For the past several weeks our country, and our world, have been fighting a global pandemic – COVID-19.
We’ve learned how flawed our conception of defense really is. Our country, like other nation-states and city-states, have practiced social distancing. Businesses have closed to keep the virus from spreading. Workers in the healthcare, electronics-oriented and retail sectors (at least those that sell groceries, cell phones, and computers) have stepped up to help the public. However, there are problems with the response – one of them being that our country doesn’t have the ventilators, masks, hand sanitizer, or testing kits that it needs.
Some have directed criticism at President Donald Trump for not taking advantage of federal powers to manufacture needed items in the crisis. Others have pointed out that China has a greater capability when it comes to manufacturing such items and our lack of capabilities puts us at an obvious disadvantage. Many companies want to manufacture in China, or purchase items for manufacturing made there, because of its cheap labor, low environmental costs, and state-owned industries that make for cheap overhead for private companies and create bigger profit margins. Naturally, China isn’t exporting masks, ventilators, and respirators like they did before the crises. The pandemic forced us to realize that social needs and profit margins aren’t always compatible.
The United States needs a manufacturing policy geared to fighting pandemics. An expanded United States Public Health Service should have the power to direct a plan to manufacture anything and everything for COVID-19 and do the same in future pandemics. The service should also have the power and resources to contract with businesses that make anything of use and maybe build its own factories in partnership with private business.
Our forefathers overthrew British colonialism and it wasn’t long before Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton published his essay “A Report on Manufacturers”. This was a plan to turn the new country from an agricultural nation to a manufacturing powerhouse. Hamilton didn’t want us to be dependent on the British for industrial goods, as the industrial revolution started in Great Britain and the country was the world’s manufacturing center at the time.
Such a plan will be denounced by two different arguments. First, some denounce “industrial policy” and say it amounts to the government, an inherent evil, picking winners and losers. However, we already have an industrial policy for a certain segment of our economy – the military. The government regularly directs money to defense contractors for military items of all sorts – tanks, missiles, nuclear weapons, ships, and other things that are beyond the scope of this story. Some have called this the military-industrial complex, a term coined by President Dwight Eisenhower. COVID-19 revealed our country’s flawed defense structure – a structure designed to fight a ground war with the defunct Soviet Union. The second argument that will be made to counter the argument for a health-oriented industrial policy will be on the grounds of cost. However, our government already spend billions on the military-industrial complex.
The military-industrial complex’s vast resources give it a lot of pull. Companies such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin use their profits to land contract after contract. These companies, as well as the military itself, create jobs in various communities across our country. The manufacturing of pandemic equipment doesn’t have a similar economic reach.
There must be a demand from our citizenry for a stronger PHS and for the ability to manufacture health-related equipment here. Jobs would be created in the manufacturing process and some of the companies that manufacture arms could move to manufacturing healthcare equipment. We must put public needs above the private profit of companies that want to offshore manufacturing and continue with the cycle of economic activity related to the military-industrial complex. This simple thought represents an idea that a more social-democratic America should embrace!
Jason Sibert is the executive director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis. He was elected to the SD USA National Committee on April 15. Congratulations, Jason!