The Grace of Covid Capitalism

It’s been a uniquely cruel year. Fires, hurricanes, police brutality, vicious disinformation, a concerted attempt by those in power to overturn a national election, and looming over it all, a global pandemic, killing almost two million, hospitalizing millions more, striking great cities silent, shrinking most forms of human interaction into little boxes on a screen. The stuff of dystopian fiction suddenly come to life.

But now, with the arrival of two Covid vaccines and more on the way, it’s worth stopping for a moment to linger over this soaring grace note in a dark dirge of a year, to reflect on how remarkable that accomplishment is, and to recognize which American institutions came through when chips were down.

Consider what Moderna and Pfizer have done in the space of a year. Moderna has been working on so-called messenger RNA vaccines for over a decade, but none had been approved before, and no one was sure they would work. The Covid virus provided both a feasible target and a sudden, global market for the technology.

The mRNA vaccine basically reprograms human cells to produce harmless replicas of the spike proteins characteristic of the coronavirus, which the immune system then recognizes and attacks with antibodies that linger in body, ready for the real thing. Once the genetic blueprint of the virus – Covid, and potentially many others – is sequenced, an effective mRNA instruction can be written. It’s closer to computer coding than biology, much faster, and more precisely targeted. Then it’s “just” a matter of packaging the code in a lipid sheath to allow it to enter and survive in the body and do its work.

All this would be astonishing and hopeful enough, but it also turns out that the mRNA vaccines are effective 94% of the time, more than double the average effectiveness of the flu vaccines that we’ve been laboring over for decades. If someone had said last March that by year’s end we’d have not one, but two vaccines for Covid using a completely novel technology, each of which was over 90% effective, we would have laughed bitterly at such wild optimism. Yet here they are, the products of nothing more or less than stunning human ingenuity and gobs of investment capital.

This historic success was achieved by private enterprise, motivated in no small measure by the prospect of huge profits and rising stock prices, in a matter of months, while all the federal government could come up with was pseudoscience, desultory White House briefings, deflections of responsibility onto the states, and aspirational (though essential) delivery plans with comic book names like Operation Warp Speed. We can only expect that it will be the FedExes and UPSes of the world that will actually get the vaccines into our towns, and the CVSes and Wal-Marts that will get them into our arms.

This isn’t just Trump’s fault. One of the most lasting legacies of Roosevelt’s New Deal was the popular belief that large-scale threats to public welfare could only be met by a powerful federal government. World War II reinforced this assumption when most of the nation’s economy, directed from Washington, was repurposed to service the war effort.[1] A couple of decades later, NASA’s Apollo Program became the technological icing on the cake, proof that big government could accomplish things that private enterprise would never dare even if it had the means, which by and large it didn’t.

Ever since, a central tenet of doctrinaire liberalism has held that a robust, meritocratic, and by definition elitist central government would be the primary defender of the public welfare. State governments would be far too parochial and uncoordinated, big corporations too narrowly focused and constrained by the profit motive. On the rare occasions when the federal government failed at a large-scale logistical enterprise, it was usually at waging guerilla-style proxy wars, projects that weren’t obviously in the public interest in the first place.

So when Covid arose as a national threat, those of us who believed it was real and dire, who tended to be liberals, the children of Apollo, naturally trained our expectations for solutions on the federal government. And this was doomed to disappointment for both political and technological reasons.

The political reason inheres in the fact that for the last several decades, the primary agenda of one of the two major political parties in the US has been to dismantle the centralized governmental apparatus erected during the New Deal and the Second World War. This has meant a systematic shift of policymaking and logistical power away from the federal government and toward private companies and state and local interests. Even the military has been increasingly outsourced and privatized.[2] The Trump administration, which liberally seeded federal agencies with appointees fundamentally opposed to the missions of those agencies, was the natural culmination of that decades-long, and ongoing, crusade.

Combine this hollowing out of the federal bureaucracy with a chief executive unversed in running a complex organization and threatened by expertise per se, and the result has been, inevitably, the epidemiological federalism we’ve been suffering under, where critical logistical decisions were pushed down to state and local levels, and muddled policy messaging was the order of the day.

The technological reason that the feds weren’t about to save us from Covid is that the US government has never been very good at hard science when it’s divorced from waging war. The two most innovative federal scientific undertakings of the last century – the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Program – were both de facto run by the military and had overtly military motivations (respectively, beating the Nazis to the bomb and beating the Russians to the moon). Meanwhile, the National Institutes for Health, while federally-funded to the tune of over $38 billion per year, doles out most of that sum to third-party — predominantly private — researchers, and the Global Health Security and Biodefense Unit, established by the Obama administration specifically to address pandemic preparedness, was disbanded and scattered to the bureaucratic winds in 2018.

Into the technological vacuum left by the shrinking federal government has stepped private enterprise, which took the nascent internet invented by Defense Department and made it the globally pervasive, corporate-run behemoth it is today, took the tattered remnants of NASA’s space program and converted it into a literal launch pad for privately-designed and -financed space projects, and, most thankfully, took Trump’s vapidly wishful thinking that Covid would “just disappear, like a miracle” and turned it into the promise of a reality. Liberals especially need to acknowledge that it was private enterprise, and not our increasingly hamstrung and ineffective federal government, that made the decisive difference in bringing this dark episode to an end.

So here’s a year-end toast to the rambunctious capitalist spirit that, every once in a while, when we need it most, takes the form of a beneficent angel, and saves us.

[1] For a wonderfully informative account of this, see Arthur Herman, Freedom’s Forge – How American Business Produced Victory in World War II (2012).

[2] See Ann Hagedorn, The Invisible Soldiers – How America Outsourced Our Security (2014).

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