A Nation that Runs on Bribes: Civics Lessons from our Vaccine Rollout

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Bloomberg’s headline is forthright: “Bribing People to Get Vaccines Just Might Be Working in U.S.” In this short post, I’ll try to tease out some of the civics lessons of the vaccine rollout — normalizing bribery among them. I don’t mean to moralize; after all, I supported Operation Warp Speed, even though it would obviously empower Big Pharma, because “given the givens” it was the best way to get “jabs into arms” as rapidly as possible (and possibly we could disempower Big Pharma after the fact). Similarly, if bribery is what it takes to vaccinate as many (willing) people as possible, then so be it. That said, if we start bribing citizens to get vaccinated, what else are we going to end up needing to bribe them to do?

The bribes — or, as Bloomberg also calls them, “incentives” — take various forms:

President Joe Biden’s announcement last week that Anheuser-Busch InBev would give away beer was the latest bid to bribe hesitant Americans to get vaccinated. Other public officials have dangled empanadas, guns and even cold, hard cash.

As the administration aims to get at least one shot into 70% of Americans by the Fourth of July, the gimmicks appear to be working.

Vaccinations surged in the past month among the young people typically targeted by the campaigns. About 44% of 18-24 year olds have now received at least one shot, up from 34% a month earlier.

Bloomberg doesn’t mention it, but both Ohio and Manitoba offer scholarships, which, moralizing huffily, strikes me as a state taking a more high-minded view of its citizens than offering beer. That said, since the bribes target youth, the civics lesson for the next generation of citizens is that government really works by quid pro quo. Bloomberg goes on:

One key to the incentives’ effectiveness is that they’ve been bespoke, said Austin Hall, a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina who has worked to ease hesitancy among patients with severe mental illness.

“The more diverse the incentives that are offered, I think that we can capture that many more people,” Hall said.

AFAIK, mobile vaccine units (like those in Maine), workplace-focused solutions (like vaccinating everyone in a plant), or, for those essential workers with scheduling issues, vaccination on demand[1], are not the norm. Instead, you go to a large venue like a stadiums or a school, line up, and get vaccinated in your turn. So the civics lesson here, for the youth, is that government does not take your working life into account when delivering services. When you hear the word “diverse,” class is always silenced. So, not “bespoke” that way.

Now, to be fair to Bloomberg, they immediately give an example of a vaccination drive that doesn’t involve bribery:

In Chelsea, a predominantly young and Latino city near Boston that has been one of Massachusetts’ virus hotspots, health officials organized a vaccination party in late May attended by 120 people, replete with music and Latin American food like empanadas and pupusas. They’re planning a follow-up so that attendees can get second shots.

The parties reflect widespread efforts, from door-to-door visits to mobile vans, that have boosted Chelsea’s partial vaccination rate to roughly the state average. The city is working with local nonprofits to encourage vaccination, catching young people wherever possible, said City Manager Tom Ambrosino.

Personally, I wouldn’t throw lotteries and block parties into the bucket labeled “incentives,” “bespoke” or not, because the cash nexus isn’t the same thing as community building. More importantly, the civics lesson here is that government services are “bespoke,” and not delivered universally or in a standardized way. (On the one hand, it’s clear that trust is important for vaccine uptake, trust is in short supply, and trust may be most easily found in a highly granular way; Black barbershops, for example. On the other hand, delivering services through their dense and partly billionaire-funded “bailey” of NGOs is what liberal Democrats would do.) To contrast the universal vs. the bespoke approach, we can look at the vaccine rollout of the Sabin “sugar cube” vaccine for polio. From the University of Cincinatti:

On three consecutive Sundays — “Sabin Sundays” — in 1960, millions of families lined up at churches and schools across the country to swallow a spoonful of pink syrup or a sugar cube treated with a life-saving polio vaccine, developed by [University of Cincinatti] researcher Albert Sabin.

