The Government Sucks at Doing Things
Five Things You Need to Read Today
1. "I'm Almost at a Loss for Words at How Amazing It Is"
There are still some problems to be worked out with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, including the unexpected one that public health officials seem too reluctant to tout the benefits of being vaccinated: "Advising people that they must do nothing differently after vaccination—not even in the privacy of their homes—creates the misimpression that vaccines offer little benefit at all."
On the other hand, I understand some of the reluctance of public health officials, who have to compensate for the fact that large numbers of the public will either not understand or will disregard whatever guidance they give. So if they tell people it's OK to throw a big party so long as everyone there is vaccinated, they know that at least a quarter of the people who show up will swear that honestly, they've been vaccinated, when they haven't.
I also understand a sense of caution. The US suffered two big waves of coronavirus infections and deaths, last Spring and last Summer. After all that, everybody ignored repeated warnings about traveling and gathering together for Thanksgiving and Christmas, so we got a giant third wave over the Winter that was as big as the first two combined, and which is only now receding.
But this will all be moot soon. As the supply of vaccines turns from a trickle to a flood in the coming months, the priority will change from limiting the virus to those with highest priority to trying to get as many people to sign up for it as possible. And once large numbers of people become vaccinated, getting them to continue to follow highly restrictive rules will be—well, it's just not going to happen.
Be prepared for a new flood of good news about the pandemic, starting with this.
From late December to early February, new cases among nursing home residents fell by more than 80 percent, nearly double the rate of improvement in the general population. The trendline for deaths was even more striking: Even as fatalities spiked over all this winter, deaths inside the facilities have fallen, decreasing by more than 65 percent.
"I'm almost at a loss for words at how amazing it is and how exciting," said Dr. David Gifford, the chief medical officer for the American Health Care Association, which represents thousands of long-term care facilities across the country. "If we are seeing a robust response with this vaccine with the elderly with a highly contagious disease," he said, "I think that's a great sign for the rest of the population."
There's a reason we targeted the old folks for vaccinations first, and we're going to start seeing huge reductions in death rates up front as the vaccines are delivered to those at greatest risk.
Scott Lincicome lays out the larger case for optimism.
The mRNA (BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna) vaccines and the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab have been in use for almost three months now, and the real-world results are nothing short of miraculous. Israel's world-beating vaccination drive, for example, has substantially reduced the number of critically ill older patients and infected young people....
Even more good news came last week with respect to the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. First, multiple studies showed that a single dose is highly effective (more than 80 percent) in preventing symptomatic disease a few weeks after it's administered. Second, following successful internal testing, Pfizer and BioNTech asked US regulators to allow their vaccine to be stored and transported at standard freezing temperatures (-4 F / -20 C) instead of the super cold temps that are currently required. This would greatly expand the number of places in the United States and elsewhere that could store and administer the vaccine, and it comes at the perfect time for the many states that have teamed up with local pharmacies (including Walmart) to ramp up vaccine distribution in the coming weeks.
As George Mason University's Alex Tabarrok (who's been a true champ on vaccine issues) adds, the single dose data might unfortunately be wasted on the United States, which appears wedded to the original two-dose approach, but it and the storage development could be a very big deal for developing countries that are just getting started. They also show why we shouldn't blindly and permanently adhere to the companies' initial clinical trial data, which were "designed at speed with the sole purpose of getting the vaccines approved" not "to discover the optimal regimen for public health." We can, and should, keep adapting as the evidence warrants....
Of course, all of this good news might be wasted if vaccine supply and distribution lagged. But here again there's reason for optimism. First, after six weeks of chaos, the United States' vaccination drive has improved significantly, as many states prioritized speed by, for example, loosening prioritization guidelines, holding mass vaccination events, and expanding the number of distribution sites. As a result, most states have administered 80 percent or more of the doses they've received, and the United States has repeatedly exceeded 2 million doses per day—trends that should continue now that the winter storm mayhem is behind us....
Most of this supply (about 500 million of 600 million) will come from the mRNA producers Pfizer and Moderna, and Pfizer subsequently confirmed that it will soon double its vaccine supply to 10 million doses per week. (Moderna just made similar promises.) But Johnson & Johnson will help too, with 20 million doses in March and another 80 million through June, and a final FDA decision on that single-shot vaccine should come in the next few days. [Update: It has been approved and begun shipping out.] Other vaccines, such as AstraZeneca and Novavax, might also get approved this spring. We'll be swimming in jabs by May.
There's a lot more, and Scott is never stingy with the charts and graphs, so check it out.
The bottom line is that the vaccines work. They are highly effective at preventing deaths, hospitalizations, and transmission. They're already being delivered to the portion of the population that is most at risk, and production is ramping up so that we will see a huge surge in supply that will make them available to everyone in the Spring.
