A column in the Wall Street Journal by Dana P. Goldman and Darius N. Lakdawalla presents a case for high drug prices by making an analogy to the salaries of major league baseball players. They ask what would happen if the average pay of major league players was cut from $4 million to $2 million. They hypothesize that the current crew of major leaguers would continue to play, but that young people might instead opt for different careers, leaving us with a less talented group of baseball players. Their analogy to the drug market is that we would see fewer drugs developed, and therefore we would end up worse off as a result of paying less for drugs.

This analogy is useful because it is a great way to demonstrate some serious wrong-headed thinking. It also leads those of us who had the privilege of seeing players like Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Henry Aaron, and Willie Mays in their primes to wonder if there somehow would have been better players 50 years ago if the pay back then was at current levels.

But the issue is not just how much we should pay for developing drugs, but how we should pay. Suppose that we paid fire fighters at the point where they came to the fire. They would assess the situation and make an offer to put out the fire and save the lives of those who are endangered. We could haggle if we want. Sometimes we might get the price down a bit and in some occasions a competing crew of firefighters may show up and offer some competition. Most of us would probably pay whatever the firefighters asked to rescue our family members.

This could lead to a situation where firefighters are very highly paid, since at least the ones who came to rich neighborhoods could count on payouts in the millions or even tens of millions of dollars. Suppose someone suggested that we were paying too much for firefighters' services and argued that there we could drastically reduce what we pay for a service we all recognize as tremendously important. Well, Goldman and Lakdawalla would undoubtedly respond with a Wall Street Journal column telling us that fewer people will want to be firefighters.

But this is really beside the point. Just about everyone agrees that it does not make sense to be determining firefighters' pay when they show up at the fire. We pay them a fixed salary. While they sit around waiting most of the time, occasionally they provide an incredibly valuable service saving valuable properties from destruction or even more importantly saving lives.

No one thinks that firefighters get ripped off because they don't walk away with millions of dollars when they save an endangered family. They get paid their salary (which we can argue whether too high or too low) for work that we recognize as dangerous, but which will occasionally result in enormous benefits to society.

In the case of developing drugs, we are now largely in the situation of paying the firefighters when they show up at the burning house. As a result of historical accident, we rely on a relic of the medieval guild system, government-granted patent monopolies, to finance most research into developing new drugs. These monopolies allow drug companies to charge prices that are several thousand percent above the free market price.

This leads to all the corruption and distortions that one would expect from a trade tariff of 1000 percent or even 10,000 percent. These markups lead drug companies to expend vast resources marketing their drugs. They also frequently misrepresent the safety and effectiveness of their drugs to maximize sales. They make payoffs to doctors, politicians, and academics to enlist them in their sales efforts. And, they use the legal system to harass potential competitors, often filing frivilous suits to dissaude generic competitors.

This system also leads to a large amount of wasted research spending. This is in part because competitors will try to innovate around a patent to share in the patent rents. In a world of patent monopolies, it is generally desirable to have competing drugs; however, if the first drug was selling at its free market price, it is unlikely that it would make sense to spend large amounts researching the development of a second, third, and fourth drug for a condition for which an effective treatment already exists, rather than researching drugs for conditions for which no effective treatment exists.

Patent monopolies also encourage secrecy in research, as drug companies disclose as little information as possible so that they prevent competitors from benefiting from their research. This also slows the research process.

The obvious alternative would be upfront funding, just like firefighters are paid a fixed salary for their work. Under this system, a condition of the funding would be that all the research findings are posted on the web as quickly as practical to maximize the ability of the scientific community to benefit. We already do this to some extent with the $32 billion a year that goes to the National Institutes of Health, although this amount would likely have to be doubled or even tripled to make up for the research currently supported by government-granted patent monopolies. (I outline a system for this in my book Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Have Been Structured to Make the Rich Richer [it's free.])

Anyhow, it would be good if we could be having a debate about how we finance drug research rather than just telling silly stories about baseball players salaries. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, Sherrod Brown and thirteen other senators have already introduced a bill that would have the government pick up the tab on some clinical trials and then putting the rights to successful drugs in the public domain so they can be sold at generic prices. The bill also has a patent buyout fund that would accomplish the same goal.

It is absurd that we charge people hundreds of thousands of dollars for life-saving drugs that cost a few hundred dollars to produce. Too bad the Wall Street Journal has so little creativity that it cannot even imagine an alternative to a grossly antiquated institution when it comes to financing prescription drug development.


Note: correction made to earlier version, thanks @reftpt.