Coronavirus

Governments Have Screwed Up Mask Purchase and Distribution. Maybe Everyone Should Be a Libertarian in a Pandemic.

The state can have all the capacity it needs and still get things badly wrong.

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The government has not been an efficient or competent dispenser of the masks so vital to protecting health care workers and patients from COVID-19.

As of mid-April, The Wall Street Journal reports, the federal government had for whatever reason dedicated millions in contracts, involving at least 80 percent of the 20 million N95 masks it was trying to procure, from "suppliers that either had never done business with the federal government or had only taken on small prior contracts that didn't include medical supplies." Predictably, some of those vendors "missed delivery deadlines or have backed out because of supply problems. The parent company of one supplier is in bankruptcy and its owners have been accused of fraud in lawsuits by multiple business partners."

One contractor, who usually works in hospital renovation for the government, told the Journal he just figured he'd be able to find the masks somehow through suppliers he typically worked with. After he agreed to a $5.5 million contract, the paper says, he was "stymied by sellers that don't really have high-quality masks or who jack up the price."

At least one would-be contractor has now been nabbed for fraud on such a mask deal.

ProPublica tagged along with what the Journal called the "largest N95 mask contract given out by the VA [Veterans Administration], for an initial $35.4 million." The company, Federal Government Experts, "agreed to provide the VA six million masks for $5.90 apiece by April 25, with potential for another five million masks at the same price at a later date, for a total of $64.9 million, according to federal contracting data."

It didn't work out. As Robert Stewart—the boss at Federal Government Experts—wondered to the ProPublica reporter himself, "Awarding a $34.5 million contract to a small company without any supply chain experience….Why would you do that?"

Stewart let that reporter tag along on fruitless (and expensive) private jet rides (including picking up what Stewart hoped would be his proud parents) on his way to cities where he didn't know he'd find any masks, and in general to witness him get jerked around by other unreliable potential sources for the masks he promised to deliver.

The fiasco ended with no masks delivered—but at least, according to the VA, no money paid either. (This contract paid only on delivery.) Despite months of scrambling, the Veterans Administration was not prepared to keep its hospitals equipped with masks. As of now over 2,000 V.A. employees have tested positive.

Stewart's absurd deal is only the tip of the iceberg in questionable procurement practices. ProPublica notes that the administration "has handed out at least $5.1 billion in no-bid contracts to address the pandemic."

The feds aren't the only ones making bad mask decisions. California is currently trying to get a refund on a $456.9 million wire transfer it sent as a down payment on a $600 million contract for 110 million N95 masks. It paid the money to a firm called Blue Flame Medical, which, The Wall Street Journal informs us, was "founded days earlier by former Republican fundraiser Mike Gula….Blue Flame struck a flurry of deals with states looking for medical supplies in late March and the first weeks of April, most of which have unraveled." Maryland and Alabama are also cancelling orders with the company, having decided that they are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reports that Gov. Gavin Newsom of California is refusing "to reveal the contents of a $990-million contract for purchasing protective masks from a Chinese electric car manufacturer." All the state would cough up was that they committed to buying 200 million masks a month for two months, of which 150 million were N95, but "all other details, including the price paid per mask, have been kept confidential." Even the state's legislators are being blocked from learning details of the deal. Such secrecy is not comforting when such enormous amounts of public funds are being spent.

When it does have the masks, the government hasn't been a great or intelligent caretaker or distributor of them. The Transportation Security Agency decided to hoard more than 1.3 million N95 respirator masks (which it received from Customs and Border Protection) rather than distribute them to hospitals or agencies or people who might lack them—even, as ProPublica reported, "as the number of people coming through U.S. airports dropped by 95% and the TSA instructed many employees to stay home to avoid being infected."

Other wasteful, clumsy, or even macabre stories have arisen from government attempts to help with or procure medical equipment. In Seattle, the county Public Health Department sent a Native American community health board body bags instead of requested medical supplies.

Before COVID-19 hit, certain pundits were promoting "state capacity libertarianism"—the idea that it is silly to focus on how much government spends or taxes, or the ways it dictates how people live, buy, sell, or behave, or the breadth and width of tasks it takes upon itself: What's important, this argument holds, is how effective and smart government is at doing what it tries to do.

The idea was, at best, an attempt to turn libertarian energies toward making government better at what it does. But these not-at-all-shocking snafus show no obvious way the concept could help, other than hand-waving calls to have better people making better decisions.

