The rate of vaccinations in the U.S. is slowing down despite only 27 percent of the country being fully inoculated against COVID-19. With “hesitant” or outright unwilling adults still making up a substantial portion of the population, the road to “herd immunity” looks like a long one. This won’t just be a problem for people who choose not to get vaccinated: The vaccines are very effective, but not perfectly effective; the longer the virus remains in circulation, the more likely vaccine-resistant mutations become; since kids can’t yet get vaccinated, they’re vulnerable to adults who are refusing to do so; and it would be nice to go to the movies someday without worrying about violating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rules for social distancing.
There are public policy “interventions” that can encourage further adoption: publicizing how safe the vaccine has been so far for people who’ve gotten it, stocking doctors’ offices and mobile clinics to make the shots more convenient, tying access to public spaces to being fully vaxxed, promising to eliminate mask mandates and other societywide restrictions once a certain percentage of the population has gotten its doses, and so forth.
Those are among the suggestions you’ll find being made by individuals arguing against the one really obvious way to get people to do something: paying them. Economist Robert Litan, former Democratic presidential long shot John Delaney, and an Oxford professor named Julian Savulescu are among those who’ve proposed such cash-for-vax payments; Litan would make them $1,000 and Delaney $1,500. In response, ethicists affiliated with the University of Washington and the Cornell and University of Pennsylvania medical schools have written, in the Journal of Medical Ethics and Journal of the American Medical Association, that it would be a bad idea.
The arguments against payment are reasonable ones: It’s crude and coercive to put proportionally huge pressure on lower-wealth citizens to do something that they might not want to; the idea that you get something like “hazard pay” for taking a vaccine might convince people it is risky; and setting a precedent of paying people to protect their health might make them less likely to take vaccines and follow guidelines in the future if there’s no money in it. Localized and incentive-driven initiatives like the ones described above, ethicists say, are more likely to build the long-term trust between officials and residents that will be crucial to ending this pandemic and preventing future ones.
The problem with this case is that it exists for the most part in an abstracted, theorized version of the United States that is populated by individuals making good-faith decisions based on credible public information and conversations with medical professionals. Our actual country, however, is one in which one of the two major parties sees an advantage in the weaponized misunderstanding of medical science, celebrity influencers build followings by pretending to uncover sinister threats everywhere, and media outlets spam every speciously correlated story about someone having a health problem after getting a shot into millions of pockets multiple times a day. Informational and incentive-based campaigns to reach people who have genuine, medically oriented hesitations about the vaccine are good ideas that should definitely be pursued. Does anyone honestly think they’re going to be enough? This is a fractured polity we’re dealing with here, folks!
Contemporary Americans self-evidently do not share a common trust in any government or media institution. On the other hand, almost all of us still appreciate and believe in the institution of the United States dollar, and the ways it can be earned and spent.
The most popular thing that both of the last two presidents have done was giving away money, to everyone, to do whatever. Leftists like direct stimulus spending because it’s egalitarian; the business community likes direct stimulus spending because it gets spent at their businesses; and people who don’t care about political ideology like direct stimulus spending because, hey, free money! From New York to California, Alabama to Wyoming, Americans who would not be able to engage in any practice related to civics, education, or religion for more than one half-hour without developing a furious, George Soros–related disagreement coexist more or less smoothly together in workplaces (making money) and at malls, stores, and restaurants (spending money). The only kinds of TV shows any given person in the country can discuss with any other—Shark Tank, House Hunters, Fixer Upper, and so forth—are either about getting paid or getting a good deal. D.C. doesn’t work, everyone there is angry all the time, but you know what city does work, and where those same kinds of people all enjoy each other’s company? Las Vegas!
In sum, for all of the U.S.’s structural problems and catastrophes, it remains surprisingly functional on a moment-to-moment basis—because its people love money. Vax-for-dollars works on this, our only universal level. If you care about herd immunity, get paid to make that happen. If you want the “elite” to stop lecturing you about masks, get paid to make that happen. If you don’t care about the pandemic at all, get paid and buy a Yeti Tundra 250 Hard Cooler for $899 while the stock market soars because social distancing is over. Everyone will be sitting around the pile of money, laughing and laughing and developing antibodies. It’s a win-win-win-win.
So here is a plan. If you go to the mall—any mall in the country—and get your final vaccine shot, or show that you’ve already done so, you get $1,000, in cash. You can spend it right at the mall, or on DraftKings. You can give it to Maxine Waters or Madison Cawthorn. You can give it to someone on YouTube who’s making a show about how the mall vaccine gave you Deep State Disease! You can do whatever with it. It’s the one kind of liberty we all believe in, and a brief pinch on the upper arm is a small price to pay to enjoy it.
In my six years at Slate, I’ve written about multiple national elections, social movements, and major cultural phenomena. With support from Slate Plus members, I’ve also gotten to dive deep into stories and angles no other outlets were covering, and that Slate wouldn’t have otherwise had the time or resources to tackle. —Christina Cauterucci, senior writer