Historian Anne Applebaum, in an article titled The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff, writes that the US and China share similarities in the way they deliberately shut their eyes in the early stages of the epidemic. She also goes on to say that the ineptness of the US’s response exposes the illusions that many Americans have that the US does things much better than other nations. She says that the problem is structural, embedded in the way that the system does not allow for the continuity in key personnel in government that enables the creation of institutional memories. Hence each crisis sees the government scrambling to find ways to deal with it, and that this particular crisis “disproves everything the country believes about itself”.
The United States also had an early warning of the new virus—but it, too, suppressed that information. In late January, just as instances of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, began to appear in the United States, an infectious-disease specialist in Seattle, Helen Y. Chu, realized that she had a way to monitor its presence. She had been collecting nasal swabs from people in and around Seattle as part of a flu study, and proposed checking them for the new virus. State and federal officials rejected that idea, citing privacy concerns and throwing up bureaucratic obstacles related to lab licenses.
Finally, at the end of February, Chu could stand the intransigence no longer. Her lab performed some tests and found the coronavirus in a local teenager who had not traveled overseas. That meant the disease was already spreading in the Seattle region among people who had never been abroad. If Chu had found this information a month earlier, lives might have been saved and the spread of the disease might have slowed—but even after the urgency of her work became evident, her lab was told to stop testing.
We all now know that COVID-19 diagnostic tests are in scarce supply. South Korea, which has had exactly the same amount of time as the U.S. to prepare, is capable of administering 10,000 tests every day. The United States, with a population more than six times larger, had only tested about 10,000 people in total as of Friday. Vietnam, a poor country, has tested more people than the United States.
What if it turns out, as it almost certainly will, that other nations are far better than we are at coping with this kind of catastrophe?
The United States, long accustomed to thinking of itself as the best, most efficient, and most technologically advanced society in the world, is about to be proved an unclothed emperor.
Senators, among them the vaunted Republican moderate Susan Collins of Maine, knocked “pandemic preparedness” out of spending bills. New flu epidemics didn’t scare people enough. More recently, Trump eliminated the officials responsible for international health from the National Security Council because this kind of subject didn’t interest him—or very many other people in Washington, really.
As a nation, we are not good at long-term planning, and no wonder: Our political system insists that every president be allowed to appoint thousands of new officials, including the kinds of officials who think about pandemics. Why is that necessary? Why can’t expertise be allowed to accumulate at the highest levels of agencies such as the CDC? I’ve written before about the problem of discontinuity in foreign policy: New presidents arrive and think they can have a “reset” with other nations, as if other nations are going to forget everything that happened before their arrival—as if we can cheerfully start all relationships from scratch. But the same is true on health, the environment, and other policy issues. Of course there should be new Cabinet members every four or eight years. But should all their deputies change? And their deputies’ deputies? And their deputies’ deputies’ deputies? Because that’s often how it works right now.
The question, of course, is whether this crisis will shock us enough to change our ways.
I too have commented before on the enormous numbers of people that are political appointees that change with new administration, down the line to quite low levels. One problem is having to quickly find competent people to fill those positions. As a result, many positions are doled out as patronage, given to supporters and contributors rather than because they are good at their jobs. Then all those people have to undergo vetting and get various levels of security clearance and then be approved by the senate, all of which takes time. Is it any wonder that many positions remain unfilled well into a presidential term?
I am not hopeful that change will come as long as politicians continue to pander to the public’s self image that the US is the greatest country in the world and thus has to be the best at pretty much everything and cannot learn from other countries. Trump’s paeans to America’s greatness is just the most extreme form of this narcissism but many other politicians and the media also indulge in it. See how enraged people got when Bernie Sanders pointed to the health and education systems of Cuba. Look at the resistance to his plans for Medicare For All from people who cannot accept that the US health care system is one of the worst in the developed world.
I think you are overstating it. In the past, yes, top political appointees change, but the underlying guts of the bureaucracies, the competent technical people, are still there. And usually, the new political people listen to the experts, while bending policy to their wishes.
In this case, Trump deliberately kneecapped expertise if it did not exhibit insane loyalty to Trump or agree with his insane worldview. And then, on top of that, the people he brought in had no desire to learn about their agencies. If you haven’t read it already, read Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk. Obama’s people prepared huge transition documents and scheduled meetings to go over them; Trump’s people didn’t bother showing up.
“the US health care system is one of the worst in the developed world.”
One of the? Which other country/countries do you have in mind with an equally bad or worse health care system? I can’t think of anyone. Even the Surinamese system (not exactly a developed country) has a better system.
Andreas Avester says
I just checked Latvian news sites, as of now 4446 people have been tested. So far there are 124 confirmed cases. There are only two million people living in this country.
By the way, so far in Latvia tests were done mostly for people who returned from other countries, contacted with people who have been in other countries, or exhibited symptoms. Now, starting from Monday, Latvia is switching to testing everybody in a row as long as they work in high risk professions (doctors, police officers, and so on).
Czech Republic, a country of mere 10 million, has tested 9.402 people as of friday, over 13.000 as of today.
@ 1 ahcuah
I think you are overstating it. In the past, yes, top political appointees change, but the underlying guts of the bureaucracies, the competent technical people, are still there.
It depends on what you are used to. To a Canadian, the extent to which the entire upper government cadre turn over when a new administration comes in is astounding.
In the Canadian system, literally almost all civil service positions are held by career civil servants who are expected to have no political allegiance while working. It would not be at all unlikely too have a deputy minister (UK Permanent Secretary --no idea of the US equivalent) who is the CEO of the department serve in the same position for different governments formed by different parties.
At the lower levels the US Gov’t has had a long tradition of outstanding people. Since Trump some departments and agencies (State and Agriculture come to mind) seem to be being gutted. I would not be so sure that those competent technical people, are still there in a lot of departments.
jrkrideau @5. I think we are in agreement. Note that in the part of what I said that you quoted, I said, “In the past.” I agree that under Trump that no longer holds, and that his political appointees have disgusted so many normal, competent, civil servants that many of them have retired or otherwise left. And those that stayed are not being listened to.
Again, The Fifth Risk is a real eye-opener.
@1&6: Agreed. Trump not only dismantled bureaucracies and agencies, but filled positions with incompetents, temps, and/or corrupt individuals. I believe his purpose was to cripple the rule of law so that he and his ilk could get away with as much as possible, looting the country and leaving nothing but devastation in his wake.
Another anti-democratic article. Just like there is nothing and nobody holy and sanctified above the voters who will always appoint a sherriff or a judge “properly” in a way that matches your own snobbery, there is no specific executive that is the pope-snowflake that will always appoint government executive positions that are not political or just plain wrong for the office. Their picks if following the suggestion of this authority that you are somehow trusting? They will be long term by her own plan. Not having a mechanism for kicking people out on a whim is bad.
Allowing change is a good thing. Your expert is a nincompoop.
It was a feature of many governments that could dump every last person that office positions below a certain level were considered “non-partisan” (snerk snerk snerk) nevertheless did not. But this is not required in the contact-sport that is democracy and this is why certain positions in our State of California cannot be partisan, by law.
John Morales says
seachange, you seem rather jaundiced about expertise and prejudiced towards popular opinion. If you really are, you are a symptom and a vector for bad ideas not just fuctionally.
Hardly. Aptitude, expertise and accomplishment matter; one does not elect surgeons, for example. Clearly, those qualities are, at the very least, not antithetical to democracy.
But there are things such as institutional ethos, due process, and institutional knowledge. Thing is, you keep insinuating that, if an official or functionary is not elected, it must be an arbitrary decision by someone. But no, there are alternatives.
That’s just speculative, and again you put forth a particularly pernicious option as the default.
Surely you don’t think the expert was claiming that allowing change is not a good thing.
@ John Morales # 9
I’m jaundiced about everything! The …news… *sarcastic cough* is full of people pretending to be experts, so I don’t share anything close to respect for those people. Is populism better? Maybe maybe not. But folks who would dis the “ask the crowd” option of the television show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?: they fail. Philosophically and politically those who would use the term “populism” tend to be the snobby aristocrats. Which is why I used the word snobby.
There has been a modern plague before, one which people who are “experts” continuously ignore. During the AIDS crisis when AIDS was in the top ten causes of death folks would swoop in where the previous office holder just up the fuck died and they’d claim “oh I was at Harvard” “oh I directed that for ten years” and they couldn’t do the basic algebra of disease transmission.
Bureaucracies without accountability and who are more sure of their jobs because they have been there for awhile tend to promote and advance those particular bureaucrats that don’t have skills in what they are meant to administer, but instead in sucking up and putting on a pretty face.
Do you propose some imperial exam?
She is magical thinking in that she thinks it’s okay to keep bureaucrats longer because reasons. Therefore, she is asserting that change should only happen that she herself approves of.
John Morales says
Replace ‘bureaucracy’ with ‘administration’, and you’ll have the current system.
(Best in the world!)
@ 6 & 7
You are only getting part of my point and, I think Mano’s.
The USA replaces much off the government senior cadre with every new president; something that a government such as Canada, the UK, or many other countries do not do so one does not lose institutional memory among other things.
Obama’s people prepared huge transition documents and scheduled meetings to go over them;
In Canada, these are called the Blue Books and are prepared for every election. The difference say, in the transition from the Harper Conservatives to the Trudeau Liberals, they were not prepared by “Harper’s” people, they were prepared by the permanent civil service who, if the new minister has a question three months later, would be just down the hall so to speak.
Trump has aggravated the preblem immensely—he is good at something—but the issue is built into the process.