Haley’s Weird Ignorance About Vaccines
Her bizarre badmouthing of Operation Warp Speed.
NIKKI HALEY IS RUNNING as the sane Republican alternative to Donald Trump. I doubt she’ll beat him, but I hope she does, because that would spare our country the risk of a second Trump presidency. I’ll still vote for Joe Biden, but by every measure—preserving democracy, discouraging bigotry, protecting our allies—Haley would be a far less dangerous president than Trump would.
So it’s odd and cringey to see her criticize Trump for the best thing his administration did.
In 2020, Trump sabotaged almost every aspect of the government’s response to COVID-19. He downplayed the threat, opposed testing, ridiculed masks, delayed government action, and silenced officials who tried to alert the public. But his administration got one thing right: Operation Warp Speed, the project to devise, test, and manufacture vaccines.
The project succeeded in record time, in part because even before the vaccines passed their final trials, the government committed billions of dollars to pay drug companies for enough doses to inoculate the population. That money empowered the companies to mass-produce their vaccines in advance. When the vaccines passed the trials, the doses were ready to deliver, saving many thousands of lives.
This was a textbook case for government intervention. Market incentives didn’t give the companies sufficient reason to invest in mass production until their vaccines proved effective. To speed up the process, the government had to act. And it did so in the least intrusive way, by committing funds and letting the companies innovate.
This is what Haley derided last week. Her comments were ignorant, shallow, and demagogic.
HALEY WAS DOING an interview for “Diner Table Economics,” a series sponsored by the Competitiveness Coalition, a collection of organizations that advocate free markets and oppose regulation. She hit the usual conservative talking points, arguing that the government should scrap subsidies to corporations, “let them innovate,” and get “out of their way.”
That’s when the interviewer, NH Journal’s Michael Graham, brought up the vaccine episode:
I thought Operation Warp Speed was a different model, which is: “We don’t care how you make us the vaccine. You make it. Make sure it works. We need it. And then we’ll pay this premium; so that incentivizes [production].” Did you think Operation Warp Speed was the right way to do the vaccine? . . . You see the different model. [It’s] “I’ll give you the money up front, and then—you know, it’s the Wimpy “I’ll get the hamburger on Tuesday for the dollar today.”
Haley could have pointed out that this wasn’t just another subsidy, that many lives were at stake and that only the government could have accelerated the process. Instead, she fell back on free-market orthodoxy. “You never do that,” she told Graham, referring to the advance payment.
When Graham repeated his Wimpy metaphor—referring to the character from the old Popeye comic strip and cartoon (whose catchphrase is “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”)—Haley agreed and added her own analogy. “Do you ever give a kid a sucker and say, ‘Behave’? You never do that, because guess what? . . . The kid’s going to then take the sucker and run off and misbehave.”
This is a painfully bad comparison. The vaccine makers weren’t going to take the money and run. Government agencies were working closely with them, and the companies were under constant scrutiny and pressure because of the pandemic. If they were to fail, lots of people were going to die. That’s one difference between hamburgers, lollipops, and vaccines.
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Haley went on:
What happened with Operation Warp Speed and the stimulus package under the Trump administration was, they threw all this money out there and said, “Make ’em, make ’em, make ’em.” Now, one, it showed that our pharmaceutical companies can get to work faster, and when government allows them to breathe, things can happen. The bad thing is, you had all of these vaccines that they were sending ’em off to other countries, trying to get rid of ’em.
First of all, Operation Warp Speed wasn’t about letting the companies “breathe.” It was about giving them money from taxpayers. But as to the vaccine doses we sent to other countries: Does Haley seriously think that this was bad and that we were just getting “rid” of the doses? Does she not understand that they went into people, that many of those people survived as a result, and that by inhibiting transmission in those countries, the vaccines slowed and mitigated the pandemic? How can it be that so many conservatives (1) understand that the virus came from China—and can’t stop talking about it—but (2) dismiss as wasteful charity our efforts to help other countries suppress the contagion? The whole point of a global pandemic is that what goes around comes around.
Haley wasn’t finished. She complained that mass production had led to subsequent vaccine mandates. “You took people’s rights away in the process,” she protested, as though addressing some imaginary bureaucrat. “You said, ‘Oh, we have all these vaccines. Make people get it.’ Everything about that was wrong.” Haley accused the government of having partnered with the drug companies to “make them rich and then mandate people to have something happen.”
That’s crazy talk. It’s one thing to object on libertarian grounds to the federal mandates—which, let’s remember, applied only to military service members, federal workers, and contractors and ended in less than two years. But when Haley insinuates that the government issued those mandates because we had “all these vaccines” and were looking to use them, she’s spouting a baseless and pernicious conspiracy theory.
HALEY SUMMARIZED HER CRITIQUE this way: “You incentivized them [the drug companies] before they even did anything. You never do that. And so I think it’s a whole government mindset that has to change.”
I shouldn’t have to say this, but: Offering people money or some other benefit “before they even did anything” is literally what incentivized means.
The mindset that needs to change isn’t the one that produced, through Operation Warp Speed, enough vaccines to save many thousands of lives in this country and around the world. What needs to change is Haley’s dogmatism. Markets are a great way to harness self-interest and produce wealth. But they aren’t designed to distribute wealth fairly or to solve problems that require collective action. To solve that kind of problem—a pandemic, for instance—you need help from the government. Even Donald Trump understood that.