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Why Are Troops Leading the Vaccination Effort?

America’s armed forces are stepping in for the dismantled state.

A member of the Massachusetts National Guard wearing a mask and face shield prepares to vaccinate a man in Boston.

Last September, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who relishes undermining subordinate local politicians and interjecting himself into the management of his state’s largest city, complained about how dirty New York City was getting. Residential garbage collection had slowed, due to Department of Sanitation budget cuts, while residential trash had increased, now that hundreds of thousands of people were spending all day, every day, at home.

“I don’t know what’s going on in New York City,” the governor said at one of his regular press conferences. (See the previous paragraph for a succinct explanation of what was going on in New York City.) “If they can’t do it, I have offered to send in the National Guard to come help pick up the garbage. The state can bring in trucks, personnel and clean up the city.”

The offer didn’t seem entirely serious—the governor is known to free-associate at times—but I remember thinking that there wasn’t really any reason for him not to follow through on it.

New York City’s Department of Sanitation, which has a very important job (that it has traditionally managed to do fairly well), is funded through the municipal budget, which nearly always shrinks in a crisis. The governor had a wing of the armed forces at his disposal, paid for (for the most part) by the money-printing, deficit-spending federal government. If we agree that the state is responsible for picking up the trash, and the department assigned that responsibility is deprived of the resources necessary to perform that function, then, yes, sure, send in the arm of the state that is, in the United States, traditionally completely immune from austerian pressures to do it, instead. It may be demeaning to the National Guard’s officers and a poor use of resources, but this is how we’ve decided to organize our society.

For almost a year now, the federal government has been picking up all or most of the tab for states to deploy the National Guard to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. Upon taking office, President Joe Biden quickly signed an executive order fully federalizing the cost of pandemic-related National Guard deployments. Now the National Guard is posted just a short walk away from where I write this, distributing and even administering Covid-19 vaccines at one of a few mass vaccination sites that have been set up around New York City and state. Active-duty military personnel have been deployed to federal vaccination sites across the country, with more troops on the way this month.

It’s not entirely clear why this is the military’s responsibility. America is a rich nation with a robust public and private health infrastructure. We might have chosen, at some point, to create a reserve force of doctors and nurses who could be called up to help administer a national vaccine program. (The Affordable Care Act was actually supposed to create such a force: a “Ready Reserve” corps of the U.S. Public Health Service’s Commissioned Corps that could be called up in emergencies. It just didn’t happen, because Congress forgot to include a way to pay the physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other medical professionals that would serve in that reserve corps. Congress only got around to fixing the problem last year, midway through the pandemic.) Or we even could have tried building public health systems capable of doing a mass vaccination campaign without the need for a uniformed service at all. Israel’s lauded vaccine rollout depended on its network of community health organizations. The United Kingdom, relying on its National Health Service, is outpacing the rest of Europe in vaccine delivery. But we don’t have a national health care system. We have the National Guard and the Defense Department.

To determine how the military ended up so central to our vaccine distribution plan, it helps juxtapose two seemingly unrelated facts: Last week, the Biden administration carried out airstrikes in Syria without congressional approval, and the White House announced that the vice president would not overrule a hired parliamentarian’s determination that a $15 federal minimum wage could not be included in the Covid-19 relief package currently moving through Congress.

In making her decision, the parliamentarian apparently considered the fact that the Congressional Budget Office had previously determined that raising the minimum wage would increase the federal budget deficit by $54 billion. The CBO did not score the airstrikes.

The U.S. is supposed to be in a new era of resurgent Keynesian thinking, with Modern Monetary Theory on the rise and Democrats, for the first time in living memory, unafraid to run up large deficits. And the relief package that Joe Biden will almost certainly sign this month will, indeed, be massive—and not “paid for.”

At the same time, Biden has not fought particularly hard to keep the minimum wage increase in the final deal. He could have had his vice president overrule the parliamentarian, or more aggressively whipped two Democrats who oppose the proposal. Instead, he conceded the effort’s failure well before it actually happened. As even members of Democratic leadership call on him to use his executive powers to cancel large amounts of student debt unilaterally, he insists on assigning Congress the responsibility of forgiving a much smaller amount. When pressed on this recently, he cited the usual zero-sum budgetary politics (the president would rather “use that money to provide money for early education for young children”). Any talk of implementing a national health care system akin to those currently vaccinating the citizens of Israel and the U.K. is similarly off the table in a Biden presidency.

Comparing the American government’s unlimited appetite for military spending (the amount of the increase in the military budget between 2018 and 2019 rivals the entire military budget of Great Britain) to its paltry and patchwork social services and welfare state is so common a theme on the left that critics often need to come up with creative new formulations of the disparity just to avoid repeating themselves. (As the author Kelsey Atherton recently said on Twitter, Joe Biden “campaigned on raising the annual federal minimum wage from 42% of an F-35A flight hour to 87% of an F-35A flight hour.”) That disparity is also unlikely to be meaningfully reversed any time soon, even with Democrats controlling the government.

This perverse misallocation of resources does lead to some morbidly funny outcomes. What is the National Guard doing, across the country, besides helping with vaccination? As Stars and Stripes writes: “Some of the coronavirus missions have included working in food banks, manning testing sites, helping process unemployment benefits and distributing personal protective equipment.” In other words, the National Guard was simply doing various essential tasks the pandemic revealed our state was too broken to handle. Our unemployment insurance system is so dysfunctional that it needed troops to help administer it. The military is state-building in the U.S., after the nation gradually, over a generation, toppled its own government.

Perhaps, with this dysfunctional political system, and a political class unable to shake its addiction to militarism, this is the best we can do. Naomi Klein likes to talk about the possibility of recreating something like the Civilian Conservation Corps, to address climate catastrophe and give meaningful work to young people whose lives have been disrupted by the pandemic. It’s a great and inspiring idea. Maybe make it a Noncivilian Conservation Corps and there will be room for it in Joe Biden’s next budget. Biden has promised to veto a Medicare for All program, even if it manages to pass Congress, citing the expense. But I’m sure the Pentagon could find funding for a pilot program to send F-35s full of camo-clad Troop Doctors throughout the country to treat civilians at (local economy–boosting!) military clinics. It already happens to be the case that one plank of our government’s plan to reduce carbon emissions is to have the military spend a growing portion of its massive budget on building up the clean energy sector. Maybe political opposition to the Green New Deal would lessen if someone puts the word “Operation:” in front of it.

If the military is the only arm of the government that seems to understand there is practically no limit to what the U.S. can spend, the rest of us might as well start getting a little more out of it.