Exceptional Asininity

(Photo illustration: Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

If you feel like you haven’t been exposed to enough stupidity today and would like to remedy that, the New York Times is here to deliver.

“Big pharma is fooling us,” reads the New York Times headline. “Heroic work went into the development of the coronavirus vaccines. But that doesn’t mean this industry deserves your affection.” The essay is by Stephen Buranyi, and it contains some absolute gems:

The turpitude of the pharmaceutical industry is so commonplace that it has become part of the cultural wallpaper. The screenwriters of the 1993 movie “The Fugitive” knew they could find a perfectly plausible villain to menace Harrison Ford in a faceless drug company out to cover up its malfeasance. (The film was a hit.) In John le Carré’s 2001 novel “The Constant Gardner,” [sic] a British diplomat uncovering a pharma giant testing dangerous drugs on poor Africans is similarly easily to swallow: Its plotline echoes a real case involving Pfizer in Nigeria. (The company has denied any wrongdoing and settled out of court the suit brought by the families of children who died during the testing.)

And yet, since the pharmaceutical industry stepped in with the vaccines, generations worth of ill will appears to be melting away. Last year, Gallup polling had the pharmaceutical industry ranked the most disliked in America, below both big oil and big government. By this September — even before the vaccines arrived — the industry’s approval rating was already improving.

So, the worry here is that people may be responding more strongly to a real-world vaccine against a real-world plague than they are to . . . fictitious events in movies and novels.

Okey-dokey.

Amitabh Chandra of the Harvard Business School raises one obvious multiple-choice question in response: “Let’s think about the argument in this article: A virus causes over $16 trillion to damage to the U.S., through lost lives and lost economic activity. The government pays $10 billion and we get two vaccines with 95 percent effectiveness in nine months. This was: 1.) a really good deal; 2.) a handout to big pharma.”

The issue of “affection” raised in the headline is interesting. One of the things that is genuinely great — and, ultimately, humane — about the free-market system is that it doesn’t matter very much how buyers and sellers feel about one another. If I need to fill up the car and the price is right, does it really matter if I feel any “affection” for 7-Eleven, or do I just give them the money and get my gasoline and go? (I do feel some affection for 7-Eleven, a former employer of mine, many years ago. I also kind of hate 7-Eleven, because they are a very bad neighbor.) Even the companies people tend to have affectionate feelings about — Apple, Porsche, Armani, whatever — mostly work for money, not love. That’s how it should be. Adam Smith had that one right.

We need not be under any illusions about the pharmaceutical business to believe, as many of us do, that Pfizer et al. are much more likely to be of some use in an epidemic than are op-ed moralists at the New York Times.

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