And in more detail, from the Weirton, WV Daily Times:

[T]he first Sabin vaccine would be distributed through a “S.O.S.,” or a “Sabin On Sunday” program aimed at successfully eradicating polio.

The date in our region was Sunday, Dec. 2, 1962, at 35 clinics throughout the seven-county area. Each site would have two physicians, two nurses and at least 16 volunteers on hand for the distribution. Drs. Sanford Press and Jonathan Yobbaggy were chairmen of the Jefferson County drive. The vaccine would be stored in the freezers of the Jefferson County Home on Sunset Boulevard until it was transported to the sites the day of the S.O.S.

The Kroger Co., through its stores in the seven-county region, provided the needed sugar cubes upon which the vaccine was administered. Participants were asked for a 25-cent donation, if possible, for the vaccine.

Throughout November 1962, promotional materials were distributed through the media explaining the Sabin vaccine. The Type I distribution would be administered to anyone 6 weeks or older on a sugar cube, and was recommended to be taken by anyone who had already received the earlier Salk vaccine. Dr. John W. Young, the county health commissioner, issued several newspaper stories, in addition to Press and all the medical societies of the seven counties. Volunteers were assembled by Drs. Earl Rosenblum, Carl Goll and Paul W. Ruksha.

The Wintersville Citizen newspaper reported that nearly 6,000 people took the vaccine at the Wintersville clinic from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on that Sunday, one of the largest clinics attended, with more than 30 volunteers working that day. A second clinic was held a month later, and a third clinic was needed.

A make-up clinic was held for all of Jefferson County on Dec. 8, 1962, at the City Building with another 1,163 taking the vaccine, for a total number of 51,052 having received the Sabin vaccine by the end of 1962 in Jefferson County.

The S.O.S. Clinic for Type 2 of the Sabin vaccine was held Jan. 20, 1963, and more than 50,000 received the second vaccine in Jefferson County. The third S.O.S. Clinic was in March and a similar number received the final vaccine.

Granted, 1962 was a different era. Nevertheless, polio was eradicated (that is, vaccine equity was achieved). The civics lesson for our own rollout, as distinct from “Sabin on Sundays” is that national mobilization is not a thing. I can’t recall any discussion at all of a similar approach in 2020 or 2021.

So let’s review. The civics lessons from our vaccine rollout — and these are common to the Biden Administration and the Former Guy — are as follows:

1) Government works by quid pro quo;

2) Government does not take your working life into account when delivering services;

3) The delivery of government services is not universal but bespoke;

4) National mobilization is not a thing.

Now let’s do climate!


[1] New York Times: “‘What might help this situation,’ added Mr. Grayson, ‘is if it was like Domino’s Pizza and you could call someone and say, ‘Can I get my shot?’ And they come give it to you.'”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Arizona Slim

    I’d like to be bribed with Medicare for All. And not the public option sparkle pony.

    I’m also reminded of a story that a former neighbor told. He said that he paid five bucks for a flu shot — and 75 bucks to get over the flu. He never got another flu shot.

    Guy worked in various labor jobs. At the time he told me this story, he was a groundskeeper.

    So, let’s just say that he could not afford to risk any side effects or time off work.

    1. urblintz

      I won’t be getting “jabbed” until August, when my medicare kicks in. However small the chance of a bad reaction, I’ll be damned if I’m gonna pay for it, should it occur, knowing big pharma has already been relieved of any responsibility for this fast-tracked, under-studied experiment in gene therapy which they’ve labeled a “vaccine.”

  2. synoia

    A Nation that Runs on Bribes:

    Quite. That reflects on the honesty of the nation’s leaders, who have to put money where their mouths are, because their speech, that is their word, cannot be trusted.

    Directly after making a promise, our leader employ Lawyers to find loopholes in the promises made.

    Rudyard Kipling’s Quote seems appropriate: The American have an unlimited and meticulous legality, but of law abidingness, not a trace.

