Since the late 1970s, a concerted effort has been made by right-wing, wealthy elites to promote a new brand of “free market” capitalism, which I refer to as plutocratic economics. [1] Their broad, well-funded initiative was successful in reversing and undermining the progressive, managed capitalism that was put in place in the 1930s and 40s in response to the failure of the largely unregulated markets that led to the Great Depression.

After 40 years of experience with these plutocratic policies, the results are in: they don’t work. Wealthy elites (the plutocrats) have benefited substantially, but the consequences for the economy, workers, and the middle class have been very negative.

The plutocrats’ basic argument is that markets work and government doesn’t. They assert that government is inherently incompetent, in part because it and its regulators have been “captured” by the special interests they were supposed to regulate. [2]

The wealthy individuals and large, often multi-national, corporations pushing plutocratic economics invested in politicians, academicians, think tanks, and advocacy organizations to promote their theories, rationales, and policies. Academicians and think tanks were hired and funded to give a scholarly veneer and rationale to what otherwise would have been seen for what it was – a raw power grab. The resultant public policies greatly benefited the self-interest of the wealthy elites and corporate executives.

On the political front, the plutocrats use multiple strategies to achieve their policy goals. They employ lobbyists who work to convince policy makers to support their policies. They place supporters (often former corporate employees) within the government bureaucracy (a.k.a. the revolving door). They make campaign contributions and “independent” expenditures on behalf of candidates to elect supportive individuals and to buy access to elected officials. They promote trade policies and a type of globalization that undermines American workers. They got U.S. policy makers to choose trade policy options that put the interests of multi-national corporations and investors first and those of workers last. [3]

Proponents of the plutocratic economics promised that markets and businesses would regulate themselves for the good of all, that markets would be more efficient without government regulation, and that social goals could be more effectively achieved by using market forces. They also argued that social programs that supported low income workers and families were inefficient, unnecessary, and provided disincentives to work hard and make positive contributions to our economy.

In concert with their economic and political theories, the plutocrats pushed to reduce progressive taxation, eliminate government regulation and anti-trust enforcement (which had limited the size and marketplace power of corporations), and dramatically weaken public programs that provide support for workers and a safety net (including the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, unions, and welfare payments to the poor). Their trade policies allowed U.S. multi-national corporations to ship five million jobs overseas over the last 20 years. As a result, multi-national corporations now have a smaller portion of their global workforce in the U.S. than the portion of their sales that are in the U.S. [4]

The plutocrats and their hired experts developed rationales for their policies based on economic theories and assumptions about markets that were not supported by actual experience (and have since been disproved by actual experience). For example, they assumed ideal and efficient markets where perfect information was available to buyers and sellers, where prices were set solely by supply and demand, where sellers and buyers were numerous and no one had any marketplace power, and where there were no significant externalities, such as pollution. Supply-side economics is a classic case of an economic theory with no actual evidence for it and with substantial evidence refuting it today. It claims that cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy and businesses, will 1) stimulate economic growth and 2) do so to such an extent that government tax revenue will actually increase. Despite multiple experiences where tax cuts have been enacted and have not produced the promised effects, the plutocrats still use supply-side theory to justify tax cuts, as they did successfully with the December 2017 $150 billion a year tax cut.

It is important to note, that despite the rhetoric, markets under plutocratic economics are NOT actually free markets. All markets require rules to function, such as rules about ownership of property including patents, copyrights, and other protections for intellectual property; laws governing contracts and courts to enforce them; standards for what constitutes unfair competitive practices; laws and courts to determine liability for accidents and harm from products; and standards for credit, debt, bankruptcy, financial transactions, and investments.

The issue for policy makers is how the markets’ rules balance the power and interests of various parties. The bottom-line questions are who makes the rules and who benefits. For 40 years, plutocratic economic policies have put returns to shareholders (i.e., primarily wealthy investors) and, by implication, corporate executives, ahead of the interests of workers and also of investment in a company’s future. As a result, compensation for workers has been flat while their productivity has continued to grow. Overall, the result of these plutocratic policies has been dramatic growth in income and wealth inequality, leaving the U.S. with the most unequal income distribution of any rich democracy. [5]

Future posts will 1) summarize the evidence that plutocratic economic policy has failed, 2) discuss the politics of plutocratic economics and how the plutocrats have reacted as the failure of their policies has become clear, 3) review the harm that plutocratic economics has done to our democracy, and 4) identify progressive policies that are needed to reverse the harmful effects of plutocracy.

