with — it keeps you alive. Why? Because you’ve been conditioned to think health care is something you can get without having to pay for it.”
The mother said the boy was on the drug Abilify, used to treat schizophrenia, and that, on paper, its costs would exceed $1 million each year. Santorum said drugs take years to develop and cost millions of dollars to produce, and manufacturers need to turn a profit or they would stop developing new drugs.
“You have that drug, and maybe you’re alive today because people have a profit motive to make that drug,” Santorum said. “There are many people sick today who, 10 years from now, are going to be alive because of some drug invented in the next 10 years. If we say: ‘You drug companies are greedy and bad, you can’t make a return on your money,’ then we will freeze innovation.”
Santorum told a large Tea Party crowd here that he sympathized with the boy’s case, but he also believed in the marketplace. “He’s alive today because drug companies provide care,” Santorum said. “And if they didn’t think they could make money providing that drug, that drug wouldn’t be here. I sympathize with these compassionate cases. … I want your son to stay alive on much-needed drugs. Fact is, we need companies to have incentives to make drugs. If they don’t have incentives, they won’t make those drugs. We either believe in markets or we don’t.”
Perhaps the journalists who label Santorum a populist don't believe that children in need of lifesaving care qualify as people, or that drug companies are among the privileged elite. But as Marcia Angell explained in The New York Review of Books in 2004
Drug companies reveal very little about the most crucial aspects of their business. We know next to nothing about how much they spend to bring each drug to market or what they spend it on. (We know that it is not $802 million, as some industry apologists have recently claimed.) Nor do we know what their gigantic “marketing and administration” budgets cover. We don’t even know the prices they charge their various customers. Perhaps most important, we do not know the results of the clinical trials they sponsor—only those they choose to make public, which tend to be the most favorable findings. (The FDA is not allowed to reveal the results it has.) The industry claims all of this is “proprietary” information. Yet, unlike other businesses, drug companies are dependent on the public for a host of special favors—including the rights to NIH-funded research, long periods of market monopoly, and multiple tax breaks that almost guarantee a profit. Because of these special favors and the importance of its products to public health, as well as the fact that the government is a major purchaser of its products, the pharmaceutical industry should be regarded much as a public utility.
That seems to be a pretty good description of a "privileged elite," and one Rick Santorum heartily defends. And if the ex-Senator believes that we must place our undying faith in the "market," no matter its excesses, he might want to be reminded of what one apparent liberal a couple of thousand years ago thought of market excesses:
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. It is written "My house shall be called a house of prayer but you make it a den of robbers."
But to Rick Santorum, who believes "we either believe in markets or we don't," Jesus Christ might not be the only god worthy of worship.