You Should Repeatedly Read Cochrane's "After the ACA"
By Bryan Caplan
Soon after I finished my Ph.D. at Princeton, I started going to academic conferences. When I met senior professors at these gathering, they were often surprised to discover my pedigree. Regardless of the subject at hand, I habitually revealed exactly what I thought. How could someone so unguarded get through Princeton econ?
When I read John Cochrane, an analogous question keeps popping into my head. How did a guy this unguarded get tenure at the University of Chicago? His recent essay, “After the ACA: Freeing the Market for Health Care” is a prime example. Cochrane doesn’t just present evidence; he happily tell us what he thinks the evidence means.
How competition really works:
My examples share a common thread: Intense competition by new entrants, who put old companies out of business or force unwelcome and disruptive changes. Microsoft displaced IBM, and Google is displacing Microsoft. Walmart displaced Sears, and Amazon.com may displace Wal‐Mart. Typewriter companies didn’t invent the world processor, nor did they adapt. The post office didn’t invent FedEx or email. Kodak is out of business. Toyota gave us cheaper and better cars, not Ford/GM/Chrysler competition. When the older businesses survive, it is only the pressure from new entrants that forces them to adapt.
My examples share another common thread. They remind us how painful the cost‐control, efficiency, and innovation processes are. When airlines were regulated, artificially high prices didn’t primarily go to stockholders. They went to unionized pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. Protection for domestic car makers supported generous union contracts and inefficient work rules, more than outsize profits. A look at a modern hospital and its supply network reveals lots of similar structures. “Bending down cost curves” in these examples required cleaning out these rents, through offshoring, elimination of union contracts and work rules, mechanization, pressure on suppliers, and internal restructurings.
The fact that so much cost reduction comes from new entrants, not reform at the old companies, is testament to the painfulness of this process, and the ability of incumbents to protect the status quo. The big 3 still take 40 hours to build a car relative to Toyota’s 30. And two of them went bankrupt, while Toyota sits on a cash reserve. American and United are still struggling to match Southwest’s efficiencies, after 30 years. The parts of Kodak invested in film simply couldn’t let the company exploit its technical knowledge in optics and electronics. Chicago’s teacher unions are fighting charter schools tooth and nail. And a quick look at a modern hospital, and its suppliers, suggests just how wrenching the same transformations will be.
Implications for health care competition:
So, where are the Walmarts and Southwest Airlines of health care? They are missing, and for a rather obvious reason: regulation and legal impediments.
A small example: In Illinois as in 35 other states7, every new hospital, or even major purchase, requires a “certificate of need.” This certificate is issued by our “hospital equalization board,” appointed by the governor (insert joke here) and regularly in the newspapers for various scandals. The board has an explicit mandate to defend the profitability of existing hospitals. It holds hearings at which they can complain that a new entrant would hurt their bottom line.
The standard adverse selection argument is just factually incorrect:
Now, the “adverse selection” phenomenon, that sick people are more likely to buy insurance, and healthy people forego it, is a big problem. But the insurance company charges the same rate, not because it can’t tell who is sick – a fundamental, technological, and intractable information asymmetry. The insurance company charges the same rate because law and regulation force it not to use all the information it has. If anything, we have the opposite information problem: insurers know too much.
This source of adverse selection is a legal and regulatory problem, not an information problem, and easily solved. If insurance were freely rated, nobody would be denied. Sick people would pay more, but “Health status” insurance shows how to solve that.
How free-market health care proposals labor under an absurd double standard:
The critics adduce a hypothetical anecdote in which one person is ill served, by a straw‐man completely unregulated market, which nobody is advocating, with no charity or other care (which we’ve had for over 800 years, long before any government involvement at all). They conclude that the anecdote justifies the thousands of pages of the ACA, tens of thousands of pages of subsidiary regulation, and the mass of additional Federal, State, and Local regulation applying to every single person in the country.
How is it that we accept this deeply illogical argument, or that anyone in making it expects it to be taken seriously? If you can find one person who falls through the cracks, the government gets to regulate the whole market, not that we craft a minimal solution to fix that person’s problem.
But wait, will not one person fall through the cracks or be ill‐served by the highly regulated system? If I find one Canadian grandma denied a hip replacement, or someone who can’t get a doctor to take her as a medicare patient, why do I not get to conclude that everyone must be left to the market?
I hasten to add that at least one person does favor a completely unregulated health care market (which includes voluntary charity by definition). Furthermore, Cochrane should take his last point more seriously: Once you realize that every system has to occasionally say, “Tough luck,” you have to abandon the idea of “crafting minimal solutions” to placate everyone. But my complaints are mere nit-picking. “After the ACA” is a great essay and everyone interested in health policy should repeatedly read it.