The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

America First

Putting people who dislike and distrust the government in charge of the government is a risky business, and we are paying the price for it now.


We are now three months in.  The CDC is recommending "wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission."

They're not talking about the "N-95" or surgical masks; those are in "short supply," and "must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and medical first responsers." Just the ordinary, non-surgical, cloth (or heavy paper) masks covering mouth and nose, the ones that cost maybe $0.25 each at wholesale.

As it happens, these are also in short supply.  So the CDC has described how we all can make our masks at home.

That's helpful—I've made some for myself, following their instructions—but really: We're three months in. Where the hell are the masks?  Why aren't they being handed out on street-corners to anyone who wants one? Fifty or 100 million dollars—chump change—would have gotten us all the masks we need.

We don't have them because the federal government placed its order for 50 million masks—on March 12th.

It's not just masks, or ventilators, or the other PPE that are in critically short supply. There is, as far as I have been able to determine, not a single bottle of ordinary hand santizer, or alcohol-based disinfectant wipes, available for sale within the Washington DC metropolitan area, where I live.  Not one. The (many) online retailers I have checked are promising delivery by the middle of May.

I know, I know—many people are hoarding, and others are price-gouging. Well, who could have imagined that?!  Hoarding and price-gouging during a national emergency! I'll tell you who could have imagined that:  people whose job it is to imagine that (and things like it), and who are competent at their job, and are given appropriate direction and resources to do their job.

If you are not outraged by the incompetence displayed here you have either lost your sense of outrage completely, or you don't have a friend or loved one who is a healthcare provider or first responder.

The failure is so deep that we don't even really know how deep it is. Our testing capability, as is well known, is woefully inadequate for the task, so we really haven't the faintest idea how many people are carrying the virus. Who's got ventilators?  How many? Where are they stored? Who is in charge of the decisions about where they get deployed? Is the federal government seizing ventilators and ordering them to be sent somewhere, or not? If so, who's in charge of that?  Spend an hour or two trying to figure that out, and you'll get a glimpse of the dismal state of information-gathering and information dissemination that is plaguing this effort.

In the face of this appalling breach of their duty to defend us from attack, one response has been: we don't, actually, have the duty to defend you from attack. "We're not a shipping clerk," the president famously declared; "the Federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping." And in what is surely both the ugliest, and the most ignorant, comment from a public official in recent memory, Jared Kushner observed that "the notion of the federal stockpile was it's supposed to be our stockpile; it's not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use."

This is not just nonsense; it is pernicious and harmful nonsense that is likely, in fact, to cause people—real people—to die. Louisiana was supposed to have its own stockpile of PPE to prepare for an epidemic?  Thanks for telling us now.  "We" all thought, up to now, that "you" were with "us." Thanks for setting us straight on that.

Now, you may say: "Well, it's not like it's easy to get 50 million masks—let alone a million ventilators—manufactured and distributed to the people who need them."  That is precisely my point.  It's not easy. It takes people who know what they're doing—people with the technical expertise to figure out what's needed, and how much of it is needed, and where it is needed, and by when, and where and how can it be procured, and the administrative and managerial expertise to understand the production and procurement systems and the rules under which they operate, and enough to know how and when to bend the rules when necessary, and how to manage large groups of people doing different tasks—to get it done.

Remember that good old American can-do spirit—the one that says "we can do anything we put our minds to"? Or perhaps you are too young to remember—it's been a while. There was always some bullshit in it—but it wasn't just bullshit; we did get things done. But now, it appears that only the bullshit is left, with none of the substance to back it up.

Some people attribute our (former) ability to actually get big things done to unbridled capitalism, and there is surely a large measure of truth in that. But sometimes our government also knew how to get big things done, things that the capitalists, on their own, can't accomplish.

Like many of you, I have more time on my hands than I would like, and I've been doing some reading about the US's response, in terms of industrial production, to the attack on Pearl Harbor.**  The response was staggering, the numbers mind-blowing; by the end of the first year after the attack, airplane production had roughly tripled, ship production quadrupled, and munitions production had gone up by a factor of five. Less than five months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. Army Air Force launched B-25 bombers from the deck of the USS Hornet—a feat which had previously been deemed impossible—and bombed Tokyo. Eleven months after the attack, Eisenhower led an entire invasion force—tanks, howitzers, jeeps, food, ordnance, medicine, water, road-building equipment, etc. and 65,000 GIs—into North Africa. Within two years after Pearl Harbor, American factories were turning out a Jeep every 70 seconds, and a tank and an airplane every hour or so, 24 hours a day. Etc.

**There's a prodigious literature on this question. I found this article ("The War of Production 1920-1942"), by naval historian Thomas Hone of the Defense Systems Management College at Fort Belvoir, particularly helpful, along with Thomas Morgan's "The Industrial Mobilization of World War II" (available on JSTOR here).

This didn't happen because the States somehow figured out how to band together to undertake the common defense; most people in 1941 understood that we had already done that, back in 1789. Nor did it happen because FDR banged his fist on the table and said "We're going to become the Arsenal of Democracy!"  He did bang his fist on the table and say that, over and over again—but he also actually took the steps necessary to get it done.

It was a prodigiously complicated task:

It was not clear, for example, just how to make the agencies of war production both effective and representative. To be effective, war production agencies at the federal level had to (1) have data on what U.S. industry and agriculture could do, (2) be able to anticipate the right kinds and numbers of items needed by the fighting forces, (3) have control over civilian manpower, (4) have a means to control scarce resources, (5) maintain a stable currency by monitoring and controlling prices, wages and savings, and (6.) work closely with the agencies implementing foreign and fiscal policy. To do these things, the leaders of war production-would need public support, the support of the President, the cooperation of the armed services, and the knowledge necessary to make workable policies. Yet it was not really clear to Roosevelt and his advisors how to create a hierarchy of politically legitimate institutions which had the capabilities required to perform the tasks necessary to effective mobilization. [Hone—see note ** above]

Nothing like it had ever been done before, and there were lots of starts and stops and trials and errors; the War Resources Board was changed to the Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense and then to the office of Production Management before it became the War Production Board in 1942. By the end of January, 1942—two months after the attack—Roosevelt had created, in addition to the WPB, the Office of Price Administration, the National War Labor Board, and the War Manpower Commission, each with its own set of (sometimes overlapping) duties and powers. Roosevelt then had to keep moving personnel around until he found the right people for the right jobs.

No other country on earth did it, and no other country on earth could have done it, and we were, justifiably, proud of that. So we did it again—building the world's greatest highway network—and again—sending astronauts to the moon (in 9 years!). Etc.

So if someone can actually make America great again, I'm all in on that.  In the meantime, I can only read about Taiwan's response, or Singapore's response, to the virus (0.2 deaths and 1.1 deaths per 1 million residents, respectively) and sigh, and wonder about how we (29 deaths per 1 million residents—and rising) have descended to the second rate.

I understand—it's not an apples-to-apples comparison.  But it is hard for me to imagine a sadder illustration of American decline than the move from "a jeep every 70 seconds" to "no available twenty-five-cent masks."

NOTE TO COMMENTERS: If you have any thoughts about the point I'm trying to make—that the US government has failed, miserably and shamefully, in its duty to protect us from an attack it knew, months ago, was coming, and that its failure will cost American lives—I'd love to hear them, whether you agree or (especially) if you disagree. But I would ask you to refrain from discussing extraneous, off-topic points (about the general political situation, the upcoming election, the performance of this Administration in regard to other matters, etc.).