Let the Markets Work

Many people are calling for the President to use the Defense Productions Act (DPA) but the reality is that the DPA is neither especially useful nor necessary. The markets are already redirecting resources in a rapid and sophisticated manner. For the most part, the shortages were due to temporary increases in demand. The shelves are now filling. Food is plentiful. Hand sanitizer and soap is on the way or available. We are not going to run out of toilet paper. Now that the CDC and the FDA have gotten out of the way, we are producing more tests.

Honeywell and 3M are already ramping up production of N95 masks. We should arrange with China to buy more. The Federal Government is playing a useful role by buying surgical masks from companies like Hanes. Ironically, we will be importing them from Latin America.

Winston-Salem Journal: The company went from negotiating a contract with the federal government to beginning production in less than a week, according to the spokesman.

Using U.S.-grown cotton, the masks are being produced in Hanesbrands’ sewing factories in El Salvador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

These factories would normally be producing T-shirts, underwear, socks, sweatpants and sweatshirts.

(Note the stupid requirement to use American Cotton.)

A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive, as Tyler and I write in Modern Principles. Compare the price system with command and control. We need ventilators. The federal government could order ventilator firms to make more but they are already doing so. The government could order other firms to get into the ventilator business but does the Federal government have a good idea which firms have the right technology or which firms have the right technology that could be repurposed to ventilator production at low cost, that is without causing shortages and disruption in other fields? Can they do better than a decentralized process in which millions of entrepreneurs respond to price signals. No.

A word here on “price gouging.” There are two kinds. The first, which has gotten some attention, is when the manufacturer/retailer holds the price constant despite increased demand and an enterprising fellow buys up stock to sell at the true market price–the ticket scalping model. “Ticket scalping” has some good features and I would not make it illegal but it has one big problem–the benefits of the increased price are not going to the producers. It would be better if the manufacturer and retailer raised their prices, the scalpers would then be eliminated and the benefits of the higher price would flow to producers giving them an incentive and resources to expand production. We shouldn’t worry too much about ticket scalping, however, because its temporary. Typically what happens is that the manufactures and retailers hold the price low for a short period of time to avoid consumer backlash, output ramps up, and then the price rises but given the increased supply by not as much as it would have in the short run. This also works fine. The bottom line is that it’s very important that manufacturer prices be allowed to rise to reflect true scarcities and to get resources flowing in the right direction. So far, we are doing that and the system is working well.

If all the trucks are fleeing from the front, we want the army to be able to requisition vehicles to move in the opposite direction. Private and social incentives do not always align and when time and certainty are of the essence command and control may be superior (as Tyler and I discuss in Modern Principles in the chapter on externalities). For the most part, however, that is not the situation we are in now. Private incentives are all pushing in the right direction of greater production. Let the market respond. The federal government is not good at command and control but it does have a role to play in redistribution for need.

America’s great strength is decentralization and markets, and right now we need our strength.


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