Chasing Superior Good Syndrome vs. Baumol’s (or Scott’s) Cost Disease

Slatestarcodex had an excellent (as always) piece on “Considerations on Cost Disease.” It goes over a number of reasons, aside from Baumol’s cost disease, for why everything in certain sectors, namely healthcare and have gotten much more expensive. I think it misses an important dynamic, though, that I’d like to lay out.

First, though, he has a list of eight potential answers, each of which he partly dismisses. Cost increases are really happening, and markets mostly work, so it’s not simply a market failure. Government inefficiency and overregulation doesn’t really explain large parts of the problem, nor do fear of lawsuits. Risk tolerance has decreased, but that seems not to have been the sole issue. Cost shirking by some people might increase costs a bit, but that isn’t the whole picture. Finally, not on that list but implicitly explored when Scott refers to “politics,” is Moloch.

I think it’s a bit strange to end a piece with a long list of partial answers, which plausibly explain the vast majority of the issue with “ What’s happening? I don’t know and I find it really scary.” But I think there is another dynamic that’s being ignored — and I would be surprised if an economist ignored it, but I’ll blame Scott’s eclectic ad-hoc education for why he doesn’t discuss the elephant in the room — Superior goods.

Superior Goods

For those who don’t remember their Economics classes, imagine a guy who makes $40,000/year and eats chicken for dinner 3 nights a week. He gets a huge 50% raise, to $60,000/year, and suddenly has extra money to spend — his disposable income probably tripled or quadrupled. Before the hedonic treadmill kicks in, and he decides to waste all the money on higher rent and nicer cars, he changes his diet. But he won’t start eating chicken 10 times a week — he’ll start eating steak. When people get more money, they replace cheap “inferior” goods with expensive “superior” goods. And steak is a superior good.

But how many times a week will people eat steak? Two? Five? Americans as a whole got really rich in the 1940s and 1950s, and needed someplace to start spending their newfound wealth. What do people spend extra money on? Entertainment is now pretty cheap, and there are only so many nights a week you see a movie, and only so many $20/month MMORPGs you’re going to pay for. You aren’t going to pay 5 times as much for a slightly better video game or movie — and although you might pay double for 3D-Imax, there’s not much room for growth in that 5%.

The Atlantic had a piece on this several years ago, with the following chart;

Food, including rising steak consumption, decreased to a negligible part of people’s budgets, as housing started rising.In this chart, the reason healthcare hasn’t really shot up to the extent Scott discussed, as the article notes, is because most of the cost is via pre-tax employer spending. The other big change the article discusses is that after 1950 or so, everyone got cars, and commuted from their more expensive suburban houses — which is effectively an implicit increase in housing cost.

And at some point, bigger houses and nicer cars begin to saturate; a Tesla is nicer than my Hyundai, and I’d love one, but not enough to upgrade for 3x the cost. I know how much better a Tesla is — I’ve seen them.

Limitless Demand, Invisible Supply

There are only a few things that we have a limitless demand for, but very limited ability to judge the impact of our spending. What are they?

I think this is one big missing piece of the puzzle; in both healthcare and education, we want improvements, and they are worth a ton, but we can’t figure out how much the marginal spending improves things. So we pour money into these sectors.

Scott thinks this means that teachers’ and doctors’ wages should rise, but they don’t. I think it’s obvious why; they supply isn’t very limited. And the marginal impact of two teachers versus one, or a team of doctors versus one, isn’t huge. (Class size matters, but we have tons of teachers — with no shortage in sight, there is no price pressure.)

What sucks up the increased money? Dollars, both public and private, chasing hard to find benefits.

I’d spend money to improve my health, both mental and physical, but how? Extra medical diagnostics to catch problems, pricier but marginally more effective drugs, chiropractors, probably useless supplements — all are exploding in popularity. How much do they improve health? I don’t really know — not much, but I’d probably try something if it might be useful.

I’m spending a ton of money on preschool for my kids. Why? Because it helps, according to the studies. How much better is the $15,000/year daycare versus the $8,000 a year program a friend of mine runs in her house? Unclear, but I’m certainly not the only one spending big bucks. Why spend less, if education is the most superior good around?

How much better is Harvard than a subsidized in-state school, or four years of that school versus 2 years of cheap community college before transferring in? The studies seem to suggest that most of the benefit is really because the kids who get into the better schools. And Scott knows that this is happening.

We pour money into schools and medicine in order to improve things, but where does the money go? Into efforts to improve things, of course. But I’ve argued at length before that bureaucracy is bad at incentivizing things, especially when goals are unclear. So the money goes to sinkholes like more bureaucrats and clever manipulation of the metrics that are used to allocate the money.

As long as we’re incentivized to improve things that we’re unsure how to improve, the incentives to pour money into them unwisely will continue, and costs will rise. That’s not the entire answer, but it’s a central dynamic that leads to many of the things Scott is talking about — so hopefully that reduces Scott’s fears a bit.