Note: This article refers to Professor Krugman, the economist and textbook author. Apparently there is a non-economist columnist with the same name. I apologize for the confusion.
Four days ago, the LA Times posted an article with the headline: “VA investigation turns up widespread problems with wait times.” In the piece, the VA is quoted as finding that “inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic.”
It’s systemic, and price ceilings are central to that system. Mandating below-market prices for the drugs and services they purchase and provide is largely how the VA is able to achieve “efficient” provision. Just Google “The Federal Ceiling Price (FCP)” and see what comes up.
Laymen and politicians have no issue with price ceilings. They tend to rely on folk economics (the intuitive economics of untrained people) to drive their policy choices. To them, the notion of “just price” is very appealing and even I have been guilty of succumbing to its charms.
To get beyond the simplistic thinking of folk econ, and to learn how price ceilings really work, I recommend the text “Essentials of Economics” by Krugman, Wells and Graddy. The most recent edition was published in 2011 (three years ago), but I am certain that in previous editions Krugman et al also outlined why price ceilings can’t lead to creating “The highest performing major system of providers that exists.”
Krugman sets us straight on what happens when politicians try to salve voter preferences for “just” prices by mandating ceilings by fiat. The default result is allocation by wait times (emphasis mine):
Another reason a price ceiling causes inefficiency is that it leads to wasted resources: people expend money, effort, and time to cope with the shortages caused by the price ceiling. Back in 1979, U.S. price controls on gasoline led to shortages that forced millions of Americans to spend hours each week waiting in lines at gas stations. The opportunity cost of the time spent in gas lines—the wages not earned, the leisure time not enjoyed—constituted wasted resources from the point of view of consumers and of the economy as a whole. Because of rent control, the Lees will spend all their spare time for several months searching for an apartment, time they would rather have spent working or engaged in family activities.
Another common distortion is simply to reduce quality to better align with the mandated price.
Yet another way a price ceiling causes inefficiency is by causing goods to be of inefficiently low quality. Inefficiently low quality means that sellers offer low-quality goods at a low price even though buyers would rather have higher quality and are willing to pay a higher price for it.
This Econ 101 chart from the Krugman text says it all. Price ceilings cause amount demanded to rise and amount supplied to fall, resting in a classical shortage. How do you deal with the mismatch? Make ‘em wait. Waiting not allowed? Make ‘em wait anyway.
Why do our wise leaders do this to us? Krugman has the answer (emphasis mine):
A last answer is that government officials often do not understand supply and demand analysis! It is a great mistake to suppose that economic policies in the real world are always sensible or well informed.
So, the next time someone makes claims to the wonders of government efficiency, consider these wise words from the great professor (emphasis mine):
The alternative to a market economy is a command economy, in which there is a central authority making decisions about production and consumption. Command economies have been tried, most notably in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1991. But they didn’t work very well. Producers in the Soviet Union routinely found themselves unable to produce because they did not have crucial raw materials, or they succeeded in producing but then found that nobody wanted their products. Consumers were often unable to find necessary items—command economies are famous for long lines at shops.
Market economies, however, are able to coordinate even highly complex activities and to reliably provide consumers with the goods and services they want. Indeed, people quite casually trust their lives to the market system: residents of any major city would starve in days if the unplanned yet somehow orderly actions of thousands of businesses did not deliver a steady supply of food. Surprisingly, the unplanned “chaos” of a market economy turns out to be far more orderly than the “planning” of a command economy.