The Distortions from Tariffs and the Distortions from Patent Monopolies

25th November 2018 Off By binary
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Jim Tankersley had a very interesting piece in the NYT on how clothing manufacturers manage to minimize the impact of tariffs. The gist of the piece is that the tariffs led to very few jobs in the United States, but instead cause companies to spend lots of time gaming the system. We would presumably rather see them spend their time trying to design better products and production techniques.

While this a very interesting piece, that is written in reference to Donald Trump’s latest and future rounds of tariffs, it would be interesting to see a similar piece in reference to patent monopolies, especially in the case of prescription drugs. While the tariffs discussed in the piece range from 7 percent to 27 percent, in the case of prescription drugs, patent protection often raises the price by a factor of 100 or even more. This is equivalent to tariffs of 10,000 percent. The vast majority of drugs would sell for ten to twenty dollars per prescription in a free market, instead of the hundreds or thousands of dollars that are charged as a result of patent protection.

Patents have a purpose (as does all protection), providing an incentive for researching new drugs. But there are other mechanisms for financing research (see chapter 5 of Rigged and this paper). To have a basis for assessing the merits of the different systems we need to know the costs they imply.

In the case of patent monopolies, these costs are enormous. The NYT piece goes through the efforts companies will go through to avoid tariffs of 20 percent, think of the efforts that people can and do go through to avoid patent monopolies that are equivalent to tariffs of 1000 percent.

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