The reaction of President Trump’s opponents to his appointment of Vice President Pence to leadership of the Coronavirus Task Force, and to the inclusion of Steven Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, has been predictably negative.
According to the Hill, “In addition to blasting Pence as “unqualified” to lead the effort, Sanders said the response team should be staffed with experts and scientists, hitting Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow as “political cronies, not scientists.””
Sanders’ response and that of other political commentators is wildly off the mark.
The potential for more damaging secondary effects from a major pandemic should not be underestimated. These potentially include – but are not limited to – food shortages, economic collapse, mass unemployment, mass civil unrest and government overreaction.
The pandemic is already cratering economic growth around the world, and causing enormous disruption to global supply chains. Trading Economics has reported that the “Caixin China General Manufacturing PMI plunged to 40.3 in February 2020, the lowest level since the survey began in April 2004”, and down from a previous read of 51.10, a drop of a massive 11.7 points.
While the Chinese Government has been pushing factories to reopen, it is clear that many are operating well below capacity with many workers understandably reluctant to return to work. As we covered in a previous article, there has also been severe disruption to food supply chains in China, with shortages in places and dumping in others, while the United States has already been hit by its first waves of panic buying.
Our highly-interconnected global economy leaves uniquely vulnerable to the sort of catastrophic economic shock, which a major pandemic has the potential to trigger.
President Trump is therefore entirely justified in being as concerned about the secondary effects of the pandemic as the primary ones.
His decision to hand leadership of the Task Force to the Vice President is also smart. Pence has barely put a foot during his tenure, coming across as an austere, bridge-building figure, who has the benefit of a close working relationship with President Trump and familiarity with most of the key figures likely be involved in addressing the crisis. Having a generalist with a background in state government, who dealt with the response to first MERS cases in the United States as state governor, and who is a big picture thinker, is a smart move. Appointing either an epidemiologist or a economist to the leadership of the taskforce could easily have led to a misbalanced response. An outsider without understanding of the workings of government would likely fail to get the machine moving as it must. A bureaucrat lacking Pence’s military mindset might well lack the capacity for action.
The inclusion of economists on the taskforce is also surely a must, while the participation of representatives of the State Department, Homeland Security, Transportation, the Domestic Policy Council, and the Office of Management and Budget will help to ensure that there is a whole-of-government response that balances competing epidemiological, economic and security concerns.
Let the scoffers scoff, but the President’s dual focus is on the mark!