Pandemics and public goods, and why we are failing at both

Here is my latest New York Times column, which has a specific part on how to address pandemics and a more general section on the evolving role of government in American society.  In neither area are matters running especially well.

Here is one initial point, namely that it is difficult to commit to allow high prices upfront:

Research and development grants are a way to pay potential innovators up front — an important move, as an innovator can’t always charge high-enough prices for the value of its remedies when they’re actually needed.

That will lead to institutional failure, rooted in a mix of government and market failure.  Therefore other rewards are needed, since the prospect of high prices does not adequately motivate.  I thus call for some key drugs to be rewarded with prizes and for government to buy out the patent rights, if need be:

If anyone doubted a government pledge to pay big money for the rights to remedies, the patent’s value could be established by a competitive auction. Michael Kremer, a Harvard economics professor, outlined the procedure for such an auction in his research paper “Patent Buyouts.”

The larger problem is this:

OVER all, the American government seems to be turning its back on its traditional role of producing and investing in national public goods. If there is any consistent tendency in recent government spending, it is that spending on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare — which provide mostly private benefits — is rising and that investment and spending on national public goods is falling.

Do read the whole thing.  I also suggest that (non-paternalistic) public health could be a suitable health care issue for Republicans, who presumably should be looking for alternatives to the status quo.

There are by the way two points which did not make the final cut for reasons of space.  First, the current coronavirus in Saudi Arabia has not gone away as a source of potential problems.  Second, the Bush Administration (43) did take some notable steps to return vaccine capacity to the United States, through both regulatory forbearance and HHS procurement.  These are likely good policies since in a pandemic one cannot expect to rely on free international trade in a remedy but rather export controls are to be expected.


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