Martin Shkreli could not be more of this moment. He livestreams freewheeling monologues on YouTube to anyone who will watch. He’s been suspended from Twitter. His hiking, overnight, of the price of a lifesaving drug in 2015 from $13.50 to $750 so perfectly embodied Americans’ current complaints about health care that he was denounced by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Last Friday, Shkreli was found guilty on three counts of fraud (and acquitted on five) in a federal court in New York. The trial was not related to that infamous price hike, but rather to hedge funds he ran before his price gouging made news. One wrinkle is that even though the jury determined that Shkreli deceived his hedge-fund investors, he did ultimately pay them back, albeit with money from a separate endeavor. (In a livestream shortly after the trial concluded, as he drank an IPA, he said he guessed his sentence would be “close to nil,” adding, “I think we’re going to end up appealing this.”)
As quintessentially modern as Shkreli is, last week’s verdict added his name to a long list of convicted fraudsters that reaches back more than a century. Edward Balleisen, a professor of history at Duke University, is quite familiar with that list. Earlier this year, he published Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff, which attributed Americans’ trust of con men to a deeply held belief in innovation and world-changing ideas. “From the American Revolution onward,” he writes, “the country’s lionization of entrepreneurial freedom has given aid and comfort to the perpetrators of duplicitous business schemes.”