Mask procurement is not going awry because government lacks the capacity to do anything. They have plenty of money, essentially as much as they want to have, and they have plenty of staff. It's not because they don't have professional experts and bureaucrats trying to manage things, and it's not because Republicans hate government and want it to fail.

Even in a relatively free market, fraud and incompetence exist. The government in its mask decisions have shown a keen ability to find market actors who are very bad (deliberately or not) at what they do and offer them ungodly amounts of money. But government's unique combination of endless money and impunity for messing things up mean that the state is going to get things more wrong, more often. And that's true even, or perhaps especially, when it's urgent that the state get things right. The evidence is in the news every day, even if ideological blinders prevent non-libertarians from acknowledging it.

NEXT: An LAPD Cop Had Already Shot 3 People on the Job Before Beating the Crap out of Someone

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  1. “state capacity libertarianism”

    never heard of this. how ridiculous.

    What’s important, this argument holds, is how effective and smart government is at doing what it tries to do.

    As long as the trains run on time, eh?

    1. When I first read of it, it took me a long time to parse it. You are right, it makes no sense. Near as I can decipher the (intentionally?) opaque lingo, it means what the government is capable of — poor countries have less “state capacity” — and that libertarians should stop trying to reduce that and instead concentrate on making it more efficient. It’s almost as if the originator doesn’t understand “libertarian” and has no comprehension of the self-defined defect of government not being able to go out of business and so has every incentive to be inefficient.

      1. My guess, is the goal is to have the government be less obstrusive, by being more efficient. It’ll spend less by doing the same things better and more efficiently?

        I dunno, I’ve never heard of it either.

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      2. Yes, that is Tyler Cowen for you. Much like Dreher and his “Crunchy Conservative” movement, it is an example of mushy people who want to belong to a movement on principle but can’t get past their love of some things that are incompatible with that movement. So they try to coopt it.

  2. “Awarding a $34.5 million contract to a small company without any supply chain experience….Why would you do that?”

    “I don’t know.”

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  3. Do you think there will be actual reporting on the wharehouses full of supplies acquired by state agencies that never got handed out while hospitals were counting on donations to basically secure their workers health or do we think those type of stories will be swept under the rug?

    1. If the stories make Trump or Republicans look bad, they will be published. Otherwise, “Heroic Democratic Governors did a terrific job dealing with an unanticipated emergency while coping with budget cuts mandated by nasty greedy Republicans who wanted Grandma to die.”

    2. the Newsom deal in California was with a Chinese company while he closed down the 3m plant in California and called it a non-essential business and to top it all of the order was made partly because of Newsoms generosity he gave PPEs to other states leaving California short, this was some kind of crooked deal Newsom made and he better pray he gets the money back because both sides are lookin into that crooked deal

  4. I’ve never feared the threat of biological terrorism but I do now.

    1. I think it’s the state sponsored retarded response that I truly didn’t think would be this hamfisted and quite honestly easily the dumbest self inflicted gunshot wound I’ve ever seen that scares me. They can’t handle this bullshit they don’t deserve to exist as an entity. I’ve gone full anarchist, the state is a gorilla with a fucking machine gun best you can hope for is it shoots the gun harmlessly in the air.

  5. That last paragraph sums up what is wrong with government in general — it has no competition and cannot fail. Businesses which screw up go bankrupt or get bought up and their useful components (factories, workers) redistributed and repurposed to more useful tasks.

    If only the general public understood this basic principle! — businesses are not better or worse than government — business people are not better or worse than government employees — except people in private business know their employment is not guaranteed, and if they don’t make an effort to do the right thing, they will be fired or the company will go bust.

    There is the side effect that government employees know how hard it is to fire them, but that is a symptom, not the cause.

  6. Uh…lets see…government is acting as a customer procuring supplies from private business. Private businesses commit fraud and screw government. Libertarians scream “see government is bad” or something to that effect.

    Declaring that government can make bad purchasing decisions is to cite an obvious point. But so do all business. Purchasing waste and inventory inefficiency costs are internalized and passed along either as debt, a tax or a cost on goods. A business protects itself from fraud by having internal processes to vette and control spend. That is considered good business practice. When government tries to protect itself from fraud, its called regulation and people scream about how difficult it is to deal with the government.

    1. “Uh…lets see…government is acting as a customer procuring supplies from private business. Private businesses commit fraud and screw government. Libertarians scream “see government is bad” or something to that effect.”