[1]      Technically, among policy wonks and economists, this form of capitalism has been labeled neoliberal economics. This is confusing because liberal in the economic world means something quite different than liberal means in common political usage. Although this is a bit of an oversimplification, liberal in economics refers to individualism – an every person for him or herself approach.

[2]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, “Neoliberalism: Political success, economic failure,” The American Prospect (

[3]      Kuttner, R., 6/4/19, “Warren’s astonishing plan for economic patriotism,” The American Prospect (

[4]      Tyler, G., 1/10/19, “The codetermination difference,” The American Prospect (

[5]      Tyler, G., 1/10/19, see above


A quintessential case of price gouging by drug companies, with serious and sometimes fatal consequences, is that of insulin. Roughly 30 million Americans have diabetes, a chronic disease where the body’s mechanism for controlling blood sugar levels isn’t working properly. About 7 million of them must take multiple doses of insulin daily to control blood sugar. Those with Type 1 diabetes, formerly referred to as early-onset or juvenile diabetes, suffer from a pancreas that doesn’t produced adequate amounts of natural insulin so they must use three to four 20-milliliter vials of manufactured insulin a month (or other equivalent forms of insulin). Failure to use insulin regularly to control blood sugar levels can be fatal or have serious long-term impacts on health, including on vision and mobility.

Insulin is a 100-year-old drug whose three developers at the University of Toronto in 1922 sold their patent rights to the University for $1 apiece. They thought this would guarantee affordable access to those needing it in perpetuity. They sold manufacturing and distribution rights to Lilly in the U.S. and Nordisk in Europe. After a year, competitors were free to enter the market.

Today, three big pharmaceutical corporations make the worldwide supply of insulin: Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi. Their prices for insulin have skyrocketed, tripling from 2007 to 2017, resulting in their making billions of dollars in profits from their insulin sales.

The U.S. market has 15% of global insulin users but generates 50% of worldwide revenue because prices here are so much higher than they are elsewhere. [1] For example, vials of insulin that sell for close to $300 in the U.S. sell for $30 in Canada.

Insulin for a Type 1 diabetic costs about $1,300 a month in the U.S. Because the U.S. does not regulate drug prices as other countries do, insulin’s manufacturers have increased U.S. prices dramatically in recent years. For example, a 20-milliliter vial of insulin that cost $175 fifteen years ago costs $1,487 today, eight and a half times as much. Because Medicare, the U.S. health insurance for seniors, is prohibited by law from negotiating drug prices (a gift to the industry from friendly Congress people and a friendly President), Medicare spending on insulin grew from $1.4 billion in 2007 to $13.3 billion in 2017. While some of this increase is due to increased numbers of patients using it, per patient Medicare spending on insulin increased 358% from $862 to $3,949. Out-of-pocket spending by Medicare patients themselves also increased, going from $236 million to $968 million. [2]

Estimates of the cost to produce a vial of insulin range from $2.28 to $6.16 depending on the version of insulin and other factors, [3] so the $300 retail cost represents a huge mark-up and huge profits for the drug makers. Until the 1970s, the price of insulin stayed relatively low. In the 1940s the U.S. Department of Justice leveled small anti-trust fines on entities in the Lilly supply chain, indicating the U.S. regulators would intervene if prices were jacked up. [4]

Starting in the late 1970s, changes in politics and laws created increased opportunities for drug makers to profit from the exclusive rights granted by patents on drugs and to effectively extend the longevity of patent protections by tweaking a drug or its delivery mechanism. This set the stage for the pharmaceutical industry to become the most profitable industry in America. For example, Sanofi filed for 74 different patents on its version of insulin, which meant that it could go 37 years without any competition. As of 2014, the three big insulin makers held 19 active patents on their insulin products.

Often the new, patented versions of insulin provide limited benefits to patients, despite their significantly higher prices. However, aggressive marketing campaigns and partnerships with improved delivery devices lead to prescriptions for the new more expensive, and more profitable, products.

A study published in the Internal Medicine edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one in four insulin users (26%) in the U.S. had rationed their insulin use due to high costs; in other high-income countries the rate was only 6.5%. [5] Diabetics who couldn’t afford their insulin have died when they tried to do without or to ration their supply. Many others have endured financial hardships that have required them to use retirement savings, move to cheaper housing, sell possessions, or limit purchases of food and other drugs.

Even for individuals with health insurance, the high price of insulin is problematic because of increased co-payments for drugs and because deductibles they must pay before insurance coverage kicks in have, on average, quadrupled over the last 10 years.

