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  • Missing the point again – I hope

    Posted by ken on July 21st, 2005 (All posts by )

    From the port side of the Web comes yet another post telling us why one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world is still not regulated enough.

    Why the rapid increase[in the number of people who could benefit from cholesterol-lowering drugs]? Are cholesterol levels in the United States actually getting worse and worse? Are more and more people at risk of a heart attack? Hard to say.

    Given our aging demographic, it’s pretty easy to say that the number of people at risk of a heart attack is rising. And, one would also expect that over 13 years, cholesterol-lowering drugs have gotten more effective and with fewer side effects, increasing the number of people for whom the costs are worth the benefits.

    But does that account for a three-fold increase in the number of people that the National Institutes of Health guidelines indicate should be taking these drugs? Beats me. Mr. Plumer doesn’t trust those guidelines because most of the experts writing them were paid by the makers of those drugs and thus are biased observers.

    Guess what? I don’t trust those guidelines either, and for the same reason. Regulatory capture is a fact of life, and it’s been demonstrated over and over and over and over again, clear back to the days when the government started “regulating” the early railroad industry. Regulation is a way to protect politically connected vendors from competition. It’s happened so many times, over so long a period, that it doesn’t even count as an “unintended consequence” anymore – if you’re paying the least bit of attention, you’re forced to conclude that empowering legislators and regulators to protect their friends from competition is the main purpose of regulation, and the fact that lots of voters think that regulation is good for protecting the so-called “common man” is a fortuitous circumstance enabling them to keep creating and using this power.

    The unintended consequence, if there is one, is that the skies are still empty of traffic, the extraterrestrial Solar System is still utterly uninhabited and your life expectancy is still less than a century. In short, protecting current vendors from competition impedes technological advancement. It certainly doesn’t do anything to improve the lives of those who aren’t close personal friends of regulators or legislators – it simply prevents weirdos you never heard of (and now never will) from coming up with an ingenious way to give you what you need better than the lazy slugs that make their living through regulatory capture.

    In short – if you’re concerned that the government is too friendly with (currently existing) corporations, and giving them “corporate welfare” including, but not limited to, protection from competition, we’re on your side, and our proposed reforms (deregulation, deregulation, and more deregulation) are the only workable solution. The alternative solutions, which involve giving legislators and regulators even more power to protect their friends from competition and give them other things at taxpayer expense, are about as likely to work as fighting a fire by pouring gasoline on it.

    And really, if you can’t trust the National Institutes of Health when they give advice that is at least subject to the marketplace of ideas, why in the world would you ever even consider letting a government agency retain the power to make similar judgements about drugs and forbid ordinary people from ignoring their (regulatorily captured, no doubt) pronouncements about which drugs they shouldn’t buy?

    But back to that unintended consequence I picked out… is it really unintended? Are there really people that would be against technological advancement? People that don’t openly subscribe to “humans are a plague on beautiful, pristine, sacred nature” nonsense?

    The evidence is not encouraging. Back to the post:

    Also, since my brain’s still untarnished by the latest glossy Newsweek article pushing the latest disease dreamed up in GlaxoSmithKline headquarters, I would guess that some of those billions spent on, say, Lipitor might be better spent on public health programs instead. Then again, any scientific study I could dig up on public health is very likely to be funded by the diet and fitness industries—they’ve already got Paul Krugman in their thrall, why not me? And so it goes, with new diseases concocted and commodified every which way we turn.

    Perhaps the health wonks among us can mull this problem over, while I ponder what it means when two of our nation’s largest industries (health and defense) can essentially manufacture demand out of thin air. Free market, they call it. Baffling, I say.

    This is nothing more than a (pejorative) description of technological advancement! Humanity is faced with an endless array of problems; most of them are necessarily ignored most of the time because no solution exists for them. That doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist, though. It’s still a problem, it’s just a problem that’s isn’t going away for the foreseeable future.

    When someone actually comes up with a solution for it, though, we stop ignoring it because we can solve it. No one created the problem – we just started noticing it. It’s then up to us common people to decide whether the cost of solving it is less than the cost of continuing to live with it. Sometimes the answer is yes, and we pay a price we never paid before, and we get a benefit we never thought possible. How in the Hell does anyone conclude that this in itself constitutes a problem or a flaw in our system? On what planet does curing a disease count as “concocting” it? How could anyone sane conclude that those who give us relief from afflictions that we thought were eternal, unfixable, and inevitable are the bad guys?

    If Burt Rutan or Virgin Galactic or one of those guys gets passenger service going to orbit or to the moon, is this character going to claim that those guys “manufactured demand” for spaceship rides and ponder what it means that they can manufacture all this demand and make money off of it and get away with it? Will the people who cure cancer be manufacturing demand for their cure, and will he ponder what it means that they can get away with it? And that Jonas Salk guy, where did he get off manufacturing demand for polio vaccine? And heart attacks just weren’t a problem for anyone until those statin pushers “concocted” them, right?

    So we have a choice. We can conclude that Mr. Plumer and guys like him really don’t understand how technological advancement works. Or we can conclude that he and guys like him oppose technological advancement and want us to keep living with our present “incurable” afflictions for all time, only with more government supervision. (And one wonders why today’s afflictions are so special, and whether he thinks living with the 15th Century’s “incurable” afflictions wouldn’t be better still…)

     

    One Response to “Missing the point again – I hope”

    1. Brad Plumer Says:

      Okay, okay. Stop burning all those straw men. Geez, they don’t come cheap.

      I never said the industry should be further regulated. You slyly chopped out that section of my post, but in the original I suggested, possibly, an independent, publicly-funded review board that could give consumers more information that didn’t have the taint of industry money behind it. That’s like, um, choice and stuff, right?

      And yes, your moon visions are awesome. Nevertheless, when companies like Lilly essentially invent “disorders” like PMDD in order to prolong its patent on Prozac, I have a hard time believing this serves some higher purpose or is advancing innovation in a meaningful way, and there are harmful side effects. From where I stand, at least, this is quite different from finding a cure for, say, cancer. Now obviously your answer is: “Well then you must hate going to the moon!” At which point it’s sort of pointless to continue the conversation. But, you’re right about one thing. “Manufacture demand” was a sloppy way to phrase things, I’ll admit. Companies manufacture demand all the time, and it’s often quite okay, as you note, although this is still worth pondering (for me, at least, you can keep dreaming of the moon if you desire).

      So off to find some other term.