Noah Smith: Coronavirus makes America seem like a civilization in decline

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Crises such wars, depressions, natural disasters and pandemics can reveal differences in how effectively a society organizes itself. In the 1600s and 1700s, for example, Britain’s more advanced tax system allowed it to outspend Spain and France, while Prussia’s efficient army let it overcome larger opponents such as Austria. In the Civil War, the Union’s industrial prowess allowed it to outlast and overwhelm the agrarian Confederacy.

Pandemics aren’t quite the same as wars, but they can also illustrate startling differences in the effectiveness of different countries. China, the place where coronavirus first appeared, initially tried to hush up evidence of the outbreak before pivoting to a draconian crackdown that was crudely effective. South Korea and Taiwan, scarred by the SARS epidemic 17 years ago, were ready with effective response systems that tested large numbers of people and traced their contacts in order to isolate contagious individuals before they showed symptoms. European countries tended to respond less effectively, with Italy and Spain having two of the worst outbreaks and the U.K. dithering over its strategy while wasting crucial time.

But perhaps no advanced nation has responded as poorly as the U.S. Perverse regulation, a bungled government test and fragmented supply chains held back testing for crucial weeks, allowing the epidemic to spread undetected. Abdication of leadership by the federal government left the job of shutdowns to state and local governments. Meanwhile, the president has issued highly unrealistic predictions that lockdowns could end in as little as two weeks. As a result, the U.S. now leads the world in cases of the coronavirus.

It’s possible that the U.S.’s scattershot, slow and ineffective response to this crisis is a result of leadership failures or the recent era of political division. President Donald Trump eliminated a pandemic response team at the National Security Council, his appointments to the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration have been controversial, and his messaging has generally been unhelpful and conflicting.

But the widespread nature of the failures suggest that coronavirus has exposed a deeper decline in the U.S.’s general effectiveness as a civilization. How recent that decline is, what its causes are and whether it can be reversed are all difficult but important questions.

One possibility is that the U.S. is burdened with outdated 18th-century institutions. Federalism leaves many powers to the states, making it hard for the central government to coordinate a pandemic response even when leadership is strong and competent. The Senate and the filibuster are set up to block swift legislative solutions to the nation’s mounting challenges. Countries such as South Korea and Taiwan created their centralized systems much more recently.

But the U.S. made big moves toward centralization to deal with the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. Those successful responses show that the U.S. has been capable of adapting to the challenges of upheaval in the past. Recently, though, the U.S. has allowed its civil service to shrink and its salaries to become less competitive with the private sector, outsourcing many of the bureaucracy’s functions:

It’s tempting to blame this on small government ideology, but the coronavirus failures also involved over-regulation by the FDA. In general, fans of more government and less government seem unable to prioritize high-quality, effective government — what my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Tyler Cowen and his fellow economist Mark Koyama call state capacity.

There may be deeper reasons why U.S. state capacity is decaying. One possibility, elaborated by economist Mancur Olson, is that as time goes by, institutions tend to be captured by a web of special interest groups. In the case of coronavirus these could include companies that use patents and mergers to monopolize parts of the medical supply chain and local business lobbies that push governments to delay lockdowns at the expense of public health.

An even more disturbing possibility is that declining U.S. effectiveness is the result of deepening racial and ethnic divisions. Economists have generally found that ethnic fragmentation — usually a legacy of colonialism — tends to make countries less willing to provide public goods. In the U.S., ethnic fragmentation is mainly a legacy of slavery, which resulted in lasting black-white tensions. The urge to slash and devalue government in the late 20th century almost certainly stemmed in part from many white Americans’ fear that government would mostly benefit their poorer black countrymen. In recent decades, waves of mostly Hispanic and Asian immigration have created further ethnic divisions; Trump’s presidency is often viewed as a backlash against that increasing diversity.

The crucial question is whether and how the decline in U.S. effectiveness might be reversed. Restoring the prestige of the civil service, centralizing functions such as responding to pandemics and electing competent and focused leaders are certainly all important steps. But in the long term, doing this will probably require cultivating a sense of national solidarity that crosses ethnic and racial lines while rooting out the entrenched power of special interests. Restoring the greatness of American civilization is likely to be a long and difficult road.



Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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