Government must focus on the public interest in race to a vaccine

The first presidential debate was less an argument over policies and ideas than a boxing match. But there was at least one brief exchange that bordered on an ideological debate.

“We prefer a vaccine,” said Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFederal judge shoots down Texas proclamation allowing one ballot drop-off location per county Sanders endorses more than 150 down-ballot Democrats Debate commission cancels Oct. 15 Trump-Biden debate MORE about the COVID-19 pandemic. “But I don’t trust [President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal judge shoots down Texas proclamation allowing one ballot drop-off location per county Nine people who attended Trump rally in Minnesota contracted coronavirus Schiff: If Trump wanted more infections ‘would he be doing anything different?’ MORE] at all, and neither do you. I know you don’t. What we trust is a scientist.”

“You don’t trust Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer?” the president responded.

Unfortunately, the discussion then drifted to trading blows about who spends more time golfing.

Reading between the lines, the candidates were debating the role of government in public health and other public goods. Should people trust private corporations over public institutions? What’s the government’s responsibility in making sure everyone has access to essential public goods, like vaccines, clean water and a quality education?

Virologists and other trusting scientific experts agree that when it comes to the eventual rollout of a vaccine, administering them will be a massive government operation, in which “good management skills and logistics” will be necessary.

This aligns with what’s worked in other places. Vietnam, a country of 95 million people, has suffered only 35 deaths due to the virus. Experts chalk that up to the government’s swift and coordinated implementation of mass testing, lockdowns, contact tracing and compulsory mask wearing.

Such a public response is hard to imagine in the U.S. because we’ve been swimming in anti-government ideology since at least the Reagan administration — which gets to the heart of what was briefly debated in Cleveland. 

How can we trust big drug companies? Hundreds of legal cases have been filed against some of them related to the opioid epidemic, which has so far claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. 

But it goes beyond a few companies with bad track records. It goes to the very nature of market competition versus the responsibility of public institutions in American life.

We’re repeatedly told that market competition — the pursuit of profit and choice — is the only way to make progress and prosperity happen. 

Yes, competition can be a positive force — it drives people to do better and companies to come up with better products and services. But corporations have a clear interest that doesn’t always align with, nor benefit, the public.

That’s why we can’t trust corporations to provide public goods by themselves. It is why things we all rely on, like vaccines, need government coordination and regulation, and other things, like the U.S. Postal Service, should be wholly public. It is why in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine the federal government must remain focused on maximizing public health.

The public’s interest is clear. Every person must have access to essential public goods — health, knowledge, economic security, water, an equal voice in our democracy, public safety and more. That’s our social responsibility as a nation.

Private interests and goals are just different. Corporations sell things, the more the better. The metrics that guide them are unequivocal: sales volume, market share, production costs and net profit. Social responsibility and preventing negative externalities are priorities only when they improve those metrics. 

Right-wing economist Milton Friedman said businesses’ social responsibility is solely to, “use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception [or] fraud.”

None of this should be surprising. The logic of the market is crystal clear to the corporations selling their products and services.

Each year, public corporations listed on U.S. stock exchanges file a “10-K” report with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The reports all have a section called “Risk Factors” that include anything that could impact sales, profits, market share or growth plans. It’s logical behavior — corporate or individual — to avoid unnecessary risks. Corporations have a responsibility to their shareholders to let them know how things are going and what could happen in the future. It’s a good practice to prevent fraud, encourage good management and develop strategic responses to uncertainty.

As such, corporations look out for their shareholders, not the public. Private prison corporations worry about laws and policies that “could lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior.” Global infrastructure firms see “reduced traffic volumes” and “competition from competing modes of public transportation or mass transit such as buses and trains” as problems — not moves towards a carbon-neutral future. 

These and other risks are avoided through lobbying and campaign contributions to ensure that laws and regulations don’t harm — and even help — corporate interests. In fact, their responsibilities to their shareholders guarantee they weigh in on any policy discussion that could impact their sales, market share, net profits and growth plans. They become institutionally bound to many public goods we all rely on. In other words, they have skin in the game — so they need to play in it. 

No doubt there are markets for things we consume, use and depend on in our daily lives. But for the big things — essential public goods, like a vaccine for a global pandemic — the market is the wrong way to address those things. It’s like saying you’ll cook dinner with a hammer and wrench — it’s just the wrong tool.   

The market can’t ensure every person has access to health care, breathe clean air, save the planet, educate every child or even get a letter to every address in the country for the same price. The market on its own can’t even make sure every family has a home. The global food supply is at dire risk, UN experts say. No market can solve that. 

On their own, markets don’t, markets can’t, markets won’t. And when it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine, the government must prioritize the public, not corporate investors and shareholders.

Donald Cohen is founder and executive director of In the Public Interest, a national nonprofit think tank that studies the privatization of public goods. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.

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