Posts Tagged ‘United States’

wealth shares

[modified from the original source (pdf)]

We’ve been learning a great deal about the conditions and consequences of the obscene levels of inequality in the United States—now, in the past, and it seems for the foreseeable future.

Right now, inequality is escalating within public higher education, especially in research universities that are chasing both tuition revenues and rankings. Thus, the editorial board of the Badger Herald, the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, found it necessary to criticize the lifting of the out-of-state student enrollment cap because it betrays the Wisconsin Idea and is making the university both “richer and whiter.”

Instead of increasing enrollment by targeting low-income and underrepresented Wisconsin students, UW now joins the ranks of public institutions that are happy with increasing the — already substantial — socioeconomic divide on campus. Making UW a bougie playground for the greater Chicagoland area is not the way to keep Wisconsin a world-class institution.

The Wisconsin students are right.* As recent research by Ozan Jaquette, Bradley R. Curs, and Julie R. Posselt confirms, public research universities are increasingly relying on tuition increases to fund their activities.** Thus, they are admitting more nonresident students—both for their out-of-state tuition payments and to raise the universities’ academic profile—and, as a result, the proportion of historically underrepresented students and especially of low-income students is declining. Moreover,

The shift towards nonresident students suggests that public research universities have increased the value they place on students who pay high tuition and have high test scores. This shift is indicative of a deeper change in organizational values, away from the public good emphasis on access and towards the self-interested emphases of academic profile and revenue generation. As scholars, campus leaders, or policymakers, we must ask ourselves, whether these are the values we want our flagship public institutions to promote?

We also need to look at the way inequality played out in American history, and make the appropriate connections to the present and future. In a recent paper, Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman examine the situation of labor markets during the first Gilded Age. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that labor markets in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries are as close as we have seen in U.S. history to the unregulated labor market that is presumed and celebrated within neoclassical economics. But, the authors explain, those Gilded-Age labor markets were characterized by high levels of conflict—between labor movements and employer organizations (over wages and, when workers went on strike, replacement workers or scabs)—which, in turn, called on increased levels of judicial intervention as well as domestic policing and military intervention, generally on the side of the employers.***

And the implications for the United States, in the second Gilded Age:

Looking around today, it is obvious that inequality and conflict over the distribution of wealth and income remain salient a century after the first Gilded Age. History is never a perfect guide, but the late 19th century suggests that even as markets play a greater role in allocating labour, legal and political institutions will continue to shape bargaining power between firms and workers, and thus the division of rents within the firm. What remains to be determined – and battled over – is which institutions are empowered to act, and whose interests they will represent. Regardless, latent labour market conflict seems likely to be a prominent feature of our new Gilded Age.

Finally, what can we way about inequality looking forward? According to Robert Shiller, it “could become a nightmare in the decades ahead.”

The reason for this dire prognosis is that the structures that create high levels of inequality in the first place serve as barriers to policies that might actually lessen the amount of inequality. According to Angus Deaton, “Those who are doing well will organize to protect what they have, including in ways that benefit them at the expense of the majority.” Historically, the only exceptions in capitalist democracies emerge in times of war, “because war mobilization changed beliefs about tax fairness.”

And contra Robert Solow (“We are not good at large-scale redistribution of income”), capitalist societies have consistently shown to be very good at large-scale redistribution of income toward the top—just not particularly interested in moving in the opposite direction, in redistributing income to those at the bottom.

In fact, neither Shiller nor the nine other economists who contributed to a recent project on long-term forecasting “expressed optimism that inequality would be corrected in the future, and none of us ventured that any major economic policy was likely to counteract recent trends.”****

Shiller uses Satyajit Ray’s 1973 movie “Distant Thunder”—about the Bengal famine of 1942-43, when millions died, almost all from the lower classes—to illustrate our current dilemma. There was plenty of food in the Bengal Province of British India to keep everyone alive but “the food was not shared adequately.”*****

Systems of privilege and entitlement permitted hoarding of food by people of status whose lives went on much as usual, except that they had to brush off starving beggars and would occasionally see dead bodies on the street.

It’s clear that, today, there are plenty of goods—food, clothing, and shelter—to go around but they’re not being shared equally. Not by a long shot. The problem is, existing “systems of privilege and entitlement” permit the accumulation of wealth on one end and misery on the end—just as they did during the first Gilded Age and, unless things change, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the lives of people of status go on much as usual, in their “bougie playground”—except they have to brush off the contemporary equivalent of starving beggars and occasionally see the analogy today of dead bodies on the street.


*It should perhaps come as no surprise that a prominent mainstream economist, Rebecca Blank, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2013, is the one who sought (and won) an end to the cap on out-of-state and international students.

**As Stephanie Saul reports,

According to the College Board, the average cost of attending a four-year public university, including room and board, increased from $11,655 in 2000 to $19,548 in 2015, in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the City University of New York system, tuition at four-year colleges is now $6,330, having increased by $300 each year since 2011, when it was $4,830. . .

