Trump has been hesitant to invoke the Defense Production Act for medical gear. But he's already used it hundreds of thousands of times for weapons and bombs.

As The New York Times reports:

Invoking the Defense Production Act is hardly a rare occurrence. As recently as last summer, the Department of Defense used it to obtain rare earth metals needed to build lasers, jet engines and armored vehicles.

The Defense Department estimates that it has used the law’s powers 300,000 times a year. The Department of Homeland Security — including its subsidiary, FEMA — placed more than 1,000 so-called rated orders in 2018, often for hurricane and other disaster response and recovery efforts, according to a report submitted to Congress in 2019 by a committee of federal agencies formed to plan for the effective use of the law.

The Defense Production Act essentially empowers the government to enact a kind of centralized economic planning. While they can't take over private companies, they can direct those companies to prioritize certain manufacturing needs, or oversee distribution of products. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, with the country facing a shortage of personal protective equipment, it could be used to speed up production for things like N95 masks and ventilators. The government could essentially commandeer manufacturing lines to make sure that all the necessary individual parts are being produced and then moved in a timely manner to a place where they could then be assembled and distributed.

As Reuters described it in March:

A White House official confirmed that the administration was exploring the use of the law to spur manufacturing of protective gear. Both the DHS official and the White House requested anonymity to discuss the issue.

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Trump administration considers a centrally planned economy to deal with coronavirus

The Trump administration is reportedly considering the possibility of re-implementing the Defense Production Act. Originally  enacted during the Korean War, the Act essentially empowers the President to control the means of production—the idea being that it would be in the interest of the nation's defense to force private manufacturers to focus their production efforts on things that would benefit the country in a time of tenuous resources.

From Reuters:

A White House official confirmed that the administration was exploring the use of the law to spur manufacturing of protective gear. Both the DHS official and the White House requested anonymity to discuss the issue.

“Let’s say ‘Company A’ makes a multitude of respiratory masks but they spend 80% of their assembly lines on masks that painters wear and only 20% on the N95,” the White House official said. “We will have the ability to tell corporations, ‘No, you change your production line so it is now 80% of the N95 masks and 20% of the other.’”

“It allows you to basically direct things happening that need to get done,” the official added.

In other words, it's precisely the kind of government-controlled economic planning that Republicans have warned would happen under a Democratic-Socialist administration. Except in this case, it's good. Because they're the ones doing it.

U.S. mulls using sweeping powers to ramp up production of coronavirus protective gear [Ted Hesson and Alexandra Alper / Reuters]

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