Textbooks, Venture Capital, and Pharmaceuticals

Timothy Taylor writes,

It is by no means obvious that a lower-cost book (yes, like my own) works less well for students than a higher-cost book from a big publisher. Some would put that point more strongly.

Yes, I know that professors do not care much, if at all, about the prices of the textbooks they select for their students, but that is not the only reason that prices are so high.

Another factor is that the industry is similar to venture capital and pharmaceuticals. The organizations that fund projects in these areas incur heavy expenses on failures. A lot of textbook projects fail. The author may not even finish the book. Or it will flop in the market.

For a VC firm to stay in business when most of the companies that it funds wind up failures, it has to earn spectacular returns on its successes. For a pharmaceutical firm to stay in business when a lot of its research fails to yield a marketable compound, it has to charge a lot for those drugs that do make it. And for textbook publishers to stay in business when many of their projects flop, they have to charge a high price for the books that do sell.

Advances in technology have made it easier to produce a textbook at low cost. However, by the same token, it has probably increased the probability that any given textbook will fail to get a toehold in the market. So the overall economics of the business still requires publishers to absorb a lot of failed-project costs.

The Wedge Between Compensation and Wages

Mark Warshawsky and Andrew Biggs write,

Most employers pay workers a combination of wages and benefits, the most important of which is health coverage. Economic theory says that when employers’ costs for benefits like health coverage rise, they will hold back on salary increases to keep total compensation costs in check. That’s exactly what seems to have happened: Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that from June 2004 to June 2014 compensation increased by 28% while employer health-insurance costs rose by 51%. Consequently, average wages grew by just 24%.

The kicker:

Health costs are a bigger share of total compensation for lower-wage workers, and so rising health costs hit their salaries the most. The result is higher income inequality.

I don’t think you can blame company-provided health insurance as a first-order cause. Suppose that there were no company-provided health insurance, and everyone instead bought health insurance on their own. In that case, more of the compensation of employees would have been in the form of wages and salaries. If health insurance in the individual market had gone up as rapidly as it has in the company-provided market, then this would have a stronger effect on the cost of living for low-income workers. So even if you did not have company-provided health insurance, you would still have the “wedge” between compensation and disposable income after health insurance.

As a second-order effect, you can argue that company-provided health insurance, and its tax exemption, push in the direction of raising health care costs. But that is not such a compelling argument.

I do think that it is increasingly misleading to speak of a single “cost of living,” when so much of the market basket consists of medical procedures and college expenses that not everyone undertakes. That is, I still believe that Calculating trends in the real wage is much harder than we realize, because every household has different tastes.

Related, from Timothy Taylor:

it’s also intriguing to note that since 1984, the share of income spent on luxuries is rising for each income group, and the share of income spent on necessities is falling for each income group.

He refers to a study by LaVaughn M. Henry.

The Null Hypothesis Strikes Again

Timothy Taylor looks at an OECD report on the effect of making a student repeat a grade. He quotes this sentence:

In practice, however, grade repetition has not shown clear benefits for the students who were held back or for school systems as a whole.

One interpretation of this is that the marginal benefit of an additional year of schooling is zero. However, that interpretation is not something that anyone wants to discuss.

And I could put the same headline on Tyler Cowen’s post about a study in France.

Health Policy Proposals

From a RAND paper.

The first five options would decrease costs and risks of inventing new products or
obtaining regulatory approval for products that would advance our two policy goals.

1. enabling more creativity in funding basic science
2. offering prizes for inventions
3. buying out patents
4. establishing a public interest investment fund
5. expediting FDA review.

The last five options would increase the market rewards for inventing products
that would advance our two policy goals. These options are
1. reforming Medicare payment policies
2. reforming Medicare coverage policies
3. coordinating FDA approval and CMS coverage processes
4. increasing demand for products that decrease spending
5. producing more and more-timely technology assessments.

