Senator Elizabeth Warren has a plan to confront the societal damage being caused by the Coronavirus. Well, of course she does! She has a plan for everything. And like all her other plans, her new Coronavirus plan involves more government.
In these extraordinary times the American people need the government to take decisive action to treat the people infected by the virus, make sure that hospitals and healthcare workers have the equipment and support they need, and to impose the measures such as social distancing needed to slow the rate of infection. The government must also take action to deal with the side effects of the pandemic that have created an enormous economic disruption that has destroyed the lives and livelihoods of many millions of people.
Seeking relevance after her failed presidential bid, Senator Warren’s plan (presented in an op-ed published in the New York Times, April 8, 2020) includes many things that will address the plight of people impacted by the pandemic. To confront the pandemic, she wants to create an Office of Drug Manufacturing for the government to manufacture drugs to treat infected people (although there are no drugs yet available to treat COVID-19). She wants to create an Essential Workers Bill of Rights that would include paid family and medical leave, hazard pay plus protect collective bargaining rights. She wants federal price-gouging laws that would be strictly enforced. She also wants a Congressional Oversight Panel to play watchdog on the executive branch’s attempts to deal with the crisis.
But many of the proposals in her plan are not intended to address the problems created by the Coronavirus. Her Office of Drug Manufacturing was an idea created prior to the pandemic to put the government in charge of manufacturing drugs to be sold at “affordable” prices. According to the plan the government would manufacture (or contract with a third party to manufacture) generic drugs. But many generic drugs are already pretty cheap. Prices have been rising recently but a report by USC Professor Geoffrey Joyce discovered that prices have been rising because generic drug prices were so low that many manufacturers could not make a profit and so got out of the business. With reduced competition, prices rose. But, of course, if the government is doing the manufacturing nobody cares if it loses money. That’s what taxes are for. More likely it will be paid for by public debt.
The Essential Workers Bill of Rights provides some necessary emergency support for these critical workers. But the proposal is not intended as an emergency measure. Senator Warren wants to give the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) increased regulatory power that can only slow the response to the emergency. She and her colleagues want hazard pay for essential workers and likely minimum wage standards since many essential workers are low wage jobs. She also wants collective bargaining rights for essential workers who are often non-union employees. The Essential Workers Bill of Rights is not an emergency measure, it is intended to push through a progressive agenda during a time of crisis that they could not accomplish prior to the crisis.
Senator Warren also wants a Congressional Oversight Panel to second guess every move made by President Trump and his administration. He and his White House Taskforce cannot be continually dragged into Congress to answer questions designed to impede the president and his team (much as the impeachment inquiry did) in the middle of a global crisis.
Senator Warren’s proposal is cloaked in reasonableness. But her motives are as mixed as are those she accuses President Trump of harboring. Mistakes have been made and will continue to be made. That is the nature of crisis. But emergency measures should be just that. The things we do in the middle of an emergency are not the same things we do after the crisis has passed. There will be a time for Senator Warren to again push her progressive agenda. This is not it.
There will be a time when it is appropriate to review the actions of President Trump and his administration regarding how his team reacted to the crisis and what worked and what did not - over and above the voters’ decision come November. But this should not be the new normal of partisan finger-pointing and vituperative accusations. It should be a time to learn and to prepare for the next crisis, which will inevitably come. We don’t know what type of crisis it will be. And it is likely to be unlike any previous crisis much as the Coronavirus pandemic has been.
We will not emerge from this pandemic crisis as we did from the crisis of World War Two. At the end of that crisis America was an industrial powerhouse that had defeated jack-booted Nazis and kamikaze fighters. This time America will emerge weakened and damaged. Brought low by a microscopic organism. Our country will not be a leader that brought the world together for a great victory, but a victim that closed its borders and hunkered down to protect itself. A country is not exceptional if it just does what everyone else does.
We were not prepared, but democracies are never prepared. People clamor for any contingency reserves to be distributed, not saved for a rainy day. The people in Chile rioted in the streets for distributions to be made from that country’s contingency fund (that had been built up by high copper prices) but it sure came in handy when the Great Recession hit. But America today is fragile. Nassim Taleb described in his book, Anti-Fragile, how to be resilient in the face of hardship. Anti-fragile can be a difficult concept to grasp. Even Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman had difficulty with the concept in a YouTube discussion with Taleb.
As an example, a poor single mother cannot afford to have china dishes and cups in her cupboard because china dishes and cups are fragile and babies tip over cups and fragile cups break easily. A wealthy woman can afford to have china dishes and cups. While the china cups are just as fragile and are easily broken, they are of little consequence to the wealthy woman because, while her cup is fragile, her finances are not. And she can easily purchase another cup. The poor single mother cannot replace the broken china cup because her finances are just as fragile as the cup. So, the poor mother (and many others of us, as well) buys plastic cups for baby, substituting anti-fragile plastic to decrease her exposure to risk rather than increasing her risk doubling down on fragility.
Prior to the pandemic crisis, America was already fragile with over $22 trillion in public debt – spent not on making us militarily or industrially strong, but to pay for entitlements. We are likely to be collectively close to thirty trillion dollars in debt by the time this pandemic subsides. The debts of many individuals and companies are also likely to have exploded. We have the economic strength to manage this enormous debt, but we are not infinitely strong. There will come a time when we will not be able to borrow the money needed to fund an emergency response. At that time, we will not be fragile. We will be broken.