Ah … one of the holy myths of the “US health care sucks” crowd. This should be fun.It should also be noted that the high fixed costs in the United States are to a significant degree the result of the mostly absurd testing protocols required by the FDA before a drug is approved. In a truly free market, multiple testing protocols would be developed for different drugs and different situations(say a drug for a dying patient versus a drug for a minor irritant). A one size fits all bureaucratic mentality at the FDA has probably killed more people than the deaths caused by the U.S. bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The general story is how you can buy many drugs in Canada cheaper than you can buy them in the US. This story is often, without specifically tying the logic together, taken as an obvious indictment of the US’s (relatively) free market system. This is grossly misguided.
Here’s what happens. We have a (relatively) free market in the US where drug companies spend a ton to develop new wonder drugs, a non-trivial amount of which is spent to satisfy regulatory requirements. The cost of this development is called a “fixed cost.” Once it’s developed it does not cost that much to make each pill. That’s called a “variable cost.” If people only paid the variable cost (or a bit more) for each pill the whole thing would not work. You see, the company would never get back the massive fixed cost of creating the drug in the first place, and so no company would try to develop one. Thus, companies have to, and do, charge more than the variable cost of making each pill. Some look at this system and say to the drug companies “gee, it doesn’t cost you much to make one more pill, so it’s unfair that you charge much more than your cost.” They are completely wrong and not looking at all the costs.
So, let’s bring this back to our good natured friends to the North (good natured barring hockey when they’ll kill you as soon as look at you). They have socialized medicine and they bargain as the only Canadian buyer for drugs, paying well below normal costs. Drug companies that spent the enormous fixed costs to create new miracles are charging a relatively high cost in the free and still largely competitive world (the US) to recoup their fixed cost and to make a profit. But socialist societies like Canada limit the price they are allowed to charge. The US-based company is then faced with a dilemma. What Canada will pay is not enough to ever have justified creating the miracle pill. But, once created, perhaps Canada is paying more than the variable cost of each pill. Thus, the company can make some money by also selling to Canada at a lower price as it’s still more than it costs them to make that last pill.
However, this is an accident of Canada being a less-free country than the US, able to bargain as one nation, much smaller, and next door. If we all tried to be Canada it’s a non-working perpetual motion machine and no miracle pills ever get made because there will be nobody to pay the fixed costs. I’m a big fan of Canadians in general (particularly Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, who if healthy probably would have eclipsed Gretzky – but I digress), but when it comes to pharmaceuticals they are lucky parasitic hosers. Drug companies in general sell their products to Canada at low prices, making a little profit, and reducing slightly the amount they need to charge other North Americans. This does create the silly illusion that the Canadian system is somehow better than ours because our own drugs are cheaper there. They are only cheaper to the extent we are subsidizing them by paying their portion of drug development costs and, unfortunately, we cannot subsidize ourselves (or we go blind).
So, what is the purpose behind those who tell tales of these cheap Canadian drugs? Obviously they seek to ridicule our freer system by putting the parasitic and socialist system on a pedestal. They seek to imply that our system is broken, and delivers only expensive drugs, when the socialist Canadian system delivers the goods for its people. Thus, they implicitly argue that we need to have socialism here. It’s not complicated.
So, repeat after me. We could go with the Canadian system and have super cheap drugs, if only we can find a much bigger, much more medically advanced, much freer country right next to us to make miracle drugs for themselves, and then we insist that we pay them only a bit above their variable cost for our share, and then they in turn agree to let us be their parasite. Mexico, would you mind helping us out?
Socialized Medicine Works In Some Places
This is a corollary to the “Canada as parasite” parable above. The funny part is socialized medicine has never been truly tested. Those touting socialism’s success have never seen a world without a relatively (for now) free US to make their new drugs, surgical techniques, and other medical advancements for them. When (and I hope this doesn’t happen) the US joins in the insanity of socialized medicine we will see that when you remove the brain from the body, the engine from a car, the candy from the striper, it just does not work.
So, please, stop pointing to all those “successes” that even while living off the US still kill hard-working people who could afford their own health care while they stand in line for the government’s version (people’s cancers growing while waiting 10 weeks for a routine scan, which these people could often afford on their own if allowed, is a human tragedy). Even the successes you gin up for them would not be possible without the last best hope of humankind (the US) on the front lines again making the miracles for the world.
Specifically, let’s also stop citing the Nordic countries as examples. The temporary success of (comparatively speaking) twelve herring-eating homogenous people is not an example that applies to anything outside of perhaps Minnesota, and they elected Stuart Smalley, so under any system they need serious free anti-psychotic medication immediately. Anyway, the Nordic country’s touted “success” is going to go the way of the Soviet Union’s plan to bury us, as their changing demographics (far more economic diversity and an aging population) change their culture and show the cracks in their utopian fantasy. As Milton Friedman (paraphrasing) said to a Swede bragging about how little poverty there was in his country "well, yes, I too have observed that among Swedes in America, there's also very little poverty."
To put it simply, right now the US’s free system massively intellectually subsidizes the world’s unfree (socialized) ones. That sucks. The only thing that would suck worse is joining them without anyone to subsidize us all.
Monday, August 24, 2009
The Myth that Socialized Medicine Works in Some Places
A friend sends along a link to a commentary on the current healthcare debate by AQR's Cliff Asness, a hedge fund manager: