Tyler appears to be growing more skeptical of the value of health care spending (see his posts here and here). A simple model explains most of what is going on and why he and another of my very smart colleagues Robin Hanson, are wrong. In the graph below spending on health care is on the X axis, health outcomes are on the Y axis. Spending shows diminishing returns. We are currently at point Q on the graph labeled T1 – note that at this point marginal increases in spending have little effect on output (Tyler asks, What margin has low value? Answer: The marginal dollar). Even fairly large increases or decreases in spending will not change outcomes very much given that we are currently at point Q.
Why are we spending so much as to push us into the flat portion of the production function? One reason is that out-of-pocket expenses for medical care are much lower than true costs – we typically are spending someone else’s money. A second reason is that the marginal utility of wealth is low if you are dead so spending on health care near the end of life has unusually low opportunity cost. A third reason may be that various psychological factors make the desire to avoid regret particulary strong for health care, as Tyler speculated earlier.
Although the marginal dollar has low return the value of improvements in medical technology is enormous. These gains are illustrated by the shift from T1 to T2. It has been estimated, for example, that increases in life expectancy from reductions in mortality due to cardiovascular disease over 1970-1990 has been worth over $30 trillion dollars – yes, 30 trillion dollars (for this research see: book, papers, summary). A conservative estimate is that 1/3rd of these improvements in life expectancy were due to better medical technology. One third of the annual benefits is $500 billion – this is much more than total government spending on medical research (the budget of the entire NIH is around 25 billion).
The low value of medical spending at a particular point in time and the high value of medical research over time suggest that we would be much better off if we cut back on medical care spending and devoted the funds to medical research. We should spend less on Medicaid, Medicare, Prescription drug plans etc. and use the savings to better fund the NIH (or other methods of increasing medical research such as prizes etc.)