Yves here. This post serves to illustrate how “economics says” has become a magic talisman in political discourse. Invoking it generally results in the audience accepting what follows, even when it is patent nonsense. Here we see how an editorial writer abjectly misapplied economic theory to justify super-high drug prices. Another argument against exploitative pharmaceutical pricing is that in the US, the industry benefits from extensive Federal R&D support. Mariana Mazzucato in her book The Entrepreneurial State, has determined that 3/4 of significant drugs (as in the “new drug applications” that were not mere modifications or reformulations of existing drugs) were Federally funded. So there’s a much bigger issue that the pharmaceutical companies get ample state support, yet are allowed to act as if they are purely private entities when it comes to price setting.
By Spencer England, an economist and investment strategist. Originally published at Angry Bear
Jeff Jacoby had an interesting article in the Boston Globe on Sunday where he argue that if the demand for something doubled the price must increase—it is basic introductory economics. What price is too high for a miracle drug?
His argument is so typical of how so many columnist and/or bloggers demonstrate that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
In basic theory many economist draw supply and demand curve that show if demand doubles the price will increase. But most are aware that this is actually a special case where all the assumptions of the perfect competition model hold. But, practical economists realize that this is a special case and that there are many exceptions to this theory.
Specifically, Jacoby writes that a doubling of a demand for a medical drug must lead to a price increase.
But the drug industry is a clear case where introductory economic analysis does not work because the drug industry is one of those industries where much of the cost of bring a new product to market is sunk or fixed cost. The specific sunk or fixed cost in the drug industry is the fortunes spent on research, development and testing before a new drug can be brought to market. These expenses are capitalized and incorporated into the price of a drug. The rough and ready rule of thumb is that these sunk or fixed cost account for about half of the price of a new drug. Exactly how much of this sunk cost is incorporated depends heavily on the estimate of how large the market for the drug will be. For example, if a drug firm has $1 billion in these sunk cost and they expect to sell two billion units of the drug they can assign $0.50 to the price of each pill for the sunk cost and another $0.50 for other costs of manufacturing, distribution, advertising, profits, etc., etc., so the final price is $1.00 per pill. But if the demand suddenly doubles, as Jacoby writes, the price does not have to increase. Rather the $1billion in fixed or sunk cost can now be spread over four billion units rather than original two billion units so the cost per unit falls from $.50 to $0.25. Consequently, the drug firm can cut the price of the drug from $1.00 per pill to $0.75 per unit and still make more profits than they did when the price was $1.00.
Jacoby’s analysis is a classic example that if so many bloggers or public pundits knew half as much as they though they knew, they would be geniuses. But the real problem is that the Globe editorial staff allows such shoddy analysis to gain the credibility it gets from being published in a highly regarded paper like the Boston Globe.
Jacoby claims that the doubling of demand for the drug Maloxone completely justifies the more than doubling of the price from $19.56 to $41.43 and that state officials should not investigate that increase. But maybe, just maybe, the state officials know something that Jacoby does not know.