Sunday, July 12, 2020

Coronavirus and small government

Andrew Koppelman

If Hillary Clinton had been elected President, the coronavirus might never have gotten out of China.

That’s the upshot of a careful narrative of the American government’s failure by James Fallows.  The United States has had a sophisticated pandemic detection and response apparatus since the George W. Bush administration.  Trump casually smashed it, as he has smashed many of the institutions that protect Americans from risk.  The outbreak was in the President’s briefings by early January.  A normal administration could have been able to secure Chinese cooperation to contain the outbreak.

But of course this is not a normal administration.  Trump never read his briefings.  The few administration officials with an interest in China are focused on trade, and have no interest in disease.  Efforts by competent career officials are stymied by the President’s allergy to bad news.  The Trump administration despises the career civil service, which it regards as the disloyal “deep state.”

The Fallows piece is one of the most important pieces of journalism I’ve seen in a long time, and I read a lot.  It provokes two reflections.

First, political efforts to cripple the federal bureaucracy are not peculiar to Trump, though he’s unusually unsubtle about it.  They have become part of the ideology of the Republican Party.  The Republican politician who has come off best in the age of Trump is Mitt Romney, who has shown integrity and courage.  But as a presidential candidate, he said this:  “Did you know that government – federal, state, and local – under President Obama, has grown to consume almost forty percent of our economy?  We’re only inches away from ceasing to be a free economy.”  That’s a moderate Republican.  We would be freer without roads, bridges, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, police, firefighters, environmental protection.  Of course much of this is politically untouchable, so the drive for small government inevitably focuses on spending that has no powerful protectors – public goods that benefit everyone in general and no one in particular.  Such as the pandemic response apparatus.  

Second, while I hate political polarization and work hard to sympathetically understand the views of my political adversaries, it remains hard for me to understand how any reasonable person could have voted for Trump.  Clinton was a boring, normal politician, given to troubling cronyism but generally very competent.  It was obvious during the campaign that Trump was an impulsive, incurious, damaged, amoral sociopath who was utterly unprepared for the responsibilities of the office.  No one could have predicted the specifics of the crisis that he would botch, but it was clear that America would have to be very lucky to avoid disaster for four years (and that in any case that would be four years lost in the face of impending climate change disaster).  How could a vote for Trump have been worth it?  I ask merely for information.  Trumpist friends, help me out here.

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