PRIVATE WEALTH IS MADE ON PUBLIC INVESTMENTS

Private companies and individuals benefit from public investments in many ways. You may remember Senator Elizabeth Warren saying back in 2014 that “Nobody got rich on their own. Nobody. People worked hard, they built a business, God bless, but they moved their goods on roads the rest of us helped build, they hired employees the rest of us helped educate, they plugged into a power grid the rest of us helped build,” they are protected by police and firefighters that we all pay for, and so forth. [1]

Clearly, successful companies and individuals owe their success in part to public infrastructure and investments. Therefore, they should pay their fair share in taxes to support public spending on both the infrastructure they depend on and also to invest in the future so other individuals and companies can succeed as they did.

Another way that public investment supports and benefits private individuals and companies is that the federal government invests heavily in basic research that is then used by the private sector to develop products and services.

One example of this is that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends $30 billion each year on drug research and development (R&D). The pharmaceutical industry routinely justifies the high prices of drugs by citing the high cost of R&D to bring new drugs to market. This rationale is overstated from many perspectives (see my previous blog on drug pricing), but Representative Ocasio-Cortez shed new light on this overblown claim in a hearing in Congress earlier this year.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez asked Dr. Aaron Kesselheim [2] whether the public was receiving any return on the investments in drug R&D made by the NIH when they led to highly profitable drugs. His answer, “No, … when those products are … handed off to a for-profit company, there aren’t licensing deals that bring money back into the coffers of the NIH.” [3]

Every one of the 210 new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) between 2010 and 2016 benefited from NIH funded R&D.

The U.S. government is the biggest venture capital investor in the world. Examples outside of pharmaceuticals abound. The Internet grew out of the 1960s ARAPNET program funded by the Defense Department. Touchscreen technology was developed at a publicly-funded university using National Science Foundation grants. GPS technology began as a 1970s Defense Department program. Voice recognition technology came out of a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Every one of the 12 key technologies of smart phones grew out of government-funded research projects. The Department of Energy has made over $35 billion in loans to high-risk clean technology projects, including Tesla’s development of electric cars. [4]

Unfortunately, the U.S. public is not getting the return it deserves on these investments. One way to get a public return is to tax the profits of companies using technologies in which the government has invested. Currently however, some of these companies pay very little or nothing in taxes. Furthermore, the 2017 tax cuts reduced corporate taxes to a near-record low. In addition to taxes, in countries such as Germany and Finland, the government obtains partial ownership or royalty payments from companies that benefit from public investments.

Part of the reason the public does not get a return on public investments in the U.S. is that our political system has been skewed to favor the interests of the private sector through our campaign finance system, lobbying, and the revolving door between government and private sector jobs. For example, over the last ten years, the pharmaceutical industry has spent almost $2.5 billion lobbying Congress. This includes hundreds of millions of dollars spent to influence the drug coverage provisions of the Affordable Care Act, which produce about $35 billion in additional profits for the pharmaceutical corporations.

Our elected officials and government regulators need to begin insisting that private companies and individuals provide the public – the taxpayers – with a reasonable return on public investments, including everything from roads, bridges, and air transportation, to our education system, to research and development. Fair taxation is one way to do this, but other avenues, such as partial ownership and royalty payments, should be explored as well.

[1]      Senator Elizabeth Warren, August 2012, campaign event https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHFHznu-N-M (30 seconds in)

[2]      Dr. Kesselheim is a doctor and a lawyer. He is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is an expert on the effects of intellectual property laws and regulatory policies on pharmaceutical development, the drug approval process, the costs, availability, and use of prescription drugs, and bioethics. (https://bioethics.hms.harvard.edu/person/faculty-members/aaron-kesselheim)

[3]      Karma, R., 3/6/19, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the myth of American innovation,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-and-myth-american-innovation)

[4]      Karma, R., 3/6/19, see above

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