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A Better World

from Dean Baker

Okay, I’m a bit slow for a New Year’s piece, but what the hell, we can always use a bit of optimism. Anyhow, I thought I would spout a few things about what the world might look like if we didn’t rig the market to give all the money to rich people. Not much new here for regular readers, I just thought I would spell it on paper, since it is a nice backdrop for many of our battles.

Before I go through my favorite unriggings, let me start by making a general point, which some people may miss. I focus much of my writing on ways that we rig the market to give money to the Bill Gates and Moderna billionaires of the world.

The idea of restructuring the market, so that these people do not get so rich, is not just a question of punishing the wealthy. When we give these people more money, in excess of what they contribute to the economy (we have to pay people something to develop mRNA vaccines, just not as much as we did), then we are generating more demand in the economy. This has the same effect on the economy as an increase in government spending.

To take my favorite example, if because of patent and related monopolies, we pay drug companies $400 billion a year more than is needed to have the drugs manufactured and distributed, this has the same effect on the economy as if we wrote $400 billion in checks ($3,300 per household) and sent them around to everyone. This policy (the writing of large checks) would run the risk of creating inflation if the economy is near its capacity.

The same is true of sending all this money to drug companies. While many people in the pharmaceutical industry earn normal salaries, higher-up employees can earn millions of dollars, or even tens of millions of dollars, a year. And those lucky enough to be at the top of the big winners, like Moderna, can score billions.

When these people spend this money on their second, third, or fourth homes, on their yachts, or their space trips, it pulls resources away from other areas. We, therefore, have fewer people to build homes for ordinary families (and less land), and fewer people to provide medical care or child care because the pharmaceutical industry folks have hired them.

Restructuring the market so that less income flows upward has the same impact as taxing the income away. Of course, it has the huge benefit over taxation in that it is done through the market. This is enormously more efficient than handing rich people’s money and then trying to take it away with taxes. It also is likely to be far more feasible politically.

With that backdrop, it’s time for a bit of fun, thinking about what the world might look like if we unrigged the economy.

Free Market Drugs and Vaccines

There is probably no sector where the impact of government-granted patents and copyrights is more pernicious than in healthcare. Drugs are almost invariably cheap to produce and distribute. The reason that some can cost thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars for a year’s treatment is because the government grants drug companies patent monopolies. When they are producing a drug that is essential for people’s health, or possibly even their lives, the patent monopoly allows companies to charge prices completely out of line with costs.[1]

This is a case where every good progressive should be a huge proponent of the free market.  If we didn’t have any patent or related protections for vaccines, we could have had manufacturers all around the world producing and stockpiling vaccines even before they were approved. (It costs around $2 to manufacture a vaccine dose, if we had stockpiled 400 million vaccines that proved ineffective and then had to throw them out, so what? The wasted $800 million is a bit more than 0.01 percent of what the U.S. government has spent on pandemic-related measures.) This would likely have meant that we could have had most of the world vaccinated by the spring, likely preventing the omicron variant and possibly even stopping the delta variant.

Also, to cut off a standard line from our friends in the pharmaceutical industry, it’s true that much of the technology of the industry is protected by industrial secrets rather than government-granted patent monopolies. This one is easily dealt with; we just make their non-disclosure agreements unenforceable. That would allow the top engineers at Pfizer, Moderna, and elsewhere to freely share their expertise with everyone in the world.

We do have to pay for research, but the patent monopoly system is a very inefficient mechanism. In addition to making drugs and vaccines very expensive, it also gives companies an incentive to carry on their research in secret, rather than sharing important findings with potential competitors.

Science advances most rapidly when it is open. If we pay for the research upfront as we did with Operation Warp Speed, we can make openness a condition of the research, with all results posted on the web as quickly as practical. This would allow researchers everywhere to build on each other’s successes and learn from their failures, preventing much needless duplication. Also, all patentable results would be placed in the public domain so that generic manufacturers anywhere in the world could produce them.  (In chapter 5 of Rigged [it’s free], I describe a mechanism involving long-term contracts that the government could use to dish out the money.)

We would need some system of international sharing of research costs, which would have to be negotiated. But, this sort of open research system offers enormous potential gains for the whole world. And, it’s worth noting that our current system, requiring patent enforcement internationally, has hardly been problem-free in both negotiation and implementation. In a positive turn of events, the European Union is actively considering expanding public investment in biomedical research, including an open research option.

Open research would also eliminate the incentives for misrepresenting research findings or outright fraud, like the Elizabeth Holmes-Theranos case. If research is fully open for the community of researchers to evaluate, it would be almost impossible for someone to perpetuate a Theranos-type fraud. Also, there would be very little incentive, since no one would stand to make millions or billions by pushing false claims.

In this context, it is worth noting that, while Theranos is an extreme case, the problem of companies hyping their drugs to maximize the profits from their patent monopolies, is pervasive. This is a huge part of the story of the opioid crisis. More recently the question of biased research has come up with reference to the high-priced Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm. Without patent monopolies, not only would we get cheap drugs, but we would get honest assessments of their benefits and risks.

The idea that for some reason we can’t have successful innovation without patent monopolies is frankly bizarre. The pathbreaking research in developing mRNA technology was done almost entirely on the government’s dime, as was the work by Moderna to develop a Covid-specific vaccine. We also have the example of a Covid vaccine developed on a shoe-string by Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor University. We need to pay researchers for their work, but the idea that we can’t have successful innovation without the lure of earning hundreds of millions or even billions from a patent monopoly is absurd on its face.

Imagine a world where most drugs, including the latest breakthrough drugs, were selling for $10 or $20 a prescription. That would be the case without patent monopolies or related protections. The same would be true of medical equipment. The latest blood tests and scans would also almost all be cheap.

In this world, doctors could without hesitation prescribe the course of treatment that they considered to be best for their patient. We would not have moral dilemmas, like whether an otherwise healthy 80-year-old should be prescribed a cancer drug that costs $150,000 a year. Since the drug would likely only cost a few hundred dollars, or at most a few thousand, this would be a no-brainer. Of course you would prescribe the drug that might save their life.

The savings would be enormous. By my calculations, we would save around $400 billion a year ($3,000 per household) on prescription drugs if they all were sold in a free market without patent monopolies. We would need roughly $100 billion in additional spending to replace the research now supported by patent monopolies, but that would still leave us with savings of around $300 billion a year. That is more than one and half times the cost of the latest version of Build Back Better. If we are also covering the cost of developing medical equipment and tests, that would likely save us an additional $100 billion a year or so. In short, this is real money.

With these sorts of savings, we would be much of the way towards being able to pay for a universal Medicare system, like the one in Canada. Cutting out the insurance industry as a middleman would save us more than $300 billion a year. Also, getting doctors’ pay more in line with their pay in other wealthy countries could net us another $100 billion annually.[2]

Downsizing Patents and Copyrights More Generally

In addition to raising the price of everything from computers and software to video games and movies, patent and copyrights create a morass of legal issues that both raises costs for everyone and impedes the development of technology. It seems reasonable to minimize the role of these government-granted monopolies everywhere, as I describe in chapter 5 of Rigged. This means more public funding of research, with the cost of access for companies being that they have to accept much shorter patents (e.g. four to five years rather than twenty), with their patents being added to the public pool for the rest of the duration of the patent.

One major exception is innovations related to slowing climate change. Here it makes sense to have the same approach as with biomedical research, where we attempt to pool technology worldwide and have it available at no cost to whoever wants it. If China invests a huge amount to further increase its lead in clean energy and electric cars, that is not a threat to the United States, it is doing us and the world a favor.

The same story holds with every other country in the world. We want them to use the technology to lower their emissions. We shouldn’t be trying to keep it away from them with patent monopolies or related protections. This is just simple economics. If solar panels or batteries cost 20 to 30 percent less, because there is no charge for using patents, then businesses, governments, and households will be quicker to switch to clean energy.

The other area where it would be desirable to largely replace the patent/copyright system is with the funding of journalism and creative work more generally. The amount of money going to support newspapers under the current system has plummeted due to both the Internet and the growth of Facebook and Google. The same is true for recorded music, where current spending is a small fraction of what we saw two decades ago.

I have argued for a system of individual tax credits, modeled on the charitable contribution tax deduction, to support creative work. Under this system, every adult would get a modest sum (e.g. $150 a year) to support the creative worker(s) or creative organization (newspaper, blues music promoter etc.) of their choice. Any work produced through this system would be in the public domain and therefore not subject to copyright protection. A neat aspect of this proposal, in my view, is that enterprising politicians could experiment with it at the state and local levels.

Anyhow, if fully implemented, it could produce a vast amount of creative work that would be available at no cost to anyone with Internet access. It could also revitalize news organizations at the state and local level, which have been hugely downsized in the last quarter-century, or put out of business altogether.[3]

Applying Market Forces to CEO Pay: Getting Corporate Boards that Do Their Job

There has been considerable research in the last two decades showing that CEO pay bears little relationship to their performance in terms of producing returns for shareholders. A recent study surveyed corporate directors and found that the vast majority did not even see it as their job to contain CEO pay. Instead, they saw their role as supporting top management.

In that context, it’s not surprising that even mediocre CEOs can get paychecks in the tens of millions of dollars. After all, if you’re a director sitting on a huge pot of money in the form of the company’s annual revenue, why wouldn’t you dish out tens of millions to your friend, the CEO? This attitude might explain how boards can give out lavish pay packages even when it’s against the explicit wishes of shareholders.

It is important to recognize that the issue with bloated CEO pay is not just one person getting $20 or $30 million (and sometimes considerably more), it is a whole pay structure that follows from the outsized pay for the CEO. If the CEO is earning $20 million, then it’s likely the chief financial officer and other top-tier executives are earning in the range of $8 to $12 million. The third-tier executives can easily be making $2 or $3 million.

This sort of pay structure also has an impact outside of the corporate sector. It is common for presidents of large foundations and charities or major universities to get paid well over $1 million a year. And, the next echelon at these institutions often get paid in the high six figures.

If we go back to the sixties and seventies, the CEO of a major company would typically get paid twenty or thirty times as much as an ordinary worker. That would translate into $2 million to $3 million a year today. If CEOs were currently getting pay in this neighborhood, we would see correspondingly lower pay for other top management in the corporate sector and elsewhere.

Instead of getting well over $1 million a year, maybe the president of a major university would draw pay in the high hundreds of thousands. And the provost and deans would be in the middle six figures. That would mean a radically different pattern of income distribution with a lot more money available to those lower down the pay ladder.

It is common for policy types to accept the outlandish pay of CEOs and other top-level executives as simply market outcomes. But this view is hard to justify when we recognize that there is no one placing downward pressure on the pay of these people in the same way that these top-level people put downward pressure on the pay of ordinary workers.

It is a standard for economists to put lots of faith in the “invisible hand” of the market, but in the case of restraining the pay of CEOs and others at the top of the pay ladder, that hand really is invisible.

Pay for Performance in the Financial Industry?

The list of the country’s top earners is heavily populated with hedge fund and private equity partners, who typically pocket millions of dollars a year, and can sometimes earn tens of millions or even hundreds of millions. The rationale for these huge paychecks is that they are providing outsized returns for investors, which both makes money for investors and steers capital to its best uses.

There are lots of bad stories about what hedge funds and especially private equity funds do with their money. They are notorious for downsizing and often bankrupting firms, laying off workers, stealing pensions, and leaving creditors empty-handed. In this story, creditors include not only knowing lenders like banks and bondholders, but also unintentional creditors like suppliers and landlords. They also are notorious for gaming the tax code.

But even apart from their dubious business practices, there is an even more basic issue with hedge funds and private equity funds: they don’t produce returns for shareholders. In prior decades, investors in these funds could count on beating a stock index fund, often by a large margin. The margin is appropriate since these are highly illiquid investments (money is typically locked in for a decade) and there is considerably more risk than with a stock index fund.

However, this is no longer true. In recent years, returns to investors on the typical hedge fund and private equity fund trailed a stock market index. This means that pension funds actually lost money by investing a portion of their assets with private equity funds rather than a stock market index. Similarly, many universities lost money by having a large portion of their endowment managed by hedge funds.

It shouldn’t be a radical demand to the presidents of Harvard and other schools with huge endowments that they not pay big bucks to investment managers to lose them money. For some reason, it doesn’t seem like anyone has taken up that cause.

It is possible to structure contracts so that these managers only do get big payouts if they actually produce above-normal returns to pensions or universities. Contracts differ across institutions, but a standard pattern in years past was to pay fund managers 2 percent of the money being managed each year, and then 20 percent of returns over some target, such as the S&P 500. In this story, if a hedge fund was managing $1 billion of Harvard’s endowment, they would get paid $20 million a year, even if their investments trailed the S&P 500. That is a lot of money to pay to lose money.

Pension funds and universities can structure their contracts so that the entire payment is dependent on beating a threshold. In that case, if a fund trailed the S&P 500, they would get nothing. (There can be a clause that ensures everyone who worked for the fund gets the minimum wage for the time they put in. We wouldn’t want to undermine labor laws.) Some private equity and hedge funds would balk at this sort of arrangement, but if these fund managers don’t have confidence in their own ability to beat the market, why should institutions risk money with them?

There are many other areas where we have large amounts of economic waste in finance, which persists because rich people are pocketing this waste. For example, we could have the Fed give every person and business a digital account from which they could conduct normal business transactions, such as getting their paycheck and paying their bills. This would save us tens of billions of dollars annually in banking fees. But, that would mean less money for people in the financial industry.

There is a similar story with retirement accounts. It is common for the financial industry to charge people with 401(k)s or IRAs 1-2 percent of the money in their accounts each year as an administration fee. This means that if you have $100,000 in a 401(k), the bank, brokerage house, or insurance company that manages it could be charging you $1,000 to $2,000 a year. This can be in addition to the fees charged by specific funds, which also can be as high as 1 percent.

These fees can be radically reduced if the government offered a public option similar to the Federal Employees Thrift Saving Plan. The fee for that fund is around 0.1 percent annually. Many states have already taken the initiative to begin to allow workers in the private sector to have money invested by their public worker pension fund managers.

We can also do a lot to downsize the financial industry with a modest financial transactions tax. A fee of 0.1 percent would eliminate a huge amount of wasteful transactions while having virtually no impact on productive investment. It would also radically reduce the money going to high-frequency traders and others engaged in speculative trading.

Making the World Safe and Good for Ordinary Workers

The sort of restructuring of the market described here would mean much less money going to the rich and very rich. That means they will be pulling away fewer resources for lavish lifestyles since their lifestyles would have to be somewhat less lavish. That leaves more money for everyone else.

I wrote a piece last year pointing out that in the three decades from 1938 to 1968, the minimum wage not only kept pace with prices, it also rose in step with productivity. This means that as the country got richer, so did the workers at the bottom rungs of the wage ladder.

In the years since 1968, the minimum wage has not even kept pace with prices, so that a worker getting $7.25 an hour in 2022 can buy far less than a worker earning the minimum wage in 1968. However, if the minimum wage had continued to keep pace with productivity growth, it would have been more than $26 an hour in 2021. (It would be over $27 an hour today.)

Imagine a country where the lowest-paid full-time worker was pocketing more than $52,000 a year and a two-earner couple would have more than $104,000 a year, even if both were just getting the minimum wage. This is not possible in our world, where the economy has been deliberately structured to send so much income to those at the top, but we should never forget that this is a policy choice.

We have implemented a set of policies that give large amounts of money to people in a position to benefit from patent and copyright monopolies, to CEOs and other top management, and to a favored few in the financial industry. These groups will fight like crazy to prevent these policies from being reversed.

But, the first step in the battle is recognizing they rigged the deck. Don’t let them ever get away with saying that it was just the natural workings of the market.

[1] It also helps that it is typically a deep-pocketed third-party payer, like an insurance company or the government, so drug companies don’t have to convince patients of the value of their drugs.

[2] I calculate the savings and costs involved in getting to a universal Medicare program here.

[3] I have also proposed radically restructuring Section 230 protection, taking it away from sites that sell personal information or accept advertising. This should have the effect of downsizing Facebook and other sites that operate along similar lines.

  1. January 10, 2022 at 9:48 pm

    Thanks to Dean Baker ! This is a great summary of commonsense re-structuring of our financial sector . I have advocated many of these reforms , including financial transactions tax .Will be referencing this summary in my future columns , current: ” Fixing the US Healthcare Disaster” http://www.wsimag.com and http://www.ethicalmarkets.com

  2. Gerald Holtham
    January 12, 2022 at 5:28 pm

    1.If we scrap patents we have to find a replacement mechanism.. If developing a cure for alzheimers, for example, is likely to take many years of expensive person-power and some expensive equipment, why would a private company undertake it unless it made the same sort of return on that expenditure as alternative risky investments? One has to suspect they won’t. The profits on the successful research also has to cover the cost of the failed research – of which there will be plenty – if the company is to stay in business. An alternative is for the state to undertake all such research in specialist institutes. The research would still have to be paid for so implies higher taxes. You get cheaper drugs and higher taxes. The complete centralisation of decision-making about what to research is also a risk, .A mixed economy in research is probably best if it can be made to work
    2..The UK has a tax on transactions in equities. I don’t know that it has had a perceptible effect on the pattern of share dealing. That is no reason not to levy a tax if it can be collected but don’t expect miracles.
    3.Performance related fees in fund management have to be handled carefully because they can also distort incentives. Suppose a hedge-fund manager is running a fund of $300 million and he gets no flat fee but 20 per cent of the upside. If he can clock a gain of 40 per cent and get a fifth of it, that’s $24 million. A year or two of that and he has what’s known in the trade as FU money. His incentive is to go for broke. He can’t lose money that is not his and if he gets some big payouts he doesn’t have to worry what the fund does subsequently. Two reforms are required. Managers of large funds should have a substantial investment in the fund themselves and performance pay cannot be awarded on a single years performance; it has to be on the average of 3 or even 5 years and is only payable when the period is over. That would reduce the incentive to take excessive risk.
    4. Banks should also have a class of preference shares which have unlimited liability and it should be compulsory for senior manager and board members to hold them. This would make banks a hybrid of a joint-stock company an an old-fashioned partnership where the partners stood to lose everything. In this case if the ordinary shareholders were wiped out the Board would be on the hook potentially for everything they owned and could be bankrupted. No walking away from the wreck to their mansions as Lehman executives did. That would also induce more prudent management.

  3. Ken Zimmerman
    January 18, 2022 at 10:23 am

    Dean, this is what you prefer I take it.

    “From the first half of the twentieth century emerged a political consensus that governments should play a much larger role in managing the economy during the second half of the twentieth century. The excesses and inequalities of the early decades, and then the cataclysms of the 1930s and the 1940s, left people with little faith in markets. The economy had been treated as a rocking chair that might move forward or backward but reliably returned to the same place. Keynes made his mark by arguing the economy was more akin to a chair on wheels: after inevitable disruptions, the hand of government was needed to return the chair to its place. The economy required careful management both in good times, to prevent the unequal distribution of prosperity, and in bad times, to limit the pain. Conservatives in those years were people who argued for smaller increases in government regulation and in spending on social welfare.

    The U.S. government extended regulation over large swaths of economic activity. Truckers licensed to carry exposed film by the Interstate Commerce Commission required a separate license to carry unexposed film. Antitrust regulators prevented midsized firms from merging and sought to break apart dominant firms like the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). Technology firms like AT&T were required to share discoveries with rivals. The banking industry, blamed for causing the Depression, was placed on probation.

    Policy makers consciously sought to limit economic inequality. In 1946, Congress passed a law requiring the government to minimize unemployment. In addition, Congress imposed a steeply progressive income tax, and other levies, which collected more than half of the income of those who earned the most. The rise of the labor movement, legitimated by the government during the Great Depression, helped to ensure that workers prospered alongside shareholders. More than a quarter of American wage earners belonged to a union in the 1950s, including a fading movie star named Ronald Reagan, who served as the head of the Screen Actors Guild.

    The government also sought to mitigate the effects of inequality by ensuring people had the opportunity to rise, and by catching those who fell. Federal spending as a share of the nation’s total economic output roughly doubled between 1948 and 1968, to 20 percent from about 10 percent. The United States built an interstate highway system, subsidized the expansion of commercial aviation, and laid the groundwork for the rise of the internet. The government also invested heavily in public education, public health care, and public pensions: America wanted to show it could produce better lives for ordinary people than its Communist rivals.