The grassroots organizers of the #insulin4all campaign are working to change U.S. policies and make insulin affordable. Their campaign may prove to be the spark that leads to regulation and negotiation of all drug prices in the U.S. Advocacy is increasing in energy and urgency because diabetics are literally fighting for their lives as insulin makers jack up the price and they don’t see government standing up for them.

The issue of drug prices and particularly insulin prices is, finally, getting increased attention. Congress is holding hearings on insulin prices. Federal and state legislation is being considered. Colorado has passed legislation capping co-payments for insulin. Some advocates have called for nationalizing the insulin market and public manufacturing of generic drugs, including insulin.

I urge you to contact your state and federal elected representatives and to ask them to pass legislation to control the price of insulin and stop price gouging by the drug industry.

[1]      Shure, N., 6/24/19, “The insulin racket,” The American Prospect (

[2]      Silverman, E., 6/22/19, “Insulin rationing high in US, survey finds,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Silverman, E., 6/22/19, see above

[4]      Shure, N., 6/24/19, see above

[5]      Silverman, E., 6/22/19, see above


A group of wealthy Americans who would be taxed by a wealth tax have written a letter supporting such as tax. It is a very persuasive letter explaining their reasoning. Here is a summary of it.

They call on all the presidential candidates (making it clear they are not endorsing any candidate) to support a modest wealth tax on people like them – the 19 signers of the letter who are among the richest 1/10 of 1% of Americans. By increasing taxes on the one-out-of-a-thousand wealthiest households, or about 75,000 families, our country could address many important challenges that it is facing and would, thereby, provide millions of Americans a better life and a better shot at the American dream.

They state that the U.S. has a moral, ethical, and economic responsibility to tax wealth more heavily. They note that middle income Americans already pay a wealth tax on their primary form of wealth, namely the property taxes they pay on their homes. A broader wealth tax would ask the richest Americans to pay a similar wealth tax on the primary sources of their wealth, namely stocks, bonds, and other financial investments.

The letter notes that a moderate tax on so few people raises so much money (about $300 billion a year) because the wealthiest Americans have extremely high levels of wealth. These 75,000 households have as much wealth as the least wealthy 90% of Americans. In other words, these 75,000 families have as much combined wealth as that of the 67,500,000 families with the least wealth.

The letter highlights six key reasons the signers support a wealth tax, which could do all of the following:

  • Tackle the climate crisis: The wealth tax revenue could be used to invest in accelerating innovation and implementation of a clean-energy, low-carbon economy. A wealth tax would mean that those who have benefited the most from our economic system would be helping to pay for fixing one of its most devastating flaws.
  • Strengthen our economy: The revenue could be used to invest in aging infrastructure, child care, education, and easing student debt. This would increase productivity, entrepreneurship, and homeownership, thereby promoting broad-based economic growth and prosperity. Wealth tax revenue could support innovation and job creation, strengthening our economy in ways that would benefit everyone.
  • Improve health: High economic inequality is linked to disparities in health outcomes and longevity; the wealthiest individuals have a life expectancy 15 years longer than the poorest individuals. The wealth tax revenue could be used to invest in addressing major public health challenges such as cardiovascular disease and opioid addiction.
  • Increase fairness: A wealth tax would help close the gap between the low effective tax rates paid by the wealthy and those paid by everyone else. The wealthiest 1/10 of 1% of Americans are estimated to pay 3.2% of their wealth in taxes annually, while the bottom 99% pay an estimated 7.2%. The letter states that “Taxing extraordinary wealth should be a greater priority than taxing hard work. The most fortunate should contribute more.” (p. 4)
  • Strengthen freedom and democracy: The growing concentration of wealth undermines the stability and integrity of our democracy. High levels of economic inequality have tended to concentrate political power and lead to plutocratic governments in other countries. In the U.S., major policies seldom become law without the support of wealthy interests, leading to division, dissatisfaction, and distrust of democratic institutions among the public. The wealthy signers of the letter state that “We believe instituting a wealth tax would lead to political, social, and economic stability, strengthening and safeguarding America’s democratic freedoms.” (p. 4)
  • Reflect patriotic duty: It is the patriotic duty of every American to contribute what they can to the success of the country. The letter states that the richest Americans should be proud to pay a bit more to strengthen America’s future; it’s the least they can do for the country they love.

The letter discusses the arguments against a wealth tax and concludes that they are often overstated and are mostly technical, implementation details.

The signers of the letter conclude by noting that while a wealth tax does not further their narrow economic interests, it is in their interests as Americans. Due to the strong rationale for a moderate wealth tax, they join the majority of Americans in supporting it and call on all the presidential candidates to do so as well. (For more information on a wealth tax and the rationale for it, see this previous post.)