There’s No Vaccine for This Profound American Problem
Did you get your Covid vaccination yet?
If you did, good for you. If not, I understand.
I personally know people who’ve had the jab, including close family and dear friends.
Pretty much everyone told a tale of frustrating signup procedures and long lines. Still, as one acquaintance said, “It took a while, but the best vaccine is the one they stick into your arm.”
Then again, I also know people who are waiting it out. “Give it time,” they say.
That is, let 100 million people take the vaccine first. No, make that 200 million. Just to… ahem… see what happens (if you get my drift).
In other words, many people implicitly trust the vaccination process and will dutifully roll up their sleeve.
Yet many others don’t trust the vaccine, including nearly one-third of U.S. military personnel who declined the opportunity to be injected with a novel, gene-altering substance.1
One way or another, it’s fair to say that the new Covid vaccines developed by several different pharmaceutical firms reflect cutting edge capabilities of modern medicine and technology. And they were developed at “warp speed,” no less, to borrow a phrase.
Fast and innovative… Developed under extreme pressure… And with accelerated testing to boot! What could go wrong?
Meanwhile, these new Covid vaccines highlight deep, seismic-level problems within the modern American economy, if not culture.
That is, the process of how these vaccines came into existence and how they’re now being bureaucratically pumped into shoulders across the nation demonstrates something that’s very wrong with the U.S.
Here’s my point: there’s no vaccine for what truly ails this country.
Let’s dig into it…
Looking back, it’s been about a year since the Covid bug began to impact the U.S.
That is, a year since the travel bans, the lockdowns, the demands to “flatten the curve,” the daily body count, government responses up and down the ladder of federalism, shutting schools, the adverse economic impacts, and much, much more.
Sadly, and in so many ways, it’s been a lost year. Tragic. Such waste. Such political foolishness on display. The Bill of Rights torn to shreds.
One key milestone came last May, when President Trump announced a plan to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine.
With his inimitable sense of grandness (if not grandiosity), Trump said, “It’s called Operation Warp Speed. That means big, and it means fast, a massive scientific, industrial and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project.”2
Okay, we all get where Trump was coming from with this. And absolutely, this was the right call, to mobilize science and industry for a vaccine.
But c’mon, man… Beware using that Manhattan Project metaphor.
Because frankly, if Operation Warp Speed was anything at all like the Second World War effort to develop the atom bomb, then the U.S. has basically lost the fight.
Along those lines, I know a few things about the Manhattan Project. My education began long ago when I met people who worked on it. Some were math, physics and chemistry professors at Harvard, who told me what they did back in the 1940s building the bomb.
Plus, over many years I’ve actually visited Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where I saw and touched equipment that people used to create certain nuclear materials. And I’ve visited Lawrence Livermore in California. And Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico, as well as the Trinity site where the first nuclear weapon cooked off.
Heck, we could discuss the Manhattan Project all day; but not today.
The point is (and not to dwell on the past) that developing a coronavirus vaccine in 2020 was no Manhattan Project of 1941- 45.
Meanwhile, let’s discuss the aforementioned logistics angle of both Trump’s Operation Warp Speed and the old Manhattan Project.
Because as we learned at the Naval War College, logistics are critical to any final, “deliverable” product, whether it’s an atom bomb or an injection.
During World War II, the U.S. had not just a vast, secret program to develop the atom bomb, but another even more vast, less-secret program to deliver it.
This was the B-29 program, which in total cost more than the Manhattan Project.
B-29s under construction. Courtesy U.S. Air Force.3
If you follow these kinds of things, you may have thought that the B-29 was just another, bigger airplane with which to drop iron bombs on opposing parties. No, no, no…
The only way to deliver the Manhattan Project’s atom bomb to the enemy was with a large airplane. Hence, the novel nuclear device needed a big transporter. In this sense, the B-29 was designed and built around the requirement to haul, aim and drop this particular package over a long distance.
During World War II, the Manhattan Project cost the U.S. government not quite $2 billion in “then”-dollars; meaning Bretton Woods dollars, based on gold at $35 per ounce.
Meanwhile, the B-29 program cost the government over $3 billion of those old, gold-backed dollars.4
Add it up to about $5 billion in 1940s-era dollars for the bomb and delivery aircraft. And then adjust for the price of gold as we’ve done in other Whiskey discussions such as here.
It’s about $260 billion in today’s dollars for these two, complementary wartime programs.
Now of course, that number may not seem all that big anymore in our era of multi-trillion-dollar stimulus bills. But you have to admit… it’s still a lot of money.
Which brings us back to Operation Warp Speed and the resulting vaccines and vaccination program.
There’s a major problem with how it all unfolded…
After you develop a vaccine, what do you absolutely, positively require in order to have a vaccination program?
You need injection syringes and needles!
Not quite a B-29, but just as important.5
Indeed, a year ago when Washington, D.C. policymakers were planning for a Covid vaccine, it was entirely foreseeable that the U.S. medical complex would need syringes and needles to inject the goop into hundreds of millions of shoulders.
Do some math, based on 330 million people in the U.S.
It was a total no-brainer that the U.S. would require half a billion syringes, if not three-quarters of a billion, considering how you can never get exactly what you need in the exact, right place.
This level of demand was an open invitation to American industry to manufacture syringes like crazy. Because real countries manufacture real things, right?
Fast-forward to the present. What’s the source of nearly all syringes and needles in the U.S., for Covid and everything else?
No suspense… They come from China.
Because, as we’ve discussed before, U.S. medical care is in large part “China-care.”
According to China’s Global Times newspaper — which is a direct channel to the thinking of top echelons within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — well over 80% of all injection devices used in U.S. medicine come from Chinese manufacturers.6
In the Global Times, the Chinese/CCP gloats about it:
“Despite the U.S. government’s attempt to get rid of the Chinese supply chain, Chinese syringe and needle suppliers are dealing with a production expansion after orders continue to increase worldwide, with the U.S. setting the trend. Several large producers have seen their orders pile up for months as the Biden administration ramps up its efforts for COVID-19 vaccinations.”
Considering everything that happened over the past year, how can this be the case? Well, it’s the usual reasons.
China has low production and labor costs, coupled with a complete domestic supply chain. Over the past 20 years, Chinese companies have built factories and promoted aggressively to gain dominant levels of market share globally.
Now, the situation has been dramatically improved by explosive demand for Covid vaccinations. Economies of scale have increased by dramatic levels.
Meanwhile, demand for syringes and needles has driven up raw material prices including plastics and steel. This is issue for America’s domestic companies that make syringes, such as U.S.-based Beckton Dickinson.
In the end, and despite rising costs for materials, a syringe manufactured in China is still lower-priced than one made in the U.S.
Syringes and needles illustrate a chronic American problem. The country is just plain uncompetitive in many ways, for many things.
Begin with the fact that the U.S. is a high-cost jurisdiction in which to do business.
And I do not mean that labor costs are necessarily “too high,” as the saying goes. Indeed, most U.S. workers are stuck in a decades-long doldrum of stagnant wages and declining purchasing power.7
Indeed, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is a pittance considering what it costs to go to the grocery store. Meanwhile, we live in a litigious society in which lawyers charge hundreds of dollars per hour to perform legal services.
Outside of labor costs, real estate in the U.S. tends to be expensive, particularly in coastal areas and large cities. That, plus start-up costs to set up a business.
Then come taxes and regulations, which are nearly everywhere complex. All this on top of America’s generally surly bureaucracy (and more lawyers) which make the general permitting process unfriendly. Or look at it this way: many people can say no, but few ever say yes.
Even when a company does everything right, along comes an election and change of political party to torpedo even the best of plans. The Keystone XL Pipeline comes to mind.
Now add in the general lack of skills-training in most of the U.S. education complex. For example, very few middle or high schools have anything like the old shop class, where young people used to learn basic things like how to pound a nail or turn a screw, let alone sweat a pipe joint or (God forbid!) how to weld.
America’s culture has slipped its historic moorings in business because the dollar has been the world’s reserve currency for 75 years. It’s just too easy to buy things from elsewhere, versus to make them domestically, as I discussed here.
Sad to say, the U.S. has deconstructed its industrial heritage, built up over two centuries. We looked at the historical point a while ago, here.
2020 offered the perfect opportunity for the U.S. to get back into a self-help mode, to mobilize its people, science, industry and capital to rebuild its medical industry at the very least.
And yes, sure… The U.S. developed Covid vaccines at “warp speed.” But what about the other side of the coin? What about something as fundamental as syringes and needles?
Well, the country sure dropped that ball. Operation “Warped Priorities” is more like it.
Looking ahead, the country manifests crazy, fantasy ambitions. Under President Biden (and eventually President Harris, when they wheel Biden out), we’re somehow going to decarbonize the 150-year old energy system and go… ahem… “Green.”
We’re going to build vast arrays of windmills and solar plants, with a workforce we don’t have, using machines and products from factories that don’t exist, incorporating materials that we don’t mine, mill or come close to producing here.
Yeah, right. And yes, it’s depressing. Because there’s something wrong with American culture, and no, there’s no vaccine for it.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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7 Wage Stagnation in Nine Charts, Economic Policy Institute