A federal failure of historic proportions

By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Apr 22, 2020

Here's a manufacturing metaphor: Imagine a car. Beef up its performance with no expense spared. Turbocharge the engine. Fill it up with high-octane gas.

Then look for ways to cut the weight so it can go even faster. Airbags? Unnecessary. Seatbelts? Get rid of them. Brakes? Optional.

How about guardrails? They might inhibit the ability to take wide turns. Get rid of them.

Now you've got a vehicle built for speed and a road to match.

Then a boulder falls and it's all for naught.

Here's the symbolism: The car is the economy. The turbocharger is a generous tax cut and the high-octane gas is rock-bottom interest rates. The guardrails are public health policies -- and their execution. The guardrail-free road is the U.S. economy, and the boulder is COVID-19.

Metaphor aside, the response to the novel coronavirus pandemic is the worst failure of the federal government in the history of the United States. To call the action, no, make that the inaction of the current administration abysmal is an understatement. The richest country, that shining city on the hill, has had the worst pandemic response on the planet. It's no contest.

The buck stops, well, the buck doesn't stop. Not in this administration. It just keeps on bouncing around until you're so numbed by the bouncing that even the boss can say, "I don't take responsibility at all," and it's accepted as official policy. That might well be the best the White House can do.

But it doesn't align with the White House's often-edited website and its description of the duties of the Executive Branch. It says that the National Security Council, which said au revoir to its pandemic response team in 2018, "advises the President on foreign policy, intelligence, and national security."

True. But there was a failure to heed the advice.

The site also describes the Executive Branch's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as "the United States government’s principal agency for protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves. Agencies of HHS conduct health and social science research, work to prevent disease outbreaks, assure food and drug safety, and provide health insurance."

If this is truly the mission of HHS, it failed miserably.

And the Department of Homeland Security "also promotes preparedness and emergency prevention among citizens. Policy is coordinated by the Homeland Security Council at the White House, in cooperation with other defense and intelligence agencies, and led by the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security."

Another department, another failure.

But COVID-19 is bigger than the current powers that be. Libertarian dogma has met its match in the novel coronavirus. It turns out a government small enough to drown in a bathtub is worthless in a pandemic.

Naysayers may turn to whataboutism and point fingers, but that's not helpful at this point. The only thing that's going to help is a New Deal-style program that ignores the screeching budget hawks who consider defense spending a sacred cow.

That's got to change. If this isn't a failure of national defense, I don't know what it is. A terrorism-first strategy and weapons designed to kill as many people as efficiently as possible can't stop microbes. Same goes for a wall.

No more pