(Photo: Flickr / Trygve Utstumo)

(Photo: Flickr / Trygve Utstumo)

Bobby Tolbert is a New York City-based activist who draws from his own experience as an HIV positive and formerly homeless man to educate his peers and build a movement for better health care policies. He also serves on the boards of VOCAL New York and the recently formed People’s Action — two of more than 40 organizations that have endorsed a new Take On Wall Street campaign. Inequality.org co-editor Sarah Anderson spoke to Tolbert on May 24 after he delivered a statement in support of the campaign at a Capitol Hill press conference.


bobby-tolbert-wall-streetInequality.org: Help me understand why an AIDS activist would care about reforming Wall Street.

Tolbert: For me, it’s personal. On top of being HIV-positive, four years ago I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. Then they told me there was a drug that was 99 percent effective, but I couldn’t have it because Medicare didn’t cover it and it cost $1,000 per pill.

They were just telling me to die.

And a big reason why people like me can’t afford life-saving medication is because some hedge fund manager has come in and demanded that the price for the drug be jacked up beyond our means. This is a direct violation of our values as Americans.

Inequality.org: Can you say a bit more about the role of the private investment funds in drug pricing?

Tolbert: These guys are investors in Big Pharma. All they want is a quick profit – and they can get away with it, especially if the drug company has a monopoly. Fortunately, with the drug I needed, the company—Gilead—eventually lost the monopoly and it became more affordable. But not without a big fight and a lot of suffering.

Inequality.org: What do you think should be done about this?

Tolbert: VOCAL New York and many other groups got the governor to agree to a plan to end AIDS in our state by 2020. And there’s a good blueprint for doing this. But it will take money. And now the governor has reneged on his commitments to pay for it.

So we need to go where the money is.

Inequality.org: Let me guess, Wall Street?

Tolbert: Yes. People can’t even believe that the same guys who’ve been jacking up drug prices are also getting away with paying lower tax rates than ordinary Americans. We’ve been supporting a campaign to eliminate the “carried interest” loophole, which lets the hedge fund managers pay a lower capital gains tax rate on most of their income. If they won’t do it in Congress, we’ll get them to do it in New York, which is ground zero. And we could use revenue for that to help end AIDS.

Inequality.org: At the press conference both you and Rep. Keith Ellison talked about taxing Wall Street speculation, which is another one of the five priorities of the Take On Wall Street campaign.

Tolbert: Yes, that would raise even more money than carried interest. And we have a lot of needs in this country – crumbling infrastructure, no real social safety net. But some of this money could also go for ending AIDS. These people have gotten filthy rich off the backs of ordinary families who can’t stay in their homes. And it’s just fundamentally unsound to have an economy that only works for the 1 percent.

Inequality.org: You mentioned that People’s Action has a 40-year vision for the economy. What do you want to see 40 years from now?

Tolbert: Well, we should’ve ended AIDS by 2020, so I don’t need to talk about that. I see viable communities where city colleges are free, local banks have replaced the Wall Street banks, small businesses are thriving, and we have racial harmony. Basically, an economy that works for everybody.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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