Mr Peter Theil, a Silicon Valley billionaire, apparently a man of wealth and taste, has become a major adviser to the transition team for US President-Elect Donald Trump about candidates for important government positions, including the leadership of the US Food and Drug Administration. As we noted here, Mr Theil apparently supported the candidacy of one Jim O'Neill, one of Mr Theil's business associates, for this position, despite Mr O'Neill's apparent complete lack of experience or training in medicine, health care, public health, or biomedical research, and Mr O'Neill's obvious conflicts of interest.
Boredom Without Corruption?
A few days ago, Maureen Dowd interviewed Mr Theil for the New York Times, at which time Mr Theil displayed some views about ethics that were unusual, so to speak. Most striking was
There's a point where no corruption can be a bad thing. It can mean things are too boring.Think about that for a minute.
We have written about health care corruption for a long time. We use the Transparency International definition of corruption as abuse of entrusted power for private gain. We have summarized, again and again, the bad effects of corruption on health care.
In 2006, TI published a report on health care corruption, which asserted that corruption is widespread throughout the world, serious, and causes severe harm to patients and society.
the scale of corruption is vast in both rich and poor countries.
Corruption might mean the difference between life and death for those in need of urgent care. It is invariably the poor in society who are affected most by corruption because they often cannot afford bribes or private health care. But corruption in the richest parts of the world also has its costs.Very recently, Pope Francis said to an audience at a Catholic hospital (look here):
'The worst cancer in a hospital like this is corruption,' he said. 'In this world where there is so much business involved in health care, so many people are tricked by the sickness industry, 'Bambino Gesu' hospital must learn to say no. Yes, we all are sinners. Corrupt, never.'
But according to Mr Theil, it is worse to be bored than corrupt. I suppose this may have been meant as ironic, and Mr Theil may have been affecting an Oscar Wilde like pose of cynicism. If Mr Theil were an avant garde writer, the matter might rest there.
However, Mr Theil is quite wealthy, and with great wealth comes power. Furthermore, Mr Theil is now quite powerful due to his position vis a vis Mr Trump.
For someone with so much influence on the American government to say this is more than disturbing. It is despicable.
Mr Trump repeatedly proclaimed that he would drain the swamp in Washington DC. Now it seems that his proposed infrastructure projects include creating a much deeper swamp.
No Expertise Without Conflicts of Interest?
But just to ice the cake, Mr Theil also discussed conflicts of interest.
I don’t want to dismiss ethical concerns here, but I worry that ‘conflict of interest’ gets overly weaponized in our politics. I think in many cases, when there’s a conflict of interest, it’s an indication that someone understands something way better than if there’s no conflict of interest. If there’s no conflict of interest, it’s often because you’re just not interested.
We have written ad infinitum about the web of conflicts of interest that ties together many people who make health care or health care policy decisions and rich and powerful organizations with vested interests which may conflict with patients' or the people's health. Such conflicts of interest can be regarded as the major risk factors for true corruption.
Those who want to create conflicts of interest, or who financially benefit from them, often argue that conflicts cannot be avoided, because the best and the brightest people will always have conflicts. This cynical view, apparently shared by Mr Theil, has not, to my knowledge, ever been buttressed with evidence, at least in the health care field.
Yet, as Ms Dowd pointed out, Mr Theil
has invested in many biotech companies and has been advising the Trump transition team on science.
He is the wrong man for the job. His apparent amorality, or at best his amoral attempt at irony, predict an even more conflicted and corrupt health care system. Mr Theil may profit, but ordinary people will suffer.
Our distressing musical interlude, 2006 live official version: