So here’s a decent and concise overview of the latest issue to be taking over the internet:
|Have a peanut allergy? Chance are you’re about to spend a lot more on EpiPens
by Emma Hinchliffe
Over the past few weeks, EpiPens have slowly overtaken the news. So what is going on with them exactly?
I feel like we’ve talked about this before as it relates to this guy, who apparently has some feelings about economists:
@jodiecongirl lol economics professors lmao
— Martin Shkreli (@MartinShkreli) July 22, 2016
I don’t think he understands that economists are one of the groups likely most sympathetic to his ideals of profit maximization. Anyway, the general narrative is “company buys product, decides to make money from product, raises price of product,” and I would like to proceed by addressing one of Senator Sanders’ specific points:
There's no reason an EpiPen, which costs Mylan just a few dollars to make, should cost families more than $600. https://t.co/rVWUlMxD0Q
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 18, 2016
This is where I point out that just because someone doesn’t like the reason doesn’t mean that the reason doesn’t exist. (As you’ll see in a bit, however, I pretty much agree with the spirit of what Sanders is saying.) In this case, the reason is some combination of inelastic demand and monopoly power– if consumers aren’t price sensitive (in this case because the product is a necessity) and they don’t perceive substitutes as being available (in this case one technically exists but often isn’t viewed as an acceptable substitute, so forgive me for not opining on the evils of patent protection at the moment), a producer can increase profit by increasing price. Sure, it will usually lose some customers, but the additional profit from customers that remain will more than make up for it. (In fact, the Lerner Index shows that markup over cost is inversely related to price elasticity of demand.)
Now, Bernie’s a smart guy, so I’m pretty sure that he knows this. He probably also knows that, even when producers are always maximizing profit, not all price increases are a result of cost increases. They could be the result of cost increases, but they also could be the result of an increase in demand for the product, at least in the short run. (That said, individuals do tend to view the former as fair and the latter as unfair.) In this case, there does seem to be an increase in demand for EpiPens over time, but what has more likely transpired is that the producer has shifted its values over time to focus more on pure profit maximization and less on keeping prices “fair.”
The somewhat uncomfortable reality is that, unless I’m interpreting price-gouging laws wayyyyyy too narrowly, the producer is within its rights to increase the price of its output, regardless of whether or not its costs have changed. (I feel like this point gets lost since companies often pay lip service to government to try to justify price changes in order to try to avoid future increases in regulation.) In fact, there’s even somewhat of an expectation coming from investors and capital markets that companies act so as to maximize profit. (While investors do seem to be increasing their emphasis on fairness and good corporate citizenship, the notion of a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders does still exist.)
I’m not saying that this outcome is right, either from an ethical or an efficiency standpoint, just that it shouldn’t be surprising. Again, the uncomfortable reality is that we rely on companies being “nice” as far as necessities are concerned in many cases, and recently we’ve gotten smacked with examples that show how fragile that trust can be. I’m also not saying that regulation is easy- how do you decide whether a product is truly a necessity? How do you decide whether a market is sufficiently competitive so as to solve its own problems? How do you regulate price or remove barriers to entry without destroying the incentives to innovate or keep costs down? (Economists have some models for regulating natural monopolies such as this, but they’re not perfect solutions.) I do think, however, that it’s a little unfair for policymakers to resort to shaming companies that are operating within the legal framework that they created because they kicked the regulatory can down the road (but, ironically yet likely justifiably, regulated enough to create the problem in the first place) rather than addressing what is an easily foreseeable issue from an economic standpoint.