Too bad to fail?
Updated: May 30, 2021
Unlike HBO or anything else in the private sector, a government service is very difficult to cancel if we feel unsatisfied. It takes years of lobbying and building coalitions and public campaigning and spending lots of money.
Since it enjoys an exemption from the consumer's veto, should we hold a public service to a higher or a lower standard of performance than a private one?
Curiously, Joe Consumer is much more demanding than Joe Voter. One bad experience with Ace Hardware or Delta Airlines may be enough for Joe Consumer to swear them off for good. He even has enough expectations of Bank of America to recognize failure and be furious when they're deemed "too big to fail" and bailed out with his money.
Yet Joe Voter doesn't seem to have "bottom" for public services. If the bus system is chronically late or the FDA blocks drugs people need for years or the FBI is caught lying to FISA courts again or public schools simply stop operating, Joe is more likely to vote to increase their budget than to recognize failure and hold them to account for it.
So consider the public services of the Centers for Disease Control, its parent agency the National Institutes of Health, and which Joe you are. Prior to 2020 these agencies were collecting statistics and dispensing grants and not much in the public eye. During the past year they captured not only the spotlight and a place in our hearts but a great deal of power over our lives in the name of public health. We've all been at the receiving end of "public health orders" issued by county officials we'd never heard of, who mostly relayed edicts from similar officials in state capitols, based on some amalgam of governors' political calculations and pronouncements from the CDC.
And of course we've seen most visible part of the NIH, the inescapable Dr. Fauci. Say what you will, and I'm about to, but the man has energy. 80 years old, and he's been all over YouTube for months, doing an uncanny number of interviews in between keelhaulings by Rand Paul during Senate hearings.
It scarcely matters which interview you watch, because they all follow the same pattern. In the video above with Bloomberg's David Westin, he sorta explains CDC's latest lurch on masks, as usual without conceding any fallibility or acknowledging even this week's pair of socks still don't quite match.
For months, right up to last week, he insisted that people vaccinated for COVID must still wear a mask. Maybe two or three. Even the kids. Even on lonely mountaintops. Maybe forever, because hey, there are other diseases out there.
Now the CDC says it's safe for vaccinated people to show their faces, even indoors. A lot more data came in over the past month, he says, allowing them to conclude the vaccine works well enough. Of course, the guidance last month was not "we have to wait for more data to say either way," it was a long parade of edicts that went well beyond masks. A national eviction moratorium. Preemptively shutting down cruise ships. Vaccine passports for international travel. If "the science" finally spoke only in the past few weeks, who's been ordering lockdowns for the past year? He didn't say, and of course David Westin didn't ask, because...well, you tell me.
The unvaccinated, Dr. Fauci says, must still wear masks. Why? He didn't say, and of course David Westin didn't ask this either. To protect the unvaccinated, maskless, 75-year-old diabetic who sat down next to you in the sauna from from a virus you probably don't have to begin with?
I'm sure there are Fauci fanboys, or more likely fan-moms, who still trust what he says. But he's earned his reputation among many of us: Big Brother's smug Italian face, whose job is to make the politically convenient sound scientifically plausible, to stretch his personal credibility across a thousand government failures and try to keep the public docile. He's the NIH's Robert Mueller. The swamp no doubt appreciates his sacrifice, but expect him to announce his retirement within a year.
Are you getting your money's worth?
You pay the NIH $300 every year, and so do I. With a $43 billion budget, the NIH is the size of United Airlines. If you pay United $300, you probably expect some outcome, even if it's only a tiny bag of pretzels.
So, a simple question: what do you expect from the Centers for Disease Control or the NIH? To control disease? To forecast its spread accurately? To at least tally cases credibly enough to convince people the numbers are fair?
Perhaps you're okay with failure on all three of those, as long as their cause is just and their intentions good? That would fair enough if it were just your money. But even presuming you can intuit their intentions perfectly, is it really fair to take your neighbors' money for intentions rather than competent services? San Francisco is teeming with Karens eager to apologize for the CDC based on extremely hypothetical externality arguments, while ignoring the obvious exernalities all around them. Is it reasonable to sacrifice your neighbors' jobs, businesses, and civil liberties on a theory of protecting their health?
What if the CDC's edicts actually made the disease worse? What duty to citizens bear to find out? What if nothing they did had anything to do with the disease but nevertheless crippled the economy? What if the NIH funded the research that created the disease? Would you pay $300 a year for YouTube videos, failed health policies and strategic lies to keep you in line? If so, please contact me, and include a credit card number.
If the only lesson you take is that the NIH needs a new frontman, please send me your bank password too, because the important lessons are institutional. The NIH and the politicians overseeing them are human beings who know only tiny bits of our complex world, but unlike the rest of us they're institutionally unable to admit uncertainty. Scientists have no problem admitting what they don't know, but if you're the government you have affect certainty in what you're doing, no matter how lies that requires. We've learned over the past year that the Centers for Disease Control are primarily the Centers for Citizen Control, and their primary product is propaganda.
Obviously I don't think I'm getting my money's worth. I don't even think I'm getting your money's worth. If their job is to control disease, and the disease has spread to the entire planet, that seems like an easy F. And not a do-better-next-time F, nor a throw-the-bums-out F, nor even an institutional-reforms-are-needed F. They didn't just not get the job done, they spread terror with wildly bogus disease models, they quarantined exactly the wrong people. They shut down health services from gyms to cancer screenings in the name of protecting health, and actively destroyed people's livelihoods, while lying to us for a year.
If you don't agree they've earned a crimal-prosecution-for-everyone-involved F, what would they have to do? I understand how deeply terrorized millions of people were about COVID, it is nevertheless not okay to exuse the past year, to insist we hold these important services exempt from any expectations and just pour more billions into them.
Imagine you were were waiting at O'Hare for your United Airlines connecting flight, and they told you it was delayed. For two weeks. And you weren't allowed to leave the airport, because it was flu season in Chicago, and they wouldn't want you catching a bug and passing it to their other passengers. Every few weeks they delayed your flight another few weeks, until you looked up and found you'd been waiting in the airport for 15 months.
Wouldn't you at a minimum ask for your $300 back?