A shot in the arm
Why the US should redirect its excess vaccines to other countries: Writing about WWII, Eisenhower noted with awe, "There was no sight in the war that so impressed me with the industrial might of America as the wreckage on the landing beaches. To any other nation the disaster would have been almost decisive; but so great was America's productive capacity that the great storm occasioned little more than a ripple in the development of our build-up."
■ This has been America's not-at-all-secret weapon for almost a century: The unrivaled capacity of our economic system to move faster than any other, and to scale up in a way no other economy can. It's not just that our economy is really big, it's that we select for decisive action, risk-taking, and a disposition in favor of innovation. Command economies can't match it.
■ There are cases where the government can act as a catalyst -- and should. The choice to facilitate the simultaneous development of multiple Covid-19 vaccines through Operation Warp Speed is a fine example of this, and it's a lesson that ought to be remembered. The many-eggs-in-many-baskets approach may result in a surplus of outputs (like vaccine doses) that may be inefficient by strictly economic terms, but there are circumstances so exigent that it's better to overshoot than to undershoot. As Bill Gates once put it, "Even the Manhattan Project pursued both the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb -- and both worked!"
■ A lesson worth taking away from Operation Warp Speed is that government can get more of highly desirable outcomes when it does enough to bulk up the rewards for achieving them. Subsidizing a guaranteed market for vaccine purchases gave the pharmaceutical companies the requisite incentives to pursue the goal at flank speed.
■ This makes a compelling case for our government to fund results-based inducement prizes to achieve other worthwhile goals where the public interest could be served by speedy innovation. If the private sector receives a clear signal that a successful solution to a major public problem will be rewarded mightily, then the market will do more to find that solution than it otherwise might. This is a lesson we ought to apply to issues like energy and transportation innovations that can have huge effects on public-interest goals in areas like defense and environmental quality.
■ While we're at it, it's evidently time to do a lot more thinking about issues of ventilation and climate control inside our buildings. A New York Times headline puts it: "How Windows are Crucial to Reopening Schools". Even if we had unfailing certainty that we could stop Covid-19 with vaccines, we need to be thinking ahead to the next pandemic while we're fighting this one. Respiratory viruses aren't going away, and if there's anything we should be learning (and reflecting upon) about pre-pandemic life, it's that we've been really complacent about making each other sick -- in workplaces, schools, and other settings. The CDC says that influenza rates this season have been one-quarter of the rates seen in a previously low-severity flu season. We're not going to be eager to put up with social distancing forever, but we shouldn't lose sight of how careful management of air quality has done to keep us from getting sick in this extraordinary year. This, again, would be an area ripe for inducement prizes to incentivize big new innovations for making our indoor air quality healthier, even after the pandemic is gone.
■ "American exceptionalism" shouldn't be a lazy catchphrase -- we really should be more conscious of how we benefit from an extraordinary system that can do really big things faster and more competently than any rival system. And we don't even need to be selfish about it: Sharing our successes and rallying other countries to ally themselves with our vision of the world will only help us grow stronger over the long term. We don't need vassal states; we need friendly collaborators and eager trading partners.