It is just shy of a year since everything shut down in response to the pandemic, and we can now confidently say that this is the beginning of the end.
Oh, and there's one other piece of good news. I had mentioned before that the mRNA vaccines offer the promise of a new, faster, better way of making vaccines, and here's some new evidence for that: the development of the first really effective vaccine against malaria.
Making a vaccine for malaria is challenging because its associated parasite, Plasmodium, contains a protein that inhibits production of memory T-cells, which protect against previously encountered pathogens. If the body can't generate these cells, a vaccine is ineffective. But scientists recently tried a new approach using an RNA- based platform.
Their design circumvented the sneaky protein, allowed the body to produce the needed T-cells and completely immunized against malaria. The patent application for their novel vaccine, which hasn't yet been tested on humans, was published by the US Patent & Trademark Office on Feb. 4.
If it works out, this has the potential to save a lot more lives, over the long term, than the COVID-19 vaccines. "In 2019 alone, there were an estimated 229 million cases of malaria and 409,000 deaths worldwide. Of those deaths, 94% were in Africa, with children being the most vulnerable."
As I put it before, "A new vaccine is great. What's even better is a whole new way of making vaccines."
2. The Government Sucks at Doing Things
With all of that good news to keep the right context, let's take a little look at the shaky vaccine rollout.
One of the remarkable patterns emerging from the pandemic is how little the outcomes are correlated with politics. This rain has fallen on the just and unjust alike. In America, there is no clear pattern in which "red states" or "blue states" have done better. Overseas, some countries with big, technocratic bureaucracies of the type that are supposedly built to handle just such a large government effort have fallen down on the job. The European Union's poor vaccine rollout is an excellent example.
Partly, the problem is that responding to a pandemic is legitimately hard. It is a big new thing outside the normal, so it requires a lot of frantic adaptation on the part of governments and mostly on the part of citizens.
The main pattern I've seen is that the best outcomes have been in places that already had some pre-existing advantage. South Korea (and a few other Southeast Asian countries) had the advantage of previous experience with similar viruses, so they already had good systems and good habits in place before the pandemic hit. Others, like New Zealand and Iceland, had the advantage of being islands, which made it easier to seal off most transmission from the outside world. In some cases, small population also helped, making contact tracing easier to implement. In the case of Israel, this made it possible to spend extra money to get a big supply of the vaccines early on. That's something you can do when you need ten million doses, but it won't scale up if you need 500 million doses.
But there's a big lesson to learn from the many failures of the pandemic response. Take this local story from Charlottesville. I noticed a few months ago a big tent going up in the parking lot of a defunct K-Mart—a big open space right in the middle of town. It was a vaccination center, and here's what happened when they tried to put it to use.
"You wouldn't even believe, I mean there are people in wheelchairs, there are people with oxygen tanks, and they're waiting outside in 32-degree weather for hours," Sara Davenport said. She waited nearly two hours to get her second dose that had been scheduled weeks prior. "It is absolutely crazy. There are people who brought chairs," she said....
"If we want people to use things in an orderly way and in the way that they should, we need to build the tools and software and the communications so that people know what they're supposed to do and aren't confused," John Kluge said.
Kluge was one of the many turned away even though he had an appointment. He has no issue with giving his slot to someone who needs it more, his problem lies with the blurred lines of communication. "The bottom line is that the public needs very clear direction from state government and our health department officials and they're not getting that yet," he said.
Now bear in mind that this is being run by state and local government organizations that basically exist precisely for this purpose, and that they had most of a year to plan for the rollout of this vaccine. Yet they still flubbed it.
Maybe—hear me out—maybe the government just sucks at doing things. Maybe government bureaucracies don't have the right kind of organization, with the right kind of incentives and flexibility, to do big and important things efficiently. Do you think there might be other historical evidence for this?
I was going to write something along these lines, but I found that Jim Geraghty already said a lot of what I wanted to say. He brings it up in the context of the new evidence that has come to light about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's epic mishandling of the pandemic, and he talks about the illusion of looking for the "right person" who will somehow make government our savior.
Why did the media feel such an intense need to find and celebrate "heroic leaders or institutions that Got the Pandemic Right"?
Was it just because they hated Trump and needed a contrast for Goofus-and-Gallant stories of good and wise Democratic leaders and bad and reckless Republican leaders?... Or did the glowing coverage of Cuomo (and Gretchen Whitmer, and Phil Murphy, and Gavin Newsom) demonstrate that a lot of people need to believe that the right leaders in government can fix giant and unexpected problems such as a novel virus that triggered a global pandemic?...
When people are facing something that frightens them, they want a leader, and they may not-so-secretly want a savior figure. Think of all of those prayer candles featuring political figures. A lot of politicians sell themselves to the public as savior figures anyway. ("I alone can fix it.")...