      Yup because the government is being duped with MY money. And often times it isn’t even being duped. It is colluding with the private actor to embezzle my money.

      “When government tries to protect itself from fraud, its called regulation and people scream about how difficult it is to deal with the government.”

      Do you even read what you write? Regulation is when the government attempts to “protect” customers from the business they are trying to contract with.

      1. Government shouldn’t be doing so much business.

        1. No mention that government failed to restock the national supply after the last bug? Maybe they wouldn’t need to scramble for masks if they were stockpiled like they should have been.

    2. Reason4thinking
      You should try it sometime before you make an ass of yourself in print. Again.

  7. Wait wasn’t Reason and other media demanding that teh government force companies to make mask wether they made them before or not under the DPA

    1. Reason never demanded that the Government force companies to do anything. They demanded that the government back off regulations.

  8. The market isn’t producing enough masks. That’s market failure.

    Of course the government trying its best to buy masks is going to seem “inefficient.” Apparently trying to save lives is “inefficient” because it costs money.

    That tells you what’s wrong with capitalism right there.

    1. Idiot.

    2. I understand all the words that were written in this comment, individually.

    3. “The market isn’t producing enough masks. That’s market failure.”

      When you wake up on Christmas morning and realize your fridge is bare and no stores are open, do you scream about market failure? When you go to drive to the one open store, and your car is out of gas, do you scream about market failure?

      Expecting a market to have 10x production capacity waiting idle for an unforeseen pandemic is your delusion, not a failure of the market. The government knew since 2009 that they needed to stockpile millions of masks. They didn’t do it, because they were incompetent.

    4. A capitalist government wouldn’t try to save lives from disease.

    5. Ernie’s trying to win the dimbulb-lefty-troll award from OBL. Two real dimbulbs; tough decision.

  9. Maybe Everyone Should be a Libertarian in a Pandemic.

  10. Right now, I am much more pissed about mask production than anything relative to purchase and distribution.

  11. Republicans dont want government to fail??? – too funny.

    The formula is simple, appoint INEPT bureaucrats then blame government when it all crashes. Who you elect DOES matter.

    BTW there ARE numerous examples of governments doing a much better job ( New Zealand, Germany, South Korea) managing the pandemic.

    1. Hell, New Zealand sent a helicopter out to tell campers in the middle of nowhere to go back home. Take notes, everyone. That’s how you do it.

  12. What do you want government to do? This is a market failure, not a government failure. Grow up.

    1. Defend liberty and nothing else.

      1. The kind of liberty you are left with when there’s no centralized education, sanitation, transportation infrastructure, food safety rules, protections against exploitation in markets, or basic scientific research. Sounds likely the ideal society, if you’re into shit-covered food you have to walk through mud and shit to buy with no labels that you couldn’t read anyway.

        1. You should read The Law, by Frederic Bastiat. He debated that very point.

        2. Have you been to San Francisco lately?

        3. Fuck off and die, Tony.

    2. Was this linked to reddit or something?

    3. It’s somehow a market failure that the government failed to stockpile emergency supplies in advance of an actual emergency?

      1. To be fair, they only had 10 years to restock the supply, and these things take time.

    4. “…This is a market failure, not a government failure…”

      This ^ is a lefty lying in plain sight.

  13. But our government is being run by a businessman who was supposed to make everything run right.

    But he can’t even make the most important things run right.

    1. Calling Trump a businessman is a slur against everyone in business. Trump is and has always been a business failure; that hung on by, a massive inheritance, massive debt, massive fraud, and even more massive cronyism.

      Trump is best called a courtier, not a businessman. The old word is dated, but is a perfect fit for that old “man.” He used donations and fame (infamy) to be a big time Democrat crony for almost his whole life. Like courtiers past, he used this presence at “Court” for anti-competitive advantages, procurement of debt, bankruptcy abandonment of that debt, and insulation from prosecution and litigation for his frauds. Trump is a courtier not a businessman.

      1. “Calling Trump a businessman is a slur against everyone in business….”

        Stuff your TDS up your ass so your head has some company.

    2. “But our government is being run by a businessman who was supposed to make everything run right.
      But he can’t even make the most important things run right.”

      Is that strawman heavy? The TDS-ravaged asshole BigGiveNotBigGov can probably help you dragging it around.

  14. “Maybe Everyone Should be a Libertarian in a Pandemic.”

    Definitely, however this is rather hilarious considering that it seems like most of you guys supported the implementation of martial law.

