When Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker tried to purchase the protective gear necessary for healthcare workers in his state, the problem wasn’t necessarily that the inventories of the equipment he sought didn’t exist. Rather, the obstacle he faced was that the companies warehousing these supplies were sitting on them, letting a bidding war play out between states and between states and the federal government.
These companies wanted to be sure they were securing the highest price before releasing the products absolutely essential to safeguarding the lives of healthcare workers themselves laboring to save American lives.
For Baker, the biggest competitor has been the federal government, whose purchasing power enables them routinely to outbid states.
Baker expressed this frustration last Thursday, lamenting, “I stand here as someone who has had confirmed orders for millions of pieces of gear evaporate in front of us, and I can’t tell you how frustrating it is.”
And he insist he is not alone: “I can’t tell you how frustrated governors, including this one, are about the issue associated with landing the order. It’s happened to us. It’s happened to many governors across the country.”
He and other governors have called for the Trump administration to spearhead much more rigorously a coordinated effort at the national level.
That the Trump administration has most certainly proven feckless in coordinating any serious response to the COVID-19 pandemic, being slow to act and utterly negligent in either assisting states or enacting a national plan, is absolutely obvious. And let’s not forget Trump’s dangerous peddling of misinformation which has impeded the nation’s ability to combat and slow the spread of the virus.
But while certainly governors are right to ask for a more coordinated effort and more assistance from Trump, who has basically told states to fend for themselves and even actively worked against states whose governors have criticized his administration’s woeful leadership, a more fundamental issue has gone largely unaddressed:
The issue of the values that guide and inform the everyday functioning of the U.S. economic system.
The U.S. system valorizes both competition and the role of the market in determining the value of commodities.
So, companies waiting out a bidding war to garner the highest price for their products, even if it looks a little shady and comes off as inhumane in the current environment of coronavirus pandemic, is really just a case of these companies abiding by, even celebrating, the values America typically hails as definitive, at least in part, of its exceptionality.
American capitalism, rooted in so-called free markets, adheres strongly to, indeed valorizes, the sentiment of “whatever the market can bear.” The “free market” economy is the cornerstone of American freedom, no?
Well, the coronavirus seems to be calling in to question the effectiveness of markets in the American capitalist economy.
Let’s remember that the primary point, the main function, of an economy is to produce and distribute goods and services as efficiently and effectively as possible to meet the needs of those living in that economy.
Clearly, the ethos of competition is not yielding this result at this crucial moment. Competition is inhibiting the distribution of goods and services to aid the saving of lives, not enhancing it.
We really can’t even talk about competition as an ethos because it is hard to see any ethical dimension, any human benefit, to this economic competition and market behavior.
The conventional wisdom is that competition is necessary to incentivize people to do their best, thus producing the highest functioning world.
The coronavirus reveals, more than arguably I think, that cooperation, collaboration, and coordination would be more effective values in organizing our economic behavior to meet the needs of the American people. As the thinker Peter Kropotkin has expressed it in his landmark 1902 work Mutual Aid, the strongest people are the most cooperative people, and the strongest societies are the most cooperative societies.
So, does this competitive behavior and the overall mechanism of having the market determine value just look a little shady and more than a tad inhumane because of the particular context of the coronavirus pandemic, or have we just been blinded to the bankruptcy of these values in pre-coronavirus everyday life in the American capitalist system?
Well, as I pointed out recently on Politicususa, our for-profit capitalist has, particularly in the private healthcare industry, inarguably hobbled rather than advanced efforts to address the pandemic. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, for example, has been clear that private hospitals, operating to produce profit, limit the number of beds so they don’t carry excess capacity, which is inefficient in the capitalist business model. Similarly, hospitals and companies do not stockpile goods, as capitalist models of efficiency, striving for leanness, dictate just-in-time rather than just-in-case inventory management to be most effective in generating profit and to remain most competitive in business and industry.
But, it ain’t workin’ in terms of serving the lives of we humans living—or trying to live—in this system.
Rather, the values of the capitalist marketplace, including competition, are and have been obstructing the project of mutual aid, our ability to address human needs and the nation’s health.
Trump finally invoked the national defense act to compel private companies to direct production to public health needs because the capitalist market failed in this regard.
We need only look to the pharmaceutical industry to see how, for example, EpiPens have been outrageously priced to prohibit access to people, especially children, with allergies who need these devices potentially to save their lives. Or, we can look at how other big pharma corporations, fueled in the competitive drive for profit, marketed and oversold opioids to the detriment of human life, costing many lives in fact.
The coronavirus pandemic is only making clear the content of America’s dominant market values to which we have largely been blind in everyday life in America.
We see it even now. Governor’s rightly blaming Trump, but letting our system and its values off the hook.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.