Oversupply of Ventilators Repeats the Lesson of Useless Armored Humvees

By: - May 12, 2020

News broke today that after spending billions of dollars to rush mass production of ventilators, doctors have moved away from using them and the US will likely be stuck with a “glut” for the foreseeable future. This might sound like shocking news of government incompetence, but it was entirely predictable for me.

A month ago I wrote about what would happen based on the context provided by history. As the casualties mounted in Iraq around 2004 a common talking point was why doesn’t America have more armor on these vehicles.  The Pentagon quickly scrambled, spending billions upon billions in the process, to quickly up armor the vehicles.  It turns out that armor didn’t stop the insurgency and was a down stream problem that needed an upstream solution like proper counter insurgency strategy. The armored Humvees were dramatically unsuited to campaigns elsewhere and were often sold at discount rates to local police departments or sat on Iraqi bases until they were captured by ISIS.

I thought that items like coronavirus testing and ventilators became something very similar. I wrote, “In the years moving forward I predict that we will end up overpreparing for the next disaster which will leave us unprepared for whatever it turns out to be. We will have warehouses around the country filled with useless masks and ventilators, but not enough firefighting aircraft or whatever we need for the next crisis.”

It didn’t take years but only a month to see that ventilators weren’t nearly as important as political critics made them out to be. There was no shortage, but a severe overproduction of the equipment. Now that I’m a verified prophet on government idiocy and shameless political attacks, why does the government do this?

When people are dying its very easy to make political points about it. This happened so much in American history it was called waving the bloody shirt. Though President Trump would have been correct, its much tougher not to spend money in the crisis. We wouldn’t have a glut of ventilators, but he also would have been second guessed for the last months and the subject of continual attacks or his do nothing approach to stopping the virus. Even though he would have been correct in this case, doing nothing in the face of a crisis is a tough political argument to make. The virus could have been worse and created a need for more ventilators, and Trump would be accused of dragging his feet.

The whole saga of the ventilators seems to be closing. Much like the debate over armored Humvees, the ventilators were a down stream problem that ignore upstream solutions. Coronavirus is best fought with simple measures like social distancing, washing your hands, and not touching your face. Long term the virus is best combatted with a vaccine.  And there are serious questions to be had about the efficacy of shutting down major portions of the economy and throwing America into a great depression to stop the virus. Arguing about ventilators ignored many of these more important factors.

The next time a crisis comes around and people are waving the bloody shirt, we must avoid being sucked into the myopic short term debate and consider the long term consequences of policy.