America's corrosive obsession with scarcity

The most important question often isn't how to divide what we have fairly, but how to make enough for all

The Capitol Building.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Earlier this month, my family and I celebrated Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory of one side in a complex civil war and the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple in the war's aftermath. But the focus of the celebration — pushed heavily by the early rabbis who wanted to mute the nationalistic and sectarian sides of the holiday — is on a minor-sounding miracle. When they set out to rededicate the Temple, the Maccabees found only enough oil for one day, but they needed at least a week to make more oil. Miraculously, the small supply lasted for eight days, and the Temple could be rededicated successfully.

I've been thinking about that story lately in the context of American politics. More and more, I fear, our politics revolve around how to distribute a resource presumed to be scarce. Whether it's jobs, or education, or housing, or the right to vote, the presumption in many quarters seems to be that if someone gets more, someone else must be getting less, and therefore what we really need to argue about is who got more than their fair share. But even in situations where scarcity is real, the most important question often isn't how to divide what we have fairly, but how to make enough for all.

Take a very current example — vaccine distribution. A limited amount of COVID-19 vaccine has already been produced, and with the United States recently averaging over 200,000 new cases and over 2,500 new deaths every day, the need to distribute the supplies that are available efficiently and quickly is acute. The first round of inoculations sensibly prioritized health-care workers (who were both especially vulnerable to infection and especially crucial in fighting the disease) and residents of nursing homes (the population that suffered nearly 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths). But who should come next?

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Should the vaccine simply be distributed by age, since age is by far the largest factor in fatality rates (and also the factor hardest for people to manipulate in order to cut the line)? Or should some attention be paid to other co-morbidities like diabetes, heart disease, or obesity? Should the emphasis be entirely on preventing deaths, or are quality adjusted life years a better metric? What about slowing the progress of the pandemic itself — should populations that are more likely to be vectors of spread be inoculated before those who, though vulnerable, are better able to distance themselves? And what about racial disparities in both likelihood of infection and disease outcome — should they affect the distribution plan, and if so how? Grocery clerks, for example, are more likely to be non-white than teachers, are more likely to get infected, and get paid less for the essential work they do. But the children suffering the most from the disruption of in-person schooling are poor and non-white, with effects that are likely to have a far more lasting impact on racial disparities in achievement, wealth, and power than the disparities in COVID-19 death rates. So which group should be inoculated first to advance the goal of racial equity?

The question gets tangled extremely quickly, and gets more so the further down the list you go — which is precisely why it was great fodder for angry arguments on Twitter. But while different orders of distribution could have real consequences in terms of lives lost, as well as racial and economic impact of the disease, the difference wouldn't be remotely as large as, say, doubling the rate of inoculation.

That doubling may be possible. The protocol for both the Pfizer and Modena vaccines require two doses, but the effectiveness of a single dose for either is quite high. Why isn't the distribution plan to maximize the number of people getting a single dose, with a second dose provided as soon as production has ramped up, rather than planning on giving everyone two doses? And why isn't this question — how to get the most people protected as fast as possible — the one that pitted pundit-Twitter against public-health-Twitter all weekend, instead of the question of who should be inoculated first while supplies are the most scarce?

My point isn't that it's obvious the public health experts have this wrong. It's that the thrust of public argument has presumed scarcity and revolved around the fair way to distribute a scarce resource, rather than around how to make that resource less scarce. I find that telling — and what it tells me isn't good.

That predisposition toward arguments from scarcity shows up in many other contexts and cuts across political axes. Consider the debate about pandemic relief that Congress has finally agreed to pass. Principled Republican opposition for months centered on two issues: relief for states and localities, and generous support for the unemployed (as well as a demand for a liability shield for business). The concerns were that the former would remove any urgency for structural reform, while the latter would make it harder for employers to entice people back into the workforce. And neither concern is entirely specious: Scarcity is a useful discipline, to governments and individuals alike. Moreover, it is a little obnoxious to ask less-wealthy regions to bail out New York City's subway system when the agency overseeing it has done little to reform its wasteful practices, and it can be counterproductive to pay the unemployed more than they might make at a job.

The urgency of the humanitarian situation should really have overridden those concerns — and that's one reason we finally did get a relief bill, and a pretty good one. But it should never have even been a question, because the sense of scarcity that animated opposition is largely artificial and certainly isn't driven by economic constraints. The economy has a huge amount of slack, and the government can borrow money for an interest rate close to zero. Under those circumstances, even without the emergency of the pandemic, we shouldn't be debating whether we can afford to spend more. Rather, we should be brainstorming what will generate the greatest abundance, and thereby obviate many of these debates about scarcity, while buying off recalcitrant constituencies with more free money to bring them along.

The same predisposition shows up when the topic is fighting climate change. There's a palpable enthusiasm in some quarters for cutting back, doing without, a sense that the urgency with which one treats the challenge can be measured by the level of sacrifice one is willing to make. And it is true that a sense of shared sacrifice can build solidarity, and that there are profound spiritual and economic arguments against the disposable society, quite apart from the ecological ones.

But the primary driver of climate change today is economic growth in China, India, and across the developing world. That growth has led to a dramatic reduction in poverty, and the development of a large global middle class. So what feels like virtuous sacrifice in Berkeley feels like a pointed threat in Beijing, to say nothing of Bhilai or Bamako. And what is needed most urgently is not austerity but innovation, the development and deployment of technologies that will make abundance sustainable.

The development of vaccines for COVID-19 in record time should reinvigorate our belief that those kinds of miraculous-seeming innovations are indeed possible — but they are far from certain. As the expression goes, God helps those who help themselves. If we want more of them, we'll need to turn away from a politics of complacency and resentment — where some think the pie will bake itself if the government does nothing, while others are so focused on how to divide the pie they lose track of the need to bake it in the first place — and embrace instead a politics of abundance.

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