Campaign 2008: Coming Events (Education, Energy, Pharmaceuticals
I taught literature and writing courses for 10 years -- at the University of Rochester, The College of William and Mary, and the University of Georgia ("Go Dawgs!"). Later, I spent eight years writing speeches and evaluating issues in the petroleum and chemical industries (Phillips Petroleum and Gulf Oil). After that, I wrote speeches and other materials on health and pharmaceuticals (Aetna, Merck, Eli Lilly, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, and others).
Many important developments are taking place in higher education, energy, and pharmaceuticals. Some of the changes underway you'll read about here first.
At colleges and universities, costs are rising much more rapidly than the wages of those who have to pay the toll. The new Democratic majority will propose to transfer more money to the parents of students, but if the past is a guide, the college and universities will consume those dollars faster than the government can distribute them.
The good news is that there are technologies available that can reduce college costs sharply. I'm keying in this blog message on one of those technologies, and it makes less and less sense to send the kids off to college when they can get an equal education spending much of their time at home.
The bad news is that colleges and universities don't want to change and are only marginally interested in making significant use of new technologies. If cost-inefficient campuses and unsustainable teacher-to-student ratios were good enough for grandpa, they're good enough for cash-strapped junior. .
In terms of energy, there's massive confusion at the political level. When the price of gasoline "went up" to $3.00 per gallon, commentators generally responded with a "woe is us" refrain. Makers of gas-guzzling SUVs saw their sales go like a boulder pitched in the ocean. .
But what really happened? Even at $3.00 per gallon, gasoline consumption DID NOT GO DOWN. Then, when gasoline prices floated lower to a mere $2.20 per gallon, sales of SUVs shot up as Americans hit the road in record numbers.
In 1984, when I left Gulf Oil, I checked out the prices for regular gas at a local Amoco station, and they were $1.149. Now, 22 years later, the prices for the same fuel are about $2.259, less than double.
I have a secret: adjusted for inflation, GAS PRICES HAVEN'T GONE UP AT ALL. Don't tell that to your local Democratic congressman or TV media anchor, because you'll ruin their day.
In pharmaceuticals, something truly amazing is underway. Specifically, in an industry which absolutely hates competition, that's exactly what's breaking out.
Pharmaceutical pricing is an oxymoron. For example, you can get a 60-day's worth of 20 mg. Simvastatin (generic Zocor, an anti-cholesterol medicine) for roughly the same price as a 30-day supply. A 120-day supply (80 mg.) from Costco goes for less than a 60-day supply.
You accomplish this miracle by splitting tablets in half -- or in the case of 80 mg. Simvastatin, into quarters.
The best recent sign of competition coming to pharamceuticals is the explosion of $4 generic drugs at outlets like Wal-Mart, Target, and the Giant Eagle pharmacies in Pennsylvania and Ohio. In fact, at Giant Eagle pharmacies, you can get various generic antibiotics for nothing -- zero dollars, zero cents.
Where did the $4 prices come from? In part they may reflect the the Medicare Plan D (Medicare-related prescription drug plan for seniors), where most generic drugs require a $5 co-payment.
Many prescription drug plans obtained through companies or labor unions also require small co-payments for generics. It turns out most company employees, union members, and senior would much rather pay $4 for a drug than $5, which would not come as a surprise to market economists.
In many states, one or more of the $4 outlets offers some surprising drugs, including Pravastatin, a highly regarded anti-cholesterol medicine. In some states, you can get Paroxetine (generic Paxil, an anti-depressant) for $4.
A few years ago, before Paxil "went generic," it cost about $3 a pill. Now, at the $4 places, it costs roughly 13 cents per pill.
Have you hugged your pharmaceutical manufacturer today?
The Medicare Part D Plan, of which I'm a member, is also encouraging competition. After I discovered I had Type II diabetes, I took Avandia, which costs about $168 a month.
That over-priced cost drug was taking me over the insurance limit, meaning I had to pay more out of my pocket.
My doctor (Kathleen Osten, an air-force veteran and a superb physician) came up with a solution. She said I might be able to get the same glucose-lowering results from Metformin (Glucophage). She was right.
The cost of Metformin? I'm paying $8 for a month's supply, but you can get it at Wal-Mart, Target, and Giant Eagle for $4.
Of course, a lot of "new" Democrats are going to Congress with the idea of sticking it to the pharmaceutical companies, but they don't really need to waste their time because the "invisible hand" of the marketplace is doing the work for them.
These developments are monumental, and you'll hear more about them later.