    For roughly a quarter century, Americans enjoyed an era of plump prosperity. There were plenty of problems — including the legal, social, and economic subordination of women and of African Americans — but economic gains were broadly shared. Foreigners remarked on the egalitarian veneer of American society: bosses and workers drove similar cars, wore similar clothing, and sat in the same pews. America was a factory town, and Wall Street was the part of town where modestly compensated men managed other people’s money. About a fifth of the American population moved to a new home in any given year, and most Americans succeeded in moving up the economic ladder during the course of their lives. In Detroit, car making carried a generation of workers into the middle class, and the cars carried them to the suburbs.

    Economists began to enter government service in large numbers during the New Deal and World War II. They helped to calculate where roads and bridges should be built, and then they helped to calculate which roads and bridges should be destroyed. The economist Arnold Harberger recalled that a friend arrived in Washington during the war and found the National Mall filled with Quonset huts. “What is that?” he inquired. “Oh,” came the response, “that’s where the economists are.”26

    As policy makers and bureaucrats struggled to manage the rapid expansion of the federal government, they began to rely on economists to rationalize the administration of public policy. Gradually economists also began to exert an influence over the goals of public policy. The disciples of Keynes began to convince policy makers that the government could increase prosperity by playing a larger role in the economy. The apogee of this “activist economics” in the United States came in the mid-1960s under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, who deployed tax cuts and spending increases in an aggressive effort to stimulate economic growth and to reduce poverty.

    For a few years, the effect seemed almost magical. Then unemployment and inflation began to rise together. By the early 1970s, the American economy was faltering — and Japan and West Germany were resurgent. “We can’t compete in making cars, or making steel, or making airplanes,” President Nixon fretted. “So are we going to end up just making toilet paper and toothpaste?”27 Nixon and his successors, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, kept trying the interventionist prescriptions of the Keynesians until even some of the Keynesians threw up their hands. Juanita Kreps, an economist who served as Carter’s commerce secretary, told the Washington Post when she stepped down in 1979 that her confidence in Keynesian economics was so badly shaken that she did not plan to return to her position as a tenured professor at Duke University. “I don’t know what I would teach,” she said. “You do lose faith in the catechism.’”
    (Benyamin Appelbaum, ‘The Economists’ Hour, How the False Prophets of Free Markets Fractured Our Society’)

    The economists who rebelled at this point told the US “In Markets We Trust.” In the late 1960s, they began to proselytize to policy makers that the free movement of prices in a market economy would deliver better results than bureaucrats on every front. They campaigned on a conclusion that research did not support: the champions of activist economics had overstated the government’s influence and their own competence. They said that managing capitalism to improve life on Earth ended up making things worse. The latter was at least partially accurate as capitalism was indeed very much a second best (more accurately perhaps third best option) for creating a simultaneously productive and fair economy. Their opposition wasn’t so much to Keynesian economics as a philosophy but to government involvement in the economy in any form. That opposition is absolute. Dean, so what you envision can never happen so long as these economists have control. And with the current Republican party living in a bizarre neo-fascist amusement park and the Democratic Party in full disarray, these economists are in charge. They have shown themselves to be masters of the techniques of bullying, propaganda, and deceit to acquire and exercise such power. After all, markets had already failed multiple times between the Civil War and 1929. Including 1865-1867, 1869-1870, 1873, 1882-1885, 1887-1888, 1890-1891, 1893, 1896, 1902-1904, 1907, 1910-1911, 1913-1914, Post-World War I recession, 1920-1921, 1923-1924, 1926-1927, Great Depression. A stable economy? No!

    • Meta Capitalism
      January 18, 2022 at 12:51 pm

      Read Mirowski’s many works. He does a great job of putting this in historical contextd.

  4. Meta Capitalism
    January 18, 2022 at 12:44 pm

    What I have gained from reflecting on Gerald’s pragmatic comments is balance; he challenges my idealism with pragmatism. I like that because I think it is needed. He raises issues and viewpoints that bring us often back to the real world vs. the idealized world. There is a natural tension between the world we desire and the world that is achievable in our limited timeframe. We do need to see the goal (the ideal), but we also need to wisely recognize the achievable within the timeframe we have to work.

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