Pointer from Timothy Taylor, who comments

I confess that as I look over their list of policy recommendations, I’m not sure they suffice to overcome the incentives currently built into the U.S. healthcare system.

The Book on SecStag

Timothy Taylor writes,

Coen Teulings and Richard Baldwin, who have edited a useful e-book of 13 short essays with a variety of perspectives on Secular Stagnation: Facts, Causes and Cures. In the overview, they write: “Secular stagnation, we have learned, is an economist’s Rorschach Test. It means different things to different people.”

Read his whole post.

The interesting secular trends include low real interest rates, low productivity growth, and declining labor force participation among prime-age workers.

From a conventional AS-AD perspective, low real interest rates are a demand-side phenomenon. The other two are supply-side phenomena. I wish the secstag folks would get together and sort this out.

I think that the most important secular trends are:

1. The New Commanding Heights. That is, the shift in the economy toward a lower share of goods consumption and a higher share of consumption of education and health care services. The New Commanding Heights are sectors in which productivity is difficult to measure and government interference is rampant.

2. The Great Factor-price Equalization. That is, the ability of workers with a given level of skills in China and India to compete with workers of equivalent skills in the U.S. This benefits the median worker in China and India as well as high-skilled workers in all countries, but it threatens the median worker in the U.S.

3. Vickies and Thetes. Or what Charles Murray calls Belmont and Fishtwon. In the U.S., there is extreme cultural sorting going on. People with high intelligence and conscientiousness are moving in one direction, and people who are low in those traits are moving in the other direction.

I think that (1) explains the low productivity growth. It could be partly a measurement problem and partly a problem of government putting sand in the gears.

I think that (2) and (3) explain the labor force participation problem.

What about low real interest rates? This one has puzzled me for a decade. Is it possible that (1) is the explanation? That is, the New Commanding Heights are not nearly as capital-intensive as the old commanding heights of steel, electric power, and transportation. Also, investment may be deterred because of the way government affects these sectors.

Good Sentences from Timothy Taylor

He writes,

I fear that most people have reacted to Dodd-Frank as a sort of Rorschach test where the word “financial regulation” are flashed in front of your eyes. If you look at those words and react by saying “we need more financial regulation,” then you are a Dodd-Frank fan. If you look at those words and shudder, you are a Dodd-Frank opponent. odd-Frank allowed a bunch of pro-regulation Congressmen to take a bow by passing it, and a bunch of anti-regulation Congressment to take a bow by opposing it. But for those of who try to live our lives as radical moderates, the issue isn’t to be generically in favor of regulation or generically against it, but to try to look at actual regulations and whether they are well-conceived. In that task, the Dodd-Frank legislation mostly used fairly generic language of good intentions, ducked hard decisions, and handed off the hot potato of how financial regulation should actually be written to others.

He points to the fact that many of the rules called for by Dodd-Frank had yet to be written four years after the law passed. He also notes,

A completed rule doesn’t mean that business has yet figured out how to actually comply with the rule. For example, there is a completed rule which requires that banking organizations with over $50 billion in assets write a “living will,” which is a set of plans that would specify how their business would be contracted and then shut down, without a need for government assistance, if that situation arose in a future financial crisis. The 11 banks wrote up their living wills, and the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation rejected the plans as inadequate. They wrote up second set of living wills, and a few days ago, the Federal Reserve and FDIC again rejected the plans as inadequate.

I have said many times that if the big banks are not going to be contracted and shut down now, then it is not going to happen during a crisis.

The Incentive to Invest

Timothy Taylor writes,

The very slow rebound in investment isn’t obvious to explain.

Read the whole thing. He walks through such explanations as uncertainty, difficulty obtaining financing, low aggregate demand (what Keynesians used to call the Accelerator Effect), and investment that has become less capital-intensive. On the latter, he writes,

it’s often a form of investment that involves reorganizing their firm around new information and communications technology–whether in terms of design, business operation, or far-flung global production networks. As a result, this form of investment doesn’t involve enough demand to push the economy to full employment.

