Why Are College And Healthcare So Costly?

by Patrick Appel

Ezra Klein thinks it’s because, unlike other purchases, you can’t say “no” to either:

You might want a television, but you don’t actually need one. That gives you the upper hand. When push comes to shove, producers need to meet the demands of consumers.

But you can’t walk out on medical care for your spouse or education for your child. In the case of medical care, your spouse might die. In the case of college, you’re just throwing away your kid’s future (or so goes the conventional wisdom). Consequently, medical care and higher education are the two purchases that families will mortgage everything to make. They need to find a way to say “yes.” In these markets, when push comes to shove, consumers meet the demands of producers.

The result, in both cases, is similar: skyrocketing costs for a product of uncertain quality.

McArdle provides a different answer:

[H]ow do we explain health care and college cost inflation? Well, health care economist David Cutler once offered me the following observation: In health care, as in education, the output is very important, and impossible to measure accurately. Two 65-year-olds check into two hospitals with pneumonia; one lives, one dies. Was the difference in the medical care, or their constitutions, or the bacteria that infected them? There is a correct answer to that question, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever know what it was.

Similarly, two students go to different colleges; one flunks out, while the other gets a Rhodes Scholarship. Is one school better, or is one student? You can’t even answer these questions by aggregating data; better schools may attract better students. Even when you control for income and parental education, you’re left with what researchers call “omitted variable bias” — a better school may attract more motivated and education-oriented parents to enroll their kids there.

So on the one hand, we have two inelastic goods with a high perceived need; and on the other hand, you have no way to measure quality of output. The result is that we keep increasing the inputs: the expensive professors and doctors and research and facilities.