A lot of people act as if they believe, "If we just elect the right people, then bad things won't happen in our lives." And if bad things are happening in our lives, it must be because we elected the wrong people. The other party doesn't just disagree with us on the right ideas; it prevents the utopia that our guys could easily enact if its guys would just get out of the way.
It looks like Andrew Cuomo's political career is finished—but not because of the tens of thousands who died due to his mishandling of the pandemic. (Cuomo notoriously ordered nursing homes to accept COVID patients, fueling an outbreak among the most vulnerable people, and then later fudged the numbers to cover up the result.) Instead, Cuomo is being brought down by allegations of sexual harassment.
Which just goes to show why we shouldn't be looking for the "right person" in government to save us, because we can't even get rid of the wrong person for the right reason.
3. Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste
Speaking of the illusion that electing the right person will solve all our problems, I've mentioned before that the essence of Joe Biden's pandemic response is just to throw money at it. Not to throw money at a specific, targeted response, but to throw money at the economy in general, at random.
To be fair, this is the default mode for politicians. Remember the federal budget surpluses of the late 1990s? I remember vividly when they disappeared. It was right after 9/11, when the emergency spending of the War on Terror gave the Republican majority in Congress an excuse to break the psychological barrier of going back to deficit spending—which then opened the floodgates for all sorts of spending that had nothing to do with the war.
In the Obama administration, Rahm Emanuel infamously summed up this approach in his admonition, "Never let a crisis go to waste." In other words, use the emergency of the moment as an excuse to do whatever you were planning to do already.
Hence the massive new coronavirus relief bill being haggled over in Congress, which has not all that much to do with coronavirus relief.
For example, the Biden plan provides a whopping $525 billion in aid to state and local governments, even though (a) the vast majority of states are doing just fine; (b) billions in previous federal government support have still not been disbursed to these entities; and (c) there are much better, more targeted ways to help the few states that really need it....
Furthermore, the House relief bill contains a whole host of provisions that reflect not near-term emergency "rescue" priorities (e.g., business/family relief or public health/vaccine funds) or even long-term government investments (e.g., infrastructure) but longstanding progressive socioeconomic priorities and handouts to favored interest groups. Perhaps most egregiously, the bill bails out mismanaged multiemployer pensions, undermining "years of bipartisan good-faith negotiation to responsibly address the issue" and providing no reforms to prevent the problem from recurring in the future....
Other questionable provisions include funds for "environmental justice," Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and Medicaid expansions, and a host of "temporary" provisions on taxes and other progressive priorities that have little to do with COVID-19. (A $15/hour federal minimum wage proposal is also included but is expected to be dropped.)...
And there's the final risk: that much of this 'temporary' spending becomes permanent, thus leading to a long-term expansion of size and scope of the federal government.... Once a certain government program and/or spending level is established, political inertia (and baseline budgeting) makes repeal or reform extremely difficult, as new constituencies are established and any "cuts"—no matter the size, effect or historical context—are deemed heartless, draconian Social Darwinism (or whatever). As Milton Friedman once observed, "nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program," and history is littered with examples proving him right.
Democrats are already admitting this: "[E]conomic provisions in emergency legislation to combat the coronavirus pandemic are drafted to be only temporary. But Biden and fellow Democrats don't intend them to be temporary."
Last year, Congress spent trillions on economic stimulus but declined to spend much money on a program that would have been less expensive and more effective: a nationwide test-and-trace system.
The only real stimulus that is coming now is from the relatively small amount the government has spent to develop, buy, and distribute vaccines. (Little of this had to be done by government, but it is at least a productive program.) Just about everything else is an excuse to bribe a constituency or push through a pet project by ghoulishly exploiting a crisis.
4. Rockefeller and Morgan and Beethoven and Euclid
I wrote recently that the same people who claim that classical music and music theory are racist could just as easily, by the same insane logic, "cancel the entire field of mathematics." I added: "I am sure some enterprising 'woke' academic is already at work on this."
You know what's coming next.
Yes, indeed, math is now racist.
John McWhorter, who is earning a place as the leading critic of this insanity, provides a rundown.
There is a document getting around called Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction, a guide put together by a group of educators....
The latest is that state-level policy makers in Oregon are especially intrigued by this document. There is all reason to suppose that its influence will spread more widely.
And this is to be resisted, as this lovely pamphlet is teaching us that it is racist to expect black kids to master the precision of math. To wit—its message, penned by people who consider themselves some of the most morally advanced souls in the history of the human species, is one that Strom Thurmond would have happily taken a swig of whiskey to....
[T]his entire document is focused on an idea that making black kids be precise is immoral.
[T]he thrust of this pamphlet is that:
1. a focus on getting the "right answer" is "perfectionism" or "either/or thinking";
2. the idea that teachers are teachers and students are learners is wrong;
3. to think of it as a problem that the expectations you have of students are not met is racist;
4. to teach math in a linear fashion with skills taught in sequence is racist;
5. to value "procedural fluency"—i.e. knowing how to do the fractions, long division...—over "conceptual knowledge" is racist. That is, black kids are brilliant to know what math is trying to do, to know "what it's all about," rather than to actually do the math, just as many of us read about what physics or astrophysics accomplishes without ever intending to master the math that led to the conclusions;
6. to require students to "show their work" is racist;
7. requiring students to raise their hand before speaking "can reinforce paternalism and powerhoarding, in addition to breaking the process of thinking, learning, and communicating."
[I]t is racism propounded as antiracism. Black kids shouldn't be expected to master the precision of math and should be celebrated for talking around it, gamely approximating its answers and saying why it can be dangerous? This is bigotry right out of Reconstruction, Tulsa, Selma, and Charlottesville.
I balk a little at "Charlottesville" being used here as a byword for traditional racism in the same vein as Selma. But if you include the kind of hyper-woke "antiracist" racism McWhorter is taking about here, we're certainly in danger.
When talking about Beethoven and Shakespeare, the damage of this approach is not quite as obvious. Kids can grow up without knowing much about Beethoven and still be successful in life, though their spiritual horizons will be noticeably diminished. They will suffer more for the absence of Shakespeare, which indicates an education that gives them far less command of their native language. But if black kids go to schools where it is considered racist to teach them procedural fluency in mathematics, then we are relegating them to the status of a permanent underclass who will always be lagging behind the kids who did learn procedural fluency.
In my article on Beethoven and Shakespeare, I compared the modern "woke" intellectuals to Ellsworth Toohey. In the novel, Toohey is impartial on the issue of racism, viewing it merely as one of two main models for gaining power (communism or fascism). At the time, one of Toohey's real-world counterparts—an early 20th Century "progressive" intellectual—would likely have been a died-in-the-wool racist who dabbled in eugenics.
But if Ellsworth Toohey were to design a program of "antiracism," this is exactly what it would look like: a system designed to keep its intended beneficiaries small, weak, dependent, and in need of an "antiracist" leader who promises to take care of them and tell them what to do.
5. Imported Ideas
Stories about "woke" racial politics run amok are a dime a dozen right now.
Check out this Kevin Williamson piece on the cancelling of Dr. Seuss, told in the style of Dr. Seuss. Or a story from Smith College that makes it clear the extent to which this is becoming a class war fought by middle-class students against the blue-collar workers whose job is to clean up after them. Seriously, read the whole thing, because the woke kids come across as arrogant little tyrants.
The author of this report also managed to slip in a line describing a different kind of war, a war on reality: "The story highlights the tensions between a student's deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that are at odds with it."
At any rate, one of the things it's hard to notice about this, because we're so immersed in it, is how parochially American it is. This is our own toxic little domestic obsession, and most of the rest of the world thinks we're nuts.
Note the slightly baffled tone in an open letter from European academics in support of music theory.
But my favorite story on this is how we're now too woke for the French, who are scrambling to prevent the importation of our crazy American ideas.
The threat is said to be existential. It fuels secessionism. Gnaws at national unity. Abets Islamism. Attacks France's intellectual and cultural heritage.
The threat? "Certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States," said President Emmanuel Macron.
French politicians, high-profile intellectuals and journalists are warning that progressive American ideas—specifically on race, gender, post-colonialism—are undermining their society. "There's a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities," warned Mr. Macron's education minister.
Emboldened by these comments, prominent intellectuals have banded together against what they regard as contamination by the out-of-control woke leftism of American campuses and its attendant cancel culture....
France has long laid claim to a national identity, based on a common culture, fundamental rights, and core values like equality and liberty, rejecting diversity and multiculturalism. The French often see the United States as a fractious society at war with itself.
Well, they're not entirely wrong. But here's the kicker, and the reason I find this story so amusing.
But far from being American, many of the leading thinkers behind theories on gender, race, post-colonialism, and queer theory came from France.
You can say that again. Two of the founding fathers of the theory behind contemporary wokism are French philosophers: Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The ideas the French are so worried about being important from America were originally imported to American from France.
The problem is that Americans are, perhaps, less intellectual sophisticated than the Europeans, but we tend to be more earnest and idealistic. When they send us a half-baked idea, we tend to embrace it, make it our own, and then try to implement it consistently, following it to its full logical conclusion—which is usually a reductio ad absurdum.
The French are right to recoil, and if dressing this up as opposition to American influence helps it go down better, that's their prerogative. But "woke" neo-racism is far more anti-American in its essence than it is anti-French.—RWT