“What Sanders figured out — it’s not the $65,000 cost of attendance at some of our pricier privates driving the debt bubble, but rather the disinvestment and privatization of public higher ed,” said Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

***This is one of the examples I use in my graduate-level course on the Political Economy of War and Peace—that the United States has its own history of intrastate wars (which, like many such wars in recent times, were class wars) and that, as the authors explain, “military and law enforcement institutions of the United States, in particular the Army, the National Guard, and the FBI, can trace their origins to the federal troops, state militias, and private Pinkertons deployed in 19th century labor conflicts.”

****The key point Shiller does not address is the role mainstream economics has played both in creating the current levels of inequality and in creating barriers to imagining and enacting policies and strategies for doing away with the grotesque levels of inequality we are witnessing today.

*****Amartya Sen famously argued that democracy prevents famines. That may be true. But it doesn’t prevent hunger or the other economic and social catastrophes that stem from the high levels of inequality we’ve seen in the first and second Gilded Ages in the United States.



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hospital mergers


Much of the debate about the U.S. healthcare system is focused on the role of public financing (in terms of subsidies and, for some, the possibility of a public option or even a single-payer program). But no one seems to want to look at the other key part, the actual delivery of healthcare to American workers and others. And that, regardless of the system of financing, remains mostly in profit-oriented private hands (which, as I argued earlier this year, undermines patient-centered healthcare).

There are a few exceptions, such as the Veterans Health Administration and Indian Health Service, whereby the government directly employs nurses, physicians, and others to provide health services to targeted populations. But the rest of healthcare is provided by private  (profit and nominally nonprofit) individuals, groups, and corporations.

As I discussed on Friday, a significant sector of private healthcare is the increasingly concentrated and enormously profitable pharmaceutical industry. Hospitals (which I’ve commented on many times over the years) are, of course, another key sector (at close to $1 trillion in 2014). That’s where Americans receive most of their in-patient care, critical care (including many without health insurance in emergency rooms), and an increasing number of out-patient treatments. And while hospitals appear to be independent from and non-overlapping with physicians (whose services accounted for roughly $600 billion in 2014), that’s an optical illusion. Not only do they compete with one another (in surgery, imaging, and other ambulatory services), each is forced to work closely with the other: hospitals rely on physicians to admit patients to their facilities, refer to their specialists, and to use their lucrative diagnostic services (with, as it turns out, illegal kickbacks), while physicians tend to their own patients within hospitals and are contracted for “in-house” supervision. And, increasingly, hospitals are directly employing physicians (and other healthcare workers) as salaried and piece-rate workers.


U.S. hospitals are, as it turns out, remarkably profitable. And, according to a recent analysis by Ge Bai and Gerard F. Anderson (unfortunately gated), 7 of the 10 of the most profitable hospitals (each exceeding more than $163 million in total profits from patient care services) are officially non-profit institutions.

According to Anderson,

The system is broken when nonprofit hospitals are raking in such high profits. The most profitable hospitals should either lower their prices or put those profits into other services within the community. We need to develop incentives that allow all hospitals to make a fair profit while at the same time keeping prices reasonable.

It’s true, many other hospitals (56 percent in their sample of acute-care facilities) are not profitable strictly in terms of patient services (the median hospital lost $82 per adjusted patient discharge). However, as the authors explain,

the median overall net income from all activities per adjusted discharge was a profit of $353, because many hospitals earned substantial profits from nonoperating activities—primarily from investments, charitable contributions (in the case of nonprofit hospitals), tuition (in the case of teaching hospitals), parking fees, and space rental. It appears that nonoperating activities allowed many hospitals that were unprofitable on the basis of operating activities to become profitable overall.

The most important factors boosting hospital profitability were markups (especially for uninsured and out-of-network patients and casualty and workers’ compensation insurers who often pay the hospital’s full charge) and the combination of system affiliation and regional power.

In fact, 50 hospitals in the United States are charging uninsured consumers more than 10 times the actual cost of patient care. All but one of the facilities are owned by for-profit entities. Topping the list is North Okaloosa Medical Center, a 110-bed facility in the Florida Panhandle about an hour outside of Pensacola, where uninsured patients are charged 12.6 times the actual cost of patient care. Community Health Systems operates 25 of the hospitals on the list. Hospital Corporation of America operates 14 others.

Again according to Anderson:

They are price-gouging because they can. They are marking up the prices because no one is telling them they can’t. These are the hospitals that have the highest markup of all 5,000 hospitals in the United States. This means when it costs the hospital $100, they are going to charge you, on average, $1,000.




It should come as no surprise, then, that, while the total number of hospitals has remained relatively constant over time, the number of those hospitals in health systems has continued to increase, thereby increasing regional power, markups, and profitability.

