What happens when you begin to research a story about how not-so-black market retailers are selling masks, gloves, and other protective gear at exorbitant prices during an unprecedented crisis? You get a browser filled with ads for masks, gloves, and other protective gear, available to anyone willing to pay exorbitant prices … because God forbid Google and Facebook don’t get a cut of the action.
Not only are pandemic profiteers setting 50 states and the federal government bidding against each other in a process that is costing billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives—they’re doing it openly. This isn’t secret. This isn’t idiots in a truck, scouring a state for hand sanitizer. This is major suppliers, including manufacturers, raking in profits and shipping away the products that health care workers need to do their jobs. These are actions that the federal government could stop … but hasn’t.
On Monday, Forbes reported on an extended look at the market for masks and other protective gear, and that report could not be more infuriating. Because the shortage of protective gear doesn’t exist. There are millions of medical-grade N95 masks available in the United States. Those masks, and other needed supplies, aren’t the product of last-minute enterprise; they’ve been out there all along. It’s just that the market is being driven by … the market.
Protective gear, like every other aspect of life in America, is subject to laws of supply and demand, and as with any other commodity, even a slight excess of demand can generate huge spikes in prices as the market responds by doing what it does best: maximizing profit. It doesn’t take overwhelming demand to drive prices through the roof; it only takes one more person willing to pay more than the current price, and one person willing to pay more than that, and one more person, etc.
In the case of protective gear, that “one person” is really one hospital system, one state emergency response department, one federal agency, or one other member of the retail chain hoping to elevate prices even further while taking a slice. The result is that there is genuine overwhelming demand. And it’s a dream situation for the people sitting on top of tens of millions of pieces of life-saving kit.
At this point, the only constraints on prices are the possibility of government intervention. There have been scattered cases of people being charged with profiteering, but these cases have been very few and mostly small timers. They certainly haven’t been sufficient to stop retailers from peddling masks that were two for a dollar a month ago, at $7 apiece on ads that pop up even on prominent websites. These highly visible excess prices are driving a scramble that’s making it nearly impossible to find supplies at anything less than a maximum price defined by little more than how frightened retailers feel of being made into an example.
How frightened are they? Not very. In fact, the most shocking thing that Forbes uncovered may be that both retailers and wholesale suppliers in the United States are still shipping millions of masks out of the United States to foreign buyers. Protective gear, it seems, is fungible.
But that’s only true because the United States government isn’t doing a damn thing about it. There have been plenty of complaints—fully justified—about Donald Trump’s unwillingness to invoke the Defense Production Act to secure vital equipment. But there were, and are, even more vital steps that Trump could take.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren isn’t the only one frustrated by how states are being forced to outbid each other, the federal government, and those foreign buyers in order to secure protective gear for health care workers who are putting their lives on the line right now across America. There’s little point in crowing about billions of dollars provided to states in order to fight COVID-19 if that money only goes to buy gear that should have cost orders of magnitude less had the federal government simply stepped in to regulate the market for protective equipment.
It’s a system that isn’t providing a lifeline to states or to citizens, but a massive gift to those who are sitting on top of the market. Using the Defense Production Act isn’t a rare thing. It’s been invoked literally hundreds of thousands of times to secure the most routine needs. But now Trump is refusing to use it to secure the most vital needs in the biggest crisis of our lifetimes. It’s not just puzzling, not just frustrating—it’s deliberate cruelty. And it’s the ultimate expression of a system designed to generate dollars rather than save lives.
Imagine a nation in which a central health care system provided a single, central purchase point for these supplies. In which the federal government strictly limited price increases on health care materials at any time, and was especially strict in times of crisis. In which that government moved swiftly to secure the needs of the nation, ensure the channels of supply, and obtain the necessary equipment to protect workers as they saved citizens.
You’ve just imagined almost every nation that’s not called the United States. But this is exactly the kind of situation in which the United States should be taking all of the actions above, and there is absolutely nothing stopping it—except Donald Trump.