Does Paul Krugman Want To Turn Back the Clock on Economic Theory?

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Before I look at some aspects of a recent Paul Krugman column, I need to tell readers that, no, I did not watch any of the Republican National Convention, and I don’t support Mitt Romney or the Republican Party, which officially has set itself up as nothing more than the political faction of the Neoconservatives. If Romney is elected, he still won’t be president; no, Bill Kristol and Dick Cheney still will be the men behind the curtain.

It always is amazing to me to see how certain narratives continue to exist, even after real-live experience has debunked them time and again. Krugman always is claiming that the Republicans (including Romney and Paul Ryan) really are Radical Free Marketeers in action and if elected, will work to make government so small it “can be drowned in a bathtub.” We have had six Republican presidents in my lifetime, and I cannot recall one time that government was smaller in spending and in scope than it was when that person took office. When writing of Keynesian economics, Krugman claims that the critics are blind to the facts, but when he writes about politics, he is as blind as anyone from the Washington Times or Fox News regarding the rhetoric and the facts.

Nonetheless, in today’s column, he goes off on Republicans and Medicare, claiming:

But back to the big lie. The Republican Party is now firmly committed to replacing Medicare with what we might call Vouchercare. The government would no longer pay your major medical bills; instead, it would give you a voucher that could be applied to the purchase of private insurance. And, if the voucher proved insufficient to buy decent coverage, hey, that would be your problem.

I have no idea if the Republicans can impose the Next Wonkish Measure or not, or if they would give a real-live effort. I just don’t know, but given the rhetoric and reality of the past, I cannot imagine that they will do what Krugman breathlessly claims they will do. But, hey, the guy is a master of regurgitating Democratic Party Talking Points, and that is the perspective that I take. After all, he is first and foremost a political operative.

What does interest me is what he says next, for it reflects his “knowledge,” or lack thereof, about markets and how they work. Take his following points regarding insurance and Medicare:

Why would anyone think that this was a good idea? The G.O.P. platform says that it "will empower millions of seniors to control their personal health care decisions." Indeed. Because those of us too young for Medicare just feel so personally empowered, you know, when dealing with insurance companies. Still, wouldn't private insurers reduce costs through the magic of the marketplace? No. All, and I mean all, the evidence says that public systems like Medicare and Medicaid, which have less bureaucracy than private insurers (if you can't believe this, you've never had to deal with an insurance company) and greater bargaining power, are better than the private sector at controlling costs. 

I know this flies in the face of free-market dogma, but it's just a fact. (Emphasis mine) You can see this fact in the history of Medicare Advantage, which is run through private insurers and has consistently had higher costs than traditional Medicare. You can see it from comparisons between Medicaid and private insurance: Medicaid costs much less. And you can see it in international comparisons: The United States has the most privatized health system in the advanced world and, by far, the highest health costs.

Since I don’t have the cost numbers in front of me, I won’t dispute what he has said, and furthermore, I will answer using the assumption that his numbers are correct. Instead, I ask this simple question: Why would a private firm create a bureaucracy and then voluntarily engage in practices that force up its costs? After all, as economists since 1871 will note, the value of the final product is not determined from the value of the factors of production, but the other way around.

In other words, firms would gain nothing from engaging in activities that are more costly than necessary to provide a final product. When we do see something as Krugman describes, we need to know why private insurance costs would be higher than government bureaucracy costs.

Krugman does not give an answer, except to claim that what we are seeing is a free market in action. To me, this is a non-explanation, given that I never have seen an economist — including Krugman — claim that firms can be more profitable by imposing higher costs upon themselves. So why would the insurance companies do it, especially since they operate in what Krugman seems to claim is a near-unregulated free market?

I think anyone who has worked for an insurance firm or for any regulated industry can tell you that government “oversight” is costly. Furthermore, what Krugman does NOT say is that Medicare and Medicaid officials are not subject to many of the same regulations that are laid down on private firms. Certainly no firm would create a bureaucracy that is unnecessarily costly as in free markets, higher costs do not lead to higher profits. I also would like to add that the regulatory process also serves as a domestic protectionist device that keeps out competition — and leads to higher prices for consumers.

Now, if Krugman really wants to claim that the pre-1871 theories — that the cost of production is what determines the cost of the final product — he is free to do so. However, he just might be rejecting the price theory that has been taught for more than a century. If he wishes to turn back the clock to David Ricardo’s theory of value, so be it.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.

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