    Suffice it to say that if you support implementing martial law on the basis of fear, falsehoods, and mass hysteria, you’re not a libertarian in any way, shape, or form.

  15. $5.95 per mask??? For what are the same masks sold at the paint store for sanding? That is one hell of a markup.

  16. Is price gouging one of those market failures you people pretend simply doesn’t exist, or do you consider it a noble expression of the beauty of free markets?

    1. There’s no such thing as price gouging.

    2. You know what really jacks up prices?

      A government that promises to buy something for everyone no matter how much it costs.

    3. No, price gouging doesn’t exist. It’s a fucking lefty ignoramus’ invention.

  17. Trading DC swamp rats for NYC sewer rats has gotten us only even more septic rats, with King Rat Trump the most septic of all.

    This quiet death of Covid 19 mayn’t have it’s virus spread directly by rats like was the Black Death’s bacteria; but NYC sewer rats are, likely still, its deadliest indirect vector.

    1. “Trading DC swamp rats for NYC sewer rats has gotten us only even more septic rats, with King Rat Trump the most septic of all.”

      Stuff your TDS up your ass so your head has some company.

  18. So again, what else would you have liked done? As far as I could tell, there were not enough masks produced, and there could not be under any reasonable circumstances. Even if prices had been allowed to float freely, there is simply no way to make production turn on a dime, regardless of the resources thrown at the problem. What I see are governments that were desperate for something, anything, that might work, no matter how outlandish, and predictably, they got taken advantage of by fraudsters and crooks. I’m sure there have been countless private cases of this as well that simply don’t make the headlines. Hospitals ordering PPE from China that never arrive, doctors and nurses wiring $100 for a box of masks that never existed. No matter who on the transaction, property rights are being violated, and someone’s money goes down the drain. I see the same thing with peddlers of homeopathy preying on the desperation of cancer patients. If libertarian society requires well-defined, easily-enforced property rights, as I usually see it described, then you cannot claim that when such rights are substantially imperfect, that such a system is any better than the alternative unless you provide a specific explanation.

    1. “So again, what else would you have liked done?..”

      Poor lefty piece of shit is confused:
      “Elon Musk Buys Over 1200 Ventilators From China Because Of Shortage”
      https://whoknewnews.com/elon-musk-buys-over-1200-ventilators-from-china-because-of-shortage/

      He also bought thousands of masks, but I’ll let you do some homework.
      It’s amazing what gets done when someone not in government really wants to make it happen.

  19. American Kakistocracy

    “Government by the worst and most unscrupulous people among us.

    And, at the center of this sits Donald Trump.”

    https://mailchi.mp/thebulwark/american-kakistocracy?e=0c977eedf4

    1. Stuff your TDS up your ass so your head has some company.

  20. There is a long list of countries which have managed this crisis much, much better than the US. Did any of them take a libertarian approach, or did they just have competent government?

    1. Sweden took a libertarian approach.

      But of course you wouldn’t know that, being an ignoramus.

  21. The private sector always does a better job as long as government does not try to intervene. Government needs to get out of the way and let us build our businesses do what they do best.

    Aida, associate of https://invisibledefender.com/?ref=65

  22. Is price gouging one of those market failures you people pretend simply doesn’t exist, or do you consider it a noble expression of the beauty of free markets?$ MEDICAL SURGICAL FACE MASK UK 5.95 per mask??? For what are the same masks sold at the paint store for sanding? That is one hell of a markup.

    1. No, price gouging doesn’t exist. It’s a fucking lefty ignoramus’ invention.

  23. The New Yorker magazine has a good article just out on the efforts of a bottom-up “last mile” group to acquire and distribute N95 masks to hospitals in need. In some cases the hospital bureaucracy had to be bypassed. https://www.newyorker.com/news/us-journal/the-underground-efforts-to-get-masks-to-doctors

  24. As a Californian, let me assure you that not ONE CA state employee will be fired for such blunders — blunders totally about $1.5 BILLION. The head bureaucrats MIGHT choose to retire with their huge, underfunded pensions, but they won’t be fired.

    Moreover, the press will give Governor Newsom a pass, since he had good intentions. “Good intentions” are FAR more important to the MSM than the results.

  25. Positively, nonetheless that is slightly hilarious contemplating that it looks as if most of you guys supported the implementation of martial regulation.

    Suffice it to say that when you assist implementing martial regulation on the idea of concern, falsehoods, and mass hysteria, you’re not a libertarian in any method, form, or type, idea ka number kaise nikale.

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