Pete Buttigieg: Hungry Babies, Regrettably, Are Just the Price of the Free Market

Pete Buttigieg says that in a capitalist economy, the government doesn’t and shouldn’t make baby formula. But around the world, even in the United States, the public sector has stepped in to correct market failures.


Pete Buttigieg speaking in Washington, DC, 2019. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

Someone save us from the free market ideologues before it’s too late.

Sitting down on CBS’s “Face the Nation” this week, transportation secretary and billionaire darling Pete Buttigieg addressed the infant formula shortage that’s sent parents around the United States scrambling to find some way to feed their babies. Asked about the sluggish federal response to a crisis regulators were informed about as far back as October, Buttigieg absolved the Biden administration through a little bit of neoliberal sleight of hand.

“Let’s be very clear,” he said. “This is a capitalist country. The government does not make baby formula, nor should it. Companies make formula.”

It was the company that screwed up, Buttigieg insisted, and now it was the government’s job to help get the contaminated plant that helped lead to this shortage back up and running quickly and safely.

At heart, this is just a lazy bit of political ass-covering. In reality, the Biden administration has a great deal of responsibility for what happened: federal regulators took months to respond to the October whistleblower complaint about food safety issues at the Abbott Laboratories plant in question, only for two babies to die and another to be hospitalized a couple months later. Nor did regulators act on Minnesota health officials’ September warnings about a baby hospitalized after taking formula from the same plant; in fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did a routine inspection of the plant that very month and concluded its issues weren’t major.

It was only in January that FDA inspectors actually went to the plant in response to the complaint, and since Abbott shuttered the plant a month later and recalled its products, making the shortage worse, the administration hasn’t exactly acted with urgency. It failed to proactively deal with the problem, with the president claiming last week that he and others would have had to be “mind readers” to have acted earlier on a crisis that was being reported on as early as January. Then, even when the problem became unignorable, the administration had to be pressured for days by Democrats and Republicans alike to use the Defense Production Act to get formula on the shelves, despite (falsely) claiming to have been the first to suggest the wartime law as a way to deal with the pandemic.

So Buttigieg is wrong. But what’s maybe most interesting is how he’s choosing to be wrong.

In a line that no doubt prompted much high-fiving and backslapping from his comms team, Buttigieg passes the back by suggesting there are simply some lines too sacred to be crossed even in a crisis — in this case, the government directly producing baby formula. It’s not just that in a capitalist system, according to Buttigieg, the government does not make baby formula; it’s that it should not.

But governments around the world — and even in the United States — are today, and have been in the past, engaged in production in a vast array of different industries, sometimes competing with the private sector, in other cases as monopoly producers. Even in capitalist societies, there has been a widely held principle that certain things are so critical to the functioning of life and the economy, they shouldn’t be left to the whims of unaccountable private actors looking to get rich at any cost, but be put under some kind of democratic control and their revenues allowed to be recycled for the common good.

An obvious and perennial case is health care, where countries that have state-dominated insurance systems — Medicare for All, in other words — have far, far better health outcomes than the privatized, corporate-controlled system in the United States, the richest country in the world. And in those countries where the state also owns and operates the bulk of the health sector itself, as a monopoly, those superior health outcomes are delivered at an especially low cost. The idea that the government “should not” be providing health care simply because This Is Capitalism, Damnit! has long been a talking point in the United States, but in the past it was at least mainly confined to spokespeople for corporations and the Right — and one they’ve tried to throw at virtually every other initiative meant to protect Americans’ economic security that we don’t find remotely controversial today.

But health care is just one example. Look at Sweden, where even after decades of neoliberal pressures, the government is still directly involved in producing and managing everything from pharmaceuticals, banking, and logistics, to housing, forestry, and telecommunications — even alcohol sales and airports. It’s a similar story across the rest of Scandinavia, all wealthy (and also capitalist) countries that have far higher standards of living and happiness than the United States.

It was the same in my home country of New Zealand, whose government once upon a time, in the words of the Centre for Public Impact, “owned much of the economic infrastructure” in the country, from banks and telecommunications to forests, power plants, and other industrial entities. Its corporatization and subsequent sell-off of many of those assets happened to coincide with soaring inequality and long-running cost pressures on working households. This cost of living crisis has gotten so bad now, a government agency recently suggested creating a state-owned supermarket chain to inject some actual competition into the grocery duopoly the free market has created — an idea rejected by the country’s current liberal government and a host of commentators for reasons not much more sophisticated than Buttigieg’s. (“It’s not their role to do that,” said one.)

Coming from someone who prides himself on his dogma-free pragmatism on every other question, it’s noteworthy that as soon as the subject turns to the purity of capitalism, Buttigieg smoothly morphs into a rigid ideologue. But ideological rigidity is probably a necessary prerequisite for anyone to take the position Buttigieg is adopting here. After all, being a private, for-profit company, Abbott’s main goal — as any fan of business and capitalism will tell you — is not to serve the public good, but to make as much money as possible. So rather than spending money on tending to equipment that was badly in need of repair, they spent hundreds of millions of dollars on stock buybacks to enrich themselves instead. Then they deceived inspectors and falsified records to hide the serious issues going on in their plant and keep the gravy train running, issues that workers in turn were too scared to blow the whistle on because they feared retaliation.

Incidentally, if they had the kinds of worker protections that the unionized, federal workforce enjoys, maybe this crisis would’ve been nipped in the bud. But heaven forbid the government should make stuff.

Buttigieg’s insistence that the government shouldn’t be involved in vital industries just because shows him to be fundamentally unfit to wield power in a crisis. But it also suggests that for all the talk of a bold, new, activist-government liberalism, elite liberals are still stuck in the mindset of a long-gone era.