All of these explanations are from a conventional AS-AD perspective. From a PSST perspective, I would look for bottlenecks, particularly in the service sector, where growth is most likely to occur. In the Setting National Economic Priorities Project, the following are considered possible bottlenecks:

–labor-market distortions, including high implicit marginal tax rates embedded in means-tested benefit programs
–the research/FDA approval/patent regime in medicine, given the state of the art in genetics and biochemistry
–the FCC spectrum regime, given the state of the art in spectrum utilization possibilities
–occupational licensing
–regulation of medical practice
–regulation/accreditation barriers to education innovation

The WSJ adds another layer to the mystery.

corporations used almost $600 billion in cash to buy back their own shares in 2013 and the uptrend continues into 2014. While that’s a positive trend for household wealth, it raises questions about companies’ commitment to move ahead with capital spending projects.

Remember the Tobin’s q theory of investment? It says that when stock prices are high relative to the value of existing capital, firms will invest more. Instead, we are seeing firms buy back stock to try to raise q.

This deserves more thought and analysis.

A Peevish Thought on Obamacare

Timothy Taylor writes,

Setting up a health insurance system that offers the right incentives to patients and providers for cost-effectiveness and innovation is a fundamentally difficult task, and those practical challenges don’t disappear just by invoking talismanic phrases like “universal coverage” or “single-payer.”

The worst thing about Obamacare is not the web site glitches or the employer mandates or even the high marginal tax rates. The worst thing is that the Obama folks regard catastrophic health insurance (what I call “real insurance”) as bad and they view “insurance” that covers every little expense as good. I think it’s the other way around.

Even if you think that people will skimp on checkups if they have catastrophic coverage, then the right policy is to subsidize checkups, not insulate them from the cost of all medical services.

I like to say that as individuals, we want unlimited access to medical services without having to pay for them. Comprehensive health insurance does offer that. However, collectively, that does not work. If medical services aren’t rationed by individuals making choices, they have to be rationed by bureaucrats.

That brings us to the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or what Sarah Palin called the death panels. The IPAB is the only economically meaningful mechanism for reducing spending under Obamacare. Fifteen bureaucrats in Washington will tell doctors and patients what to do and what not to do.

If Obamacare remains in place, then I predict that in ten years IPAB will be the most powerful agency in Washington. More powerful than the Fed, the NSA, or the IRS. In fact, the health care reformers on the left want it that way. Former Senator Tom Daschle explicitly said that we need something like the Fed to run health care.

Have a nice day.

Timothy Taylor makes a prediction

He writes,

ultimately, I expect that the growth in services trade will reduce pressures for protectionism. Instead of talking about hypothetical trade in hypothetical completed goods–like cars and computers–it will become clear that portions of the value-added are often being created in different places. Pushing for trade protectionism in the name of specific products made in other countries like cars or steel or televisions is one thing, but I’m not sure any similar protectionist movement will form to prevent, say, insurance record-keeping or checking diagnostic X-rays from happening in another country. In addition, countries will need to be wary of placing tariffs or other restrictions on imports, because many imports will be part of a global production chain, and domestic produces will be quick to point out how inhibiting their access to those global connections will injure the domestic economy.

He cites a paper by Prakash Loungani and Saurabh Mishra and points out that trade in services has been growing three times faster than trade in goods. I would make the additional prediction that the Great Factor-Price Equalization will continue.

Doubts on Solar

Timothy Taylor finds a study by Charles R. Frank, Jr. that tries to assess the cost of solar’s lack of reliability. Taylor quotes Frank:

we estimate that it would take 7.30 MW of solar capacity, costing roughly four times as much per MW to produce the same electrical output with the same degree of reliability as a baseload gas combined cycle plant. It requires an investment of approximately $29 million in utility-scale solar capacity to produce the same output with the same reliability as a $1 million investment in gas combined cycle.