In another recent study, by Richard M. Scheffler et al., the authors found that the hospital markets in two states (California and New York) “were moderately to highly concentrated,” with mean Herfindahl-Hirschman indices of 2,259 and 3,708, respectively.* They also found that more concentrated hospital markets were associated with higher premium growth.

As expected, then, there is a continuing strong movement of hospital mergers and acquisitions—with at least 100 deals covering 178 hospitals, involving the takeover of profit and especially non-profit organizations, in 2014—leading to increased concentration in the hospital sector of the U.S. healthcare industry.

As Martin Gaynor explains,

There has been so much consolidation that most urban areas in the US are now dominated by one to three large hospital systems — examples include Boston (Partners), the Bay Area (Sutter), Pittsburgh (UPMC), and Cleveland (Cleveland Clinic, University Hospital). It is also now more likely that further consolidation will combine close competitors, given how many mergers have already occurred.

Clearly, the provision of healthcare through U.S. hospitals—both profit and, at least officially, non-profit—is generating enormous profits for their owners and top executives. But it’s Americans workers, who are both hospital employees and consumers of hospital services, who are paying the price.


*To remind readers, the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index is often used to evaluate the potential antitrust implications of acquisitions and mergers across many industries, including health care. It is calculated by summing the squares of the market shares of individual firms. Markets are then classified in one of three categories: (1) nonconcentrated, with an index below 1,500; (2) moderately concentrated, with an index between 1,500 and 2,500; and (3) highly concentrated, with an index above 2,500.


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The Wall Street Journal refers to it as “insurers playing a game of thrones.”

Big U.S. insurers are courting one another for possible multibillion-dollar deals. How they pair off could have significant implications for the managed-care industry, its individual and corporate customers, and U.S. medical providers. . .

“Usually, fewer competitors means prices will be less advantageous for consumers,” saidGary Claxton, an insurance expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “It probably means they’re going to be in a better position to maintain their margins,” he said.

Given the high costs of U.S. healthcare, insurance is obviously the way most Americans are able to gain some kind of access to the health system.

According to the latest (January–March 2015) National Health Interview Survey (pdf), about two-thirds of Americans below the age of 65 rely on private health insurance. The rest either don’t have health insurance coverage (10.7 percent) or have some kind of public health plan (24.2 percent).


The problem is, even without the latest proposed mega-mergers, the U.S. private health- insurance industry is already highly concentrated. Treating Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) affiliates as a single industry (since, with few exceptions, they have exclusive, non-overlapping market territories and hence do not compete with one another), and adding in Anthem (which operates the for-profit Blue plans across 14 states), the national market share of the four largest insurers increased significantly from 74 percent in 2006 to 83 percent in 2014. By comparison, the four-firm concentration ratio for the airline industry is 62 percent.


Much the same process of concentration has been confirmed by examining the so-called Herfindahl-Hirschman index.* Health insurance, as shown in the red line in the graph above, is the most concentrated industry (compared to, for example, hospitals and telecom). With a current index near 4,000 (having risen 79 percent between 2000 and 2014), and some states with indices exceeding 8,000, health insurance is easily considered highly concentrated.


It should come as no surprise that growing concentration in health insurance (based, mostly, on mergers and acquisitions) has meant both lower payments to providers (like physicians and hospitals) and higher premiums for payers (both employers and individuals)—thus boosting health-insurance profits.

So, within the U.S. healthcare system, Americans who don’t qualify for public programs are forced to rely (directly or indirectly) on a private health-insurance industry that is increasingly concentrated (and, if the proposed mergers go through, will rise even higher on the Herfindahl-Hirschman index) and is able to dictate both prices and the quality of policies.

Right now, if private health insurers suffer losses (as they claim has been the case under Obamacare, when they can’t pick and choose the healthiest customers in the exchanges), they can take their ball and go home. As James Kwak explains,

The obvious market-based solution is to keep increasing the penalties for not being covered until enough healthy people join the pool so insurers can make profits. But all that accomplishes is shifting more of the overall losses onto healthy people.

The obvious alternative is to reap the benefits of the current level of concentration and transform the existing private health-insurance programs into a public single-payer system.** That would succeed in creating universal coverage, lowering healthcare costs, and redistributing the losses across the society on the basis of an ability to pay.


*The Herfindahl-Hirschman Index is used by the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to evaluate the potential antitrust implications of acquisitions and mergers across many industries, including health care. It is calculated by summing the squares of the market shares of individual firms. Markets are then classified in one of three categories: (1) nonconcentrated, with an index below 1,500; (2) moderately concentrated, with an index between 1,500 and 2,500; and (3) highly concentrated, with an index above 2,500.

**It’s possible, of course, to imagine a middle ground, with higher marketplace subsidies for purchasing private insurance, stricter penalties for individuals who aren’t interested in purchasing insurance, and a limited government option. But that’s just an attempt to juggle the parameters of the existing institutional structure, without recognizing and overcoming the social costs of a system based on private health insurance.