Defining public interestDavid Hoppe

"I never thought I'd hear the governor of Indiana bash Eli Lilly." Our governor-elect, Mitch Daniels, said this during one of his debates with Joe Kernan. Kernan had the temerity to suggest that it might be a good idea for the state of Indiana to facilitate the reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada as a way of lowering the prices of drugs for Hoosiers. When Daniels said he never thought he'd hear a governor of Indiana bashing Lilly Corp., he was also talking about the public interest. But for Daniels, the public interest is defined by its biggest corporate citizen.

This idea did not sit well with Daniels, who, in addition to being our next governor, is also a former executive with the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company.

Pharmaceutical companies like Lilly aren't keen on the idea of drug reimportation because they claim the policy will cut into their profits. But what they like even less is the idea of the government, in this case the state of Indiana, getting between them and their customers.

When Mitch Daniels accused Joe Kernan of bashing Lilly, he effectively crystallized the differences between himself and his opponent. He also provided us with a loaded hint about what we can expect over the next four years.

If, like a lot of people, your life depends on prescription drugs, you may not have thought that Joe Kernan was bashing Lilly. No, you might have thought that Kernan was standing up for you.

You might have thought that Kernan was looking out for the public interest. The governor of Indiana, after all, is supposed to be a public servant. Looking out for the public interest would seem to be a good thing for a public servant to do. When seen this way, Kernan was doing his job.

But there's another way of thinking about the governor's job. Rather than public servant, you often hear people referring to the governor as the CEO, or chief executive officer, of the state. CEO is a corporate term. People who think the government ought to be run like a business are given to this usage. They also like to call citizens customers.

The problem with this is that government's reason for being is not to make a profit, but to protect the rights of citizens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As Thomas Frank wrote in his book One Market, Under God: "Markets may look like democracy, in that we are all involved in their making, but they are fundamentally not democratic. We did not vote for Bill Gates; we didn't all sit down one day and agree that we should only use his operating system and we should pay for it just however much he thinks is right. We do not go off to our jobs checking telephone lines or making cold calls or driving a forklift every morning because that is what we want to do; we do it because we have to, because it is the only way we can afford food, shelter and medicine. The logic of business is coercion, monopoly and the destruction of the weak, not 'choice' or 'service' or universal affluence."

The Daniels/Kernan debate over prescription drugs underlined a fundamental conflict in this country about the role of government. In this case, you had a guy, Kernan, who believed that it was in the public interest for government to use its power to get between drug companies and citizens in order to help citizens get a better deal on their medicines.

You had another guy, Daniels, arguing that the best thing for citizens in Indiana is for there to be a strong drug company, Eli Lilly, doing business here. When Daniels said he never thought he'd hear a governor of Indiana bashing Lilly Corp., he was also talking about the public interest. But for Daniels, the public interest is defined by its biggest corporate citizen.

This was Daniels' way of expressing the old saw that what's good for business is good for America. During the Reagan years, this was called "trickle down." The idea behind trickle down was that the effects of successful businesses would eventually be felt by almost everyone. Daniels, by the way, worked in the Reagan Administration.

As anyone who has lived in Indiana knows, the life of this state is inextricably linked to the fortunes of Lilly Corp., particularly as those fortunes find expression through the philanthropy of the Lilly Endowment. The two are independent of one another, but since the endowment is defined by its Lilly stock, that independence is a legal technicality. The endowment has lavished over a billion dollars in Indiana over the years. That's an amount so large it's hard not to conclude that the endowment has served as an unofficial arm of the state, doing what policymakers are either unwilling or unable to do for themselves.

Yes, what has been good for Lilly has been good for Indiana. Lilly has benefited this state in a big way. But Lilly's largesse is also a reflection of the dizzying profitability it has enjoyed here. That's something that's hard to reconcile with the fact that so many Hoosiers can't afford the medicines they need.

When Mitch Daniels was pressed on this issue, he stood up - for Lilly Corp. Now we have four years to see whether he'll stand up for the rest of us.


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