There are three reasons for our decaying institutions

Monday, March 16th, 2020

I suspect Mark Lutter, the founder and executive director of the Charter Cities Institute, was “radicalized” long before the pandemic, but I think he would have been radicalized by COVID if he hadn’t been already:

There are three reasons for our decaying institutions. First, we have become complacent. Second, vetoes have become too widely distributed, the tragedy of the anti-commons. Third, we have an elite that is fundamentally unserious.

First, Americans are complacent. They are too attached to their lifestyles, unwilling to make changes, even now in the face of catastrophe. We see this in the packed bars in Washington, D.C. and New York City. There is a total disconnect between the reality that our hospitals are days away from being overwhelmed, and the “reality” in which these people seem to think they exist.

And this complacency extends to the political class. One of the frequent reasons given for keeping schools open is that some students might go hungry without access to “free-lunch” programs. In 1948 America was able to supply an entire city by air. By the end of the Berlin Airlift more cargo was being transported into the city by air than had ever been by rail. And we are unable to deliver lunches to students staying at home today?

The bureaucracy is not immune to this complacency. The first test the CDC shipped for COVID-19 was faulty. The CDC, along with the FDA forced Dr. Helen Y. Chu, Seattle based infectious disease expert, to stop testing after she discovered a case in Seattle because she wasn’t using the approved CDC test.

The second cause of our institutional failures is the tragedy of the anti-commons, a situation where too many actors have veto rights, leaving valuable resources underused because it becomes too costly to appease all the actors. Larry Summers colorfully describes this as “promiscuously distributing veto power.” Who holds the veto power is typically unclear, leaving private actors unable to respond quickly to a worsening crisis.

The FDA is the worst offender in this regard. They blocked labs from making their own tests, to the point when Dr. Chu thought civil disobedience was better than waiting. It took until Feb 29th for the FDA to implement Emergency Use Authorization to expedite approvals. Until blocks are lifted, manufacturers looking to develop drugs and respirators will have to go through the same byzantine process, delaying their use. Simple solutions like reciprocity, where any drug or medical device approved by tier 1 countries can be used in the US, will likely go ignored.

The FDA is not the only player with veto authority. For a lab to get emergency authorization, for example, they need to be a clinical laboratory, approval of which can take months and is controlled by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In discussion groups about developing apps to help track COVID, HIPAA keeps coming up as a main concern.

The final reason for our decaying institutions is that our elite is simply not serious. The response to the crisis has hitherto been to deny and to focus attention on pet concerns. Trump with the stock market. The left with prejudice. And so on. Our ruling class ignores the greatest threat to our way of life in a generation to focus on topics that aren’t relevant.

The World Health Organization a week ago tweeted against using the term infecting as “it implies blame.” The elite does not understand moral responsibility. The people who are still going to events should be blamed. The leaders who force their staff to work should be blamed. The politicians who have not closed schools should be blamed. The World Health Organization, presumably staffed by epidemiologists, was more worried about policing language than preventing the spread of the worst pandemic in a generation.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    I’ve lived through too many ends of the world to buy into the panic. Also, there’s a strong political/ideological tinge to this hysteria.

    Split the difference. Do a little social distancing and wait for herd immunity to kick in. Same as all the other pandemics. See you all after the end. We’ll binge watch the Walking Dead and laugh.

  2. Paul from Canada says:

    I am starting to think these emergency measures may do more harm than good.

    Like Fukushima. People, particularly the elderly in care homes and hospital patients, died as a result of the disruption caused by the evacuation. If they had been left alone, they would not have died. In fact nobody died of direct nuclear disaster consequences. One staff member died of a heart attack, and several others got their annual dose during the emergency and got the next year off work, that’s it!

    I suspect the unforeseen second order effects on society and the economy of the current measures will be worse than the actual disease.

    I hope I am wrong, but I doubt it.

  3. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    I’m naturally inclined to agree with anybody saying that our institutions are failing, but the question you always have to ask when somebody says things are bad (or good): what is he comparing it to? Is he comparing it to the success of our institutions during the Spanish flu epidemic of a century ago? Well, they didn’t do too great then either. If he’s not comparing it to that, than to what?

  4. Handle says:

    “The leaders who force their staff to work should be blamed.”

    I take it he is not talking about work in general, to include telework, but to force all to come in close proximity to each other at the physical workplace, no social distancing.

    As it happens, perhaps ironically, this is exactly the current state of affairs at the front office of many USG departments right now. Not leading by example, not following advice or orders given to the general population, and probably very “bad optics” if most people knew. “Distancing and closures for thee, not me”.

    In their defense, there is no good substitute to working face to face, when you can’t trust electronic comms to stay private and confidential, and when you may be legally prohibited from using genuinely secure tech, but not from keeping in-person conversions secret.

  5. Felix says:

    When I see pictures of herded people in airports, I think: Terrorism is an auto-immune disease — like allergies.

    Nukes are interesting in that, rounded, 100% of their bad side has been in our imaginations. In the real world, nuke tech has been better than the alternative 100% of the time, bombs included.

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