Education sector "support staff members," corporate tax lawyers, and magazine fashion editors will all jump to the front of the coronavirus vaccination line ahead of the general population, under recommendations issued in late December by the federal government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Self-interest dictates I should probably wait until after I get my immunity-producing doses before raising any questions about the prioritization. The government's allocation strategy is such an inviting target, though, that it's hard to resist taking, er, a shot.
How did we get here? On December 20, a government committee of highly educated, mostly academic experts known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted about who should get the vaccine first. The committee has 15 voting members. Twelve of them are medical doctors. One is a lawyer. Nine—a majority—are affiliated with universities, including Stanford, Vanderbilt, Baylor, and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Naturally, the committee of doctors decided that the first vaccines should go to healthcare workers. That might seem like common sense—emergency room or intensive care doctors treating Covid-19 patients deserve to be protected against the risk of catching the disease in the workplace. Healthcare workers, though, is a big, catchall category. It includes everyone from Beverly Hills plastic surgeons conducting elective cosmetic surgery to "administrative staff," which might be the billing clerk in the plastic surgery practice, or some hospital accounts-receivable bookkeeper or fundraiser with no patient contact.
"Healthcare personnel" are in the CDC's phase 1a. Educational sector support staff are next in phase 1b. That could include people who are currently working from home and who ordinarily have little or no direct contact with students—say, the employees who answer telephone questions about retired professors' pension benefits.
The next phase, 1c, encompasses the "media" and "law" categories. Like healthcare personnel, these groups are so broad that they include essential frontline workers but also some others whose prioritization is difficult to justify.
Journalists covering the pandemic by doing on-the-scene reporting from nursing homes or hospital intensive care units probably do have a strong case to be vaccinated relatively early. So do criminal defense lawyers meeting clients in prisons or jails, or making frequent in-person courtroom appearances.
The "media" and "law" categories, though, also include the copyeditors at Vogue and the big-firm lawyers who rarely show up in court but spend their time instead writing memos and helping companies minimize their taxes. Their Covid-19 risk seems pretty small, or at least small enough that it's hard to see the rationale for those workers leapfrogging ahead of the general population.
A cynic might suspect the vaccine committee put lawyers and journalists early in the queue as a way to avoid getting sued or attracting negative press coverage.
It turns out that there is a mechanism in capitalism for allocating scarce goods. It works pretty well—better than allowing a government-appointed committee to decide who gets what when. It is called "price."
When sellers are free to adjust prices upward to meet demand, scare goods wind up in the hands of those who value them most. If a coronavirus vaccine dose cost $1,000 or $2,000 instead of "free" or "$20," a hospital might decide that it is worth vaccinating the intensive care nurses immediately. At that price, the same hospital might decide to wait for a while before vaccinating the accounts-receivable bookkeeper.
Some worry that under a free market approach like this, the Beverly Hills plastic surgery billing clerks and corporate tax lawyers will get vaccinated before the emergency room doctors in inner-city hospitals or public defenders visiting clients in jail. That's a reasonable concern, but it's better addressed by targeted subsidies than by a total suspension of the price mechanism in favor of broad-brush categories like "law" or "media."
A nice thing about temporarily high prices—whether for a Tesla or an iPhone or a Manhattan apartment—is that they tend to spur production, either of that product or of close substitutes.
The coronavirus vaccine was created by a combination of private-sector ingenuity at Pfizer and Moderna and government spending and planning at Operation Warp Speed. The Trump administration has showed openness to using commercial vendors such as CVS and McKesson to administer and distribute the vaccine. Letting a committee of academic physicians rather than a market decide who gets the shot first is a departure from the private sector-led approach that has driven America's success so far.
It may seem like the most important thing America has to give the rest of the world right now is the vaccine. An even more valuable export, though, would be confidence that free markets and capitalism work better than communism, cronyism, and state-run central planning. It might mean journalists or lawyers wait a week or two longer for this vaccine.
The net long-term result, though, would be that more shots and goods of all sorts wind up faster in the arms of those who can use them best.