In my post, Let the Markets Work, I argued that the Defense Production Act was “neither especially useful nor necessary.” The earlier post focused on how markets were working to address the crisis. Today, we can see the flip side, how the government is working to address the crisis.
The NYTimes reported on Thursday that the government was balking on a deal to buy ventilators
The White House had been preparing to reveal on Wednesday a joint venture between General Motors and Ventec Life Systems that would allow for the production of as many as 80,000 desperately needed ventilators to respond to an escalating pandemic when word suddenly came down that the announcement was off.
The decision to cancel the announcement, government officials say, came after the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it needed more time to assess whether the estimated cost was prohibitive. That price tag was more than $1 billion, with several hundred million dollars to be paid upfront to General Motors to retool a car parts plant in Kokomo, Ind., where the ventilators would be made with Ventec’s technology.
At $1.2-$1.5 billion that’s $15,000-$18,750 per ventilator which is well below the standard price of $25,000-$50,000 (maybe these ventilators would be simpler or less fancy.) Seems like a bargain to me but maybe GM wasn’t the best producer. I think we could buy more pretty quickly from China, as Elon Musk did. In anycase, I’ll give the government the benefit of the doubt on the bargaining. Note that even as they were haggling over the price, GM and Ventec were continuing to work towards production. The market for ventilators is growing.
The President, however, then went on Hannity to say that he didn’t think we needed 30-40 thousand ventilators and also insulted GM CEO Mary Barra in a series of tweets. This was clearly some kind of clever bargaining strategy. Surprise! It failed. Yesterday in a pique, the President invoked the DPA.
CNN: President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act on Friday to require General Motors to produce more ventilators to deal with increased hospitalizations due to the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States.
But it’s unclear what practical, immediate effect the order will have.
…Trump also named Peter Navarro as the national Defense Production Act policy coordinator for the federal government. Trump said Navarro has been doing that job over the past few weeks but announced him as the coordinator for the first time on Friday.
Trump decided to invoke the act because he was irked by news reports that an agreement between GM and the administration had stalled, a person familiar told CNN.
So what have we gained by using the DPA? Will the ventilators be produced any faster? Will the ventilators be any cheaper? Will other companies be so quick to enter into negotiations with the government? Will Peter Navarro direct production more efficiently and fairly than market prices? No.