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‘Heavy Hand of Government’ Is Just What Crisis Needs

Joe Nocera

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “We are getting what we want without the heavy hand of government,” said Peter Navarro, the White House economist who’s been put in charge of speeding up the manufacture of medical equipment that hospitals  need so desperately.

It was around 6:30 Sunday night when Navarro made that remark, about a third of the way through the White House’s daily coronavirus press briefing. It struck me as a fitting end to one of the most anxiety-ridden weekends of my life, comparable, I suspect, to the way my parents must have felt during the Cuban missile crisis. My wife, Dawn, has a relative living in New York, a young health-care professional who has been working around the clock since the coronavirus hit the city. She called us Saturday to say that she was feeling feverish and tired — she thought she might have Covid-19. She had put herself in self-quarantine and was being tested on Monday. Her father was sending her toilet paper from Wisconsin.

A good friend of Dawn, the legal journalist David Lat, a 44-year-old man who suffers from exercise-induced asthma, was on a ventilator after contracting the virus, fighting for his life. A few weeks earlier, Dawn had planned to introduce him to a new client, but at the last minute, the client decided not to fly in from San Francisco. All weekend long, I kept thinking about that canceled meeting — about how lucky we were that the client had decided to stay home. I also have asthma, and I’m considerably older than Lat. The point is everyone has similar connections and we’re all anxious and afraid; and we’re all looking to the White House for leadership about the best way to deal with this crisis.

This is what we got instead: At the press conference, Navarro was talking about the Defense Production Act, a law that gives the president the power to direct industrial production. Five days earlier, President Donald Trump had “invoked” the Act, but he was clearly reluctant to actually use it. I couldn’t understand why — and I was hardly alone.

Now, here was the answer: The act, in the view of the Trump administration, represented not a tool that could help the country mobilize against the unseen enemy but “the heavy hand of government.” Really? Despite the dire straits the country is in, this Republican administration is being guided by classic Republican ideology, not common sense.

When it was time for the media to question the president, a reporter asked Trump why he wasn’t using the act, noting that governors across the country “were pleading” with him to start using it.

Astonishingly, Trump claimed that using it would mean nationalizing businesses, even citing the example of Venezuela (“Call a person in Venezuela and ask them how did the nationalization of their businesses work out.”) Plus, he said, it would send “tremors though our business community.” The mere fact that the Defense Production Act had been invoked, he insisted, was causing businesses like General Motors and Honeywell to step up.

Finally, there was this excuse, which nearly caused me to throw my iPad across the room: “If we go out and we want masks, we don’t know who to call on masks. But Hanes called us and said, ‘We’re going to make millions of masks.’” He continued, “If we call a company to make a ventilator, they don’t even know what a ventilator is.” And on and on and on.

Imagine if President Franklin Roosevelt and his head of military production, William Knudsen (a former head of General Motors), had taken the same approach during World War II. What if instead of directing Ford to stop making cars and start making bombers, they waited for companies to volunteer to make this or that? Instead of figuring out which companies could do what, they waited for companies to tell them what they were capable of. By insisting on action, rather than hoping for it, the U.S. was able to transform 30% of its industrial might to military production. It was a huge factor in winning the war.

Of the many articles about the crisis I read during the weekend, the one that stuck with me the most was about the critical shortage of ventilators. Written by Daniel M. Horn, a young doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, it shows, implicitly but powerfully, why Trump’s free-market fundamentalism is completely wrong for this moment.

There are three issues that need to be solved, he wrote: “ventilator production, ventilator distribution and ventilator operation.” He went on to say that he and other doctors had been receiving texts saying things like, “My company makes parts for GE ventilators.” And he noted that GM was helping a small ventilator company scale up. Tech leaders, he added, were calling hospitals asking for ventilator specs. But to pull all this together, Horn wrote, “we need a plan.”

Ditto for distribution and operation. Which hospitals should get the ventilators? How many? How would they be delivered? Horn suggested a “cloud-based national ventilator surveillance platform” built by one of the big tech companies and managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Again, someone would have to draw up a plan and then see that it is executed.

As for operations, more people would be needed to run these machines than are now available. Using one does not appear to be rocket science, but it does require training. Who will do that training? How will their competence be certified?

Reading Horn’s article, I was struck by how much the federal government could do if it could only cast off its ideological blinders. Suppose Trump appointed a ventilator czar and gave him or her the power to employ the Defense Production Act. Instead of waiting for companies to come to him, he could seek out the companies that made the most sense for adapting factories to make ventilators. He could designate which company would make the surveillance platform and how it would operate. Skills-based community colleges could be given the task for training operators. None of this will happen without the government’s willingness to take charge — and yes, to use the act.

(A quick aside: late Sunday night, as I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that this would be a perfect role for Ash Carter, President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Defense. Before taking the top job he was the assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics — exactly the skills that are so desperately needed now in the Trump administration. But of course he was an Obama man, so it will never happen.)

What is stunning is how passive the administration is, how lacking in urgency, even now. States have to fend for themselves. People have to fend for themselves. On Monday, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said he and other Democratic lawmakers would introduce legislation to federalize the medical supply chain.

In his press conferences, Trump is constantly talking about how fast things are happening and how quickly progress is being made, but we all know it’s not true.

 He is, in fact, urgent about one thing: reviving the stock market. I’m now reading articles that the president wants to end social distancing soon and push people back to work, even if the virus is still among us. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” he tweeted — in all caps — just before midnight on Sunday.

You know what we boomers used to say: “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.” In the two months since the coronavirus hit U.S. shores, the Trump administration remains part of the problem.

(Corrects spelling of a company identified by President Trump in the eighth paragraph. )

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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