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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Drug Patents Are Protectionism, Why Does the NYT Feel the Need for Quotes?

Drug Patents Are Protectionism, Why Does the NYT Feel the Need for Quotes?

Wednesday, 23 October 2013 05:17

Trade policy is perhaps the most Orwellian area of U.S. politics today. Most formal trade barriers in the form of tariffs or quotas have been eliminated. What usually occupies the time of trade negotiators now is the crafting of regulatory rules dealing with health and safety issues, the environment, and other areas having little direct relationship to trade. Since the parties at the table generally reflect corporate interests, the strategy is to use "trade" agreements to put in place rules that may not be politically possible at the national or sub-national level due to the opposition of consumer, environmental, or labor groups.

In some cases "free trade" talks turn reality on its head, for example negotiating stronger patent and copyright protections. The former is especially the case with drug companies who have been major actors in the trade agreements pushed by the United States for the last quarter century.

The industry's push for greater protection for its patents or other forms of intellectual property claims, such as data exclusivity, are quite explicitly intended to push up drug prices. The rationale is that higher drug prices will support more research. The extent to which is true, or whether patents are the best way to finance research, is debatable, but the fact that drug companies want government protections to allow them to raise their prices is not. 

That is why it is strange that the NYT felt the need to put the word "protectionism" in quotation marks in an article on how people in the United States are increasingly buying drugs from other countries where they are available at much lower prices. The quotation marks were added in the context of presenting the views of a retiree who was saying that he had saved thousands of dollars over the last decade by buying drugs from other countries.

"Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist and health care advocate in North Carolina, said he has saved thousands of dollars buying medicines from overseas in the past decade. 'It may be technically illegal, but I don’t think anyone would ever get prosecuted,' he said, adding that such laws reflected 'protectionism' for drug makers."

It is difficult to see any legitimate reason for including quotation marks around protectionism. The restrictions on importation are clearly a form of protectionism. That is not an arguable point.

Comments (14)Add Comment
written by Anthony, October 23, 2013 6:50

It seems clear from the article that the reporter was continuing her quotation of Barrett's words--but she placed his use of the word "protectionism" in the midst of a paraphrase, which might have led to your confusion.

The Ultimate American Economic Conundrum: High Prices and Low Prices are Good for You
written by Last Mover, October 23, 2013 7:16
The rationale is that higher drug prices will support more research.

So which is it? One day it's high prices are necessary to induce innovation and production. The next day it's low (real) prices that reflect increased productivity and efficiency, presumably spurred on by the prior round of high prices.

When will sock puppets for anti-competitive market power to collect economic rent through high prices that create not one additional unit of output get their story straight? Is it high prices or low prices that drive the economy, and in this case, international trade.

They could try the Econ 101 they claim to preach, just once:

In true free market competition (absent the usual market failure), "high prices" = high profit = market entry = reduced prices.

In sock puppet markets, high prices = high profit = blocked market entry = continued high prices.

Wake up America. High prices are good for you because they are bad for you when they result in low prices.

P.S. Recovery of up front high (legitimate) cost of research and development in selling price does not justify high prices. Read Dean Baker.
written by JSeydl, October 23, 2013 8:55
Yeah, but Anthony, the sentence still reads as though the protectionist claim is the opinion of Barrett, an opinion that might not be shared by the general population. The reporter is actually reporting a bit of trickery.
Is Pharma like the mafia?
written by AlanInAZ, October 23, 2013 9:02
Dean focuses on cost but my concerns are more about safety and under reported side effects. The revolving door between government regulators and Pharma is also an issue.

written by Anthony, October 23, 2013 1:23
Unless I'm missing something, in the context of this article, the word "protectionist" is indeed the stated opinion of Barrett, as quoted by the reporter. It was his word; she merely reported his use of it. Yes, in the midst of an otherwise paraphrased sentence, it stands out--but I fail to see the deception.
written by watermelonpunch, October 23, 2013 2:55
@ Anthony
Stop trying to argue points which are not arguable.
Will you next say that "airplanes fly" needs to be put in quotations because it's somebody's stated opinion?

1) It may indeed be the statement of the retired doctor, but that protectionism is not an arguable point - it is not "just an opinion", so there was no need anyway, for the reporter to somehow signify that the word "protectionism" was a word used by the retired doctor, and which needed to be taken in that context.

2) One would think a reporter at the New York Times would have sufficient awareness of style, grammar, and journalism standards, to not fall prey to ambiguities which should be almost as obvious as dangling participles!! That the reporter, or a copy editor, would've recognized the problem here, and found some other definitely objective & clear way to convey the information, if that was their intention - which it should be in a news article.
quotes versus bids
written by Squeezed Turnip, October 23, 2013 6:13
The NYT 'editors' and 'reporters' apparently won't object to my use of quotes in accordance with the use of punctuation as approved of by 'Andrew', since there is no reason for you who are reading this sentence to believe that they are certainly 100% what they say they are.
written by Squeezed Turnip, October 23, 2013 6:17
lol, I meant 'Anthony' (with apologies to 'Andrew')
written by Anthony, October 23, 2013 7:15
I think you (or perhaps I?) have missed the gist of Dean's beef with the article. He wrote, "It is difficult to see any legitimate reason for including quotation marks around protectionism. The restrictions on importation are clearly a form a of protectionism. That is not an arguable point." I merely speculated that Barrett himself used the word "protectionism," and the reporter noted that down in her paraphrase. Dean read the punctuation as scare quotes--as the reporter imposing her skepticism about the concept of protectionism in this context. I think Dean is misreading the sentence, but his confusion is understandable. A better reporter would have paraphrased the entire sentence, using an acceptable alternative to "protectionism," or simply continued the quote, verbatim, from the doctor.
written by watermelonpunch, October 23, 2013 9:19
@ Anthony
I think you're the one who's confused, not Dean Baker.

You're completely missing the point.

If it was not deliberate, then it was incompetence.
Either way, we expect more of the New York Times.
written by watermelonpunch, October 23, 2013 9:40
By the way, who's 'Andrew' anyway?
written by Anthony, October 23, 2013 9:57
No, I very much understand Dean's point--but it does not matter in the context of this article whether the quotation marks are there or not; the point of the passage is merely to report what the doctor said. Had Rosenthal included the word "protectionism" without quotes, the Times would still not be endorsing the doctor's (or Dean's) view of protectionist trade agreements. The reporter is not making an argument for or against; just reporting (clumsily, as I said earlier) what was said to her.
quote mark 'epidemic'
written by Squeezed Turnip, October 24, 2013 8:39
it's all the rage amongst news editors these days, a sad attempt at avoiding reporting, I mean lawsuits.
written by watermelonpunch, October 24, 2013 10:20
just reporting (clumsily, as I said earlier)


That's the point. Why is the New York Times being clumsy?

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.