There is a persistent belief that “they,” whoever that is, is trying to divide this country, and we must stay unified against “them.”
Conversely, there seems to be considerable disagreement, even among people who vote similarly come election time, as to whether the current government response to the coronavirus is adequate or excessive.
On that, Michael Barone writes:
In the clashing commentary about whether lockdowns and stay-at-home orders should continue or whether businesses and stores should be reopened, one senses a yearning for consensus. Why can’t everybody just agree?
One reason is that we continue to be ignorant of many important points. How many people have been infected with the disease? We don’t know. Some fragmentary evidence has come in, but many infected people are asymptomatic, so no one knows the death rate per infection.
How is the virus disseminated in different environments? No one really knows. Some attribute the high number of deaths in New York to transmission in the subways. Others disagree. One governor is blocking superstore shoppers from buying garden equipment and seeds.
The yearning for definitive information and the assumption that it will produce policy consensus are understandable but deeply wrongheaded. In this crisis, as in the other unanticipated, regime-shaking crisis of the post-Cold War era (the financial crisis of 2008-09), the facts are unclear, and change so rapidly that even the most experienced experts cannot be sure what’s happening. In such circumstances, mistakes are not just possible — they’re inevitable.
Consider the financial crisis. The Federal Reserve chairman then was Ben Bernanke, the leading economic historian of the Depression of 1929-33. Yet even he did not see the crisis coming.
Neither did the Treasury secretaries of 2008-09 — Hank Paulson, former head of the premier investment bank Goldman Sachs, and Timothy Geithner, former president of the New York Federal Reserve. Impeccable credentials, imperfect foresight.
The Trump administration’s leading infectious disease expert is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who filled similar roles in the Reagan administration, the Clinton administration, both Bush administrations, and the Obama administration. No one has superior credentials or greater accomplishments. Yet in February, relying as he had to on Chinese government information, he said COVID-19 wasn’t a pandemic.
It’s possible to argue further that these two crises were the product — the inevitable product, perhaps, in hindsight — of public policies enjoying broad bipartisan consensus.
The policy behind the financial collapse was encouraging homeownership by easing requirements for obtaining mortgages, especially for Hispanic and black people supposedly barred from the market by racial discrimination. Regulators from the Clinton and Bush administrations rewarded firms that issued such mortgages and sanctioned the packaging of the often shaky results in mortgage-backed securities. These became worthless when, contrary to consensus expectations, housing prices crashed nationwide.
The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a result of the policy followed by the United States and other Western nations for almost half a century — integrating China into a keystone position in the world economy. A key moment came in 2000, when Congress, urged on by President Bill Clinton and later by President George W. Bush, voted for normal trade relations with China.
The consensus argument, the hope, was that China would embrace free markets, the rule of law, and ultimately some form of democracy. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. China’s paranoid, secretive, optics-obsessed regime concealed and lied about the virus, allowing it to spread around the world before even acknowledging its existence.
In this crisis, experts at centralized government agencies have failed at their tasks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, failed to develop working tests for the coronavirus, as has been documented by extensive reporting by the Washington Post and the New York Times.
The Food and Drug Administration’s rigid bureaucracy prevented private firms from developing tests. Its nitpickers delayed approval of antibody tests, as Wall Street Journal columnist Andy Kessler noted, by requiring that a copy be submitted “by paper mail with a CD-ROM with the files burned on it.”
It’s easy to criticize such bureaucratic incompetence, just as it’s easy to criticize what in retrospect seems to be the failure, in February and into March, of President Trump, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and many, many others to recognize the potential for a pandemic. Not many experts got it right either.
But private, profit-making firms and nonprofit research institutions have stepped into the breach, researching and developing tests and vaccines. “Part of the genius of America,” as Bush administration official and advocate of many consensus policies Robert Zoellick recently wrote, “is not what comes out of the White House, it’s what comes out of the private sector and our institutions.”
And part of that genius is a recognition that one-size-fits-all consensus policies don’t always work well in a nation that has always been economically, culturally, and ethnically diverse. We don’t need a consensus on when to move from lockdown to reopening. We need, as Trump seems to recognize, to let states and governors grapple with the question and learn from the results.
And if a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for the entire country, it doesn’t work for states either.
The bigger point here, independent of any one issue, is that serious disagreement exists now not merely on how to fix our problems, but what our problems really are. The coronavirus is just the current example, with some thinking health is most important, and others seeing financial disaster in progress. In our zero-sum either–or politics, how do you fix that?