    Which certainly speaks to trust, and provides pointed commentary. In the 50’s under British Imperial rule, my Father land easements and sides agreed by handshake. His American boss was astounded that a handshake was binding.

    1. jsn

      Since SCOTUS defined money as speech, it’s been the only form of political speech you can depend on.

      1. ambrit

        What that “judgement” showed was that, now, “speech is fungible.” That is a very dangerous idea.

    2. Maritimer

      “Which certainly speaks to trust….”
      Yes, for a certain portion of the population, myself included, the issue is Trust. Who actually believes they can trust Big Pharma, Government, WHO, etc?

      Then, there is the question of Conscience which is never mentioned:

      “Let us put it generally: if a regime is immoral, its subjects are free from all obligations to it.”
      ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Books V-VII

  3. Pespi

    Fish rots from the head, the top of the government already runs of bribes, just a matter of time until everything else is the same way.

    1. Dr. R.k. Barkhi

      Exactly,so what’s the problem here except the cheapskate nature of the “bribes”?. I want what my Congress person gets b4 i get jabbed. Just being ironically sarcastically cynical here.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Interesting focus on incentives directed toward the mopery to get “shots in arms.” Such small potatoes compared to the incentives offered to political leaders and business executives and the like. And what is on offer to the creatures we “elect” to place the stamp of legitimacy on the “legal” and “ownership” structure we mopes are being drowned in, those are not “campaign contributions” or “book deals” or insider trades or sinecure spots on corporate boards — they are bribes, with as we mopes can see if we take the trouble to look, a rather huge “return on investment.” https://www.mintpressnews.com/corporations-lobbying-government-reap-76000-return-on-investment/203447/.

      Always seemed to me that a certain amount of play in the wheels and gears of the political economy, what one might call “slack,” is inevitable and maybe even necessary — the little mordidas and grifts that run from tips to functionaries to whatever is the bleeding edge of real corruption (the sale and theft of public goods for private use and gain.) But the operating thuggery that runs this political economy has pretty much outstripped (please correct me if my horizons are too limited) or at least matches the worst of corrupt social orders from the past. Everything has a “for sale” sign on it, and most folks don’t even get too upset about the wholesale horror of it, it’s too much to hold in one’s mind and we all have long since broken the indicator arms off our outrage meters.

      Life sort of goes on, though we don’t see how the degradation is leading up to a pretty horrible denouement. Humans are getting to 3 degrees C in significant part as a result of a long long trail of corruption and bribery and chicanery.

      1. tegnost

        They’re bribing us to increase the value of what they expect to sell to the rest of the world

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        > Such small potatoes compared to the incentives offered to political leaders and business executives and the like.

        The proles get beer. Thiel gets blood.

  4. futurebroketeacher

    I was in CVS to pick up my meds and thought why not get my vax. Nope. Store was completely empty but they wouldn’t give me the jab even though their website reported walk-ins available at the location. They told me to make an appointment or come back at 6pm. No one there but me. This country is an utter dumpster fire at every level

    1. tegnost

      Dear futurebroketeacher (I put the space between each word by rote and had to manually override so don’t touch that red pen,… thanks) Maybe in your uncertain future, were you to relocate, go somewhere that CVS doesn’t consider worth investing in.

  5. The Rev Kev

    Charlie Munger once said “Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome” and what he was talking about was a market-based society. And in such a society, if you can’t quantify it with dollars, then it can be ignored. So you can forget civic spirit, patriotism and volunteering – I guess. There is a lot of talk about the vaccine-hesitant but how many of them are actually waiting for a better deal? They might say to themselves that if the government is offering a beer today, they might go for a pack of beer tomorrow. Why do something for free today when you might get paid for it tomorrow? Ayn Rand would have approved of this demonstration of self-interest. If only she had been put in charge of the Sabine rollout back then.

    Still, there is a history of incentives being used. During the early days of WW1 there was a recruitment drive up in the north of England and I think that it was held at a football pitch. An incentive used to get in new recruits was to receive a kiss from a local Lady who was a fixture in that society. Back then, Lords and Ladies were the “celebrities” of their day so this was more meaningful than I have just described. A modern equivalent would be a Kim Kardashian giving a kiss to everybody that had a needle right now. But trying to run a society according to market principles is a really bad idea. You see it with the profusion of contracts everywhere with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” as an early example. You end up turning a society of citizens into groupings of mercenaries instead. And now we are seeing the results of this grand experiment coming in, up close and in person.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > There is a lot of talk about the vaccine-hesitant but how many of them are actually waiting for a better deal?

      Once you put the goods on sale, you have the leave them on sale. Rational expectations?

  6. Phillip Allen

    I remember lining up at my grade school to get the sugar cube. I would have been 6 or 7, I think, if Colorado was on the same schedule as described in the article from West Virginia. (I’m too lazy to try searching out a definite date.) I recall at least two mass smallpox vaccinations, one in grade school and one in junior high (in the country I live in now, Connecticut, we call it middle school). I suppose the novelty of those events makes their recollection so vivid.

  7. Tinky

    Speaking of vaccines (bold emphasis mine):

    A study conducted on over 52,000 Cleveland Clinic employees found there was no significant difference in COVID-19 infections between previously infected and currently unvaccinated participants; previously infected and currently vaccinated participants; and previously uninfected and currently vaccinated participants. Researchers also found that 99.3% of all COVID-19 infections occurred in unvaccinated participants who had not been previously infected. The remaining 0.7% of infections were in vaccinated participants who were not previously infected.

    The study did not find a single incident of COVID-19 infection in participants who previously had the infection, regardless if the participant received the vaccine.

    Overall, the analysis showed vaccines significantly reduced the risk of COVID-19 for those who have never tested positive but not for those with previous infection.


  8. grayslady

    It’s a little unfair to compare the polio vaccine with the Covid vaccine. The polio vaccine had been studied and tested for years and was FDA approved by the time we started receiving the shots (yes, I am old enough to have received the shot, not a sugar cube, and no one suggested that we needed to follow up with a booster vaccine via syrup or sugar cube). Additionally, there were almost no fatalities from the polio vaccine, and no side effects. I don’t even remember my arm hurting after the shot.

    Until the government is willing to pay people for work missed due to side effects, pay any medical bills associated with side effects, and guarantee that people won’t lose their jobs if they become ill due to the vaccine, I don’t see that even bribery is going to overcome reluctance among the working poor to get the vaccine. Then there’s a whole other group who don’t trust the medical profession (doctors or big pharma) or the government enough to believe that the shots are safe, regardless of the inducement. Those are different types of civics lessons that the government needs to learn.

    1. Dr. R.k. Barkhi

      I think its inappropriate to compare Covid to anything considering the point you made n also the absolutely fraudulent way every medical precedent n enforced procedure regarding new vaccines has been overturned completely,allowing Big Pharma to profit while satisfying No Safety regulations at all. You read very little news about the “side effects” of these vaccines,like Death.
      Dont take my word-Please research this and Ivermectin as an inexpensive,safe alternative.

    2. polecat

      There is also the fact that the Big Med + .GOV × MendaciousMedia have been doing their damnedest to suffocate any and all positivity where certain cheap, efficacious, off-patented drugs are concerned. Big tell, THAT!

      1. polecat

        Better to err to the side of caution, doing the LEAST harm .. then to fill one’s body with unsufficiently tested gene ‘therapies’, without ANY recourse thereof, should things go south in a personal way.
        But go ahead you’all .. take the janky koolaid if you feel you must. Just don’t expect me to blissfully roll up my sleeve for the high$$$ medically/politically/militarily induced ‘law-of-the-neoliberalcon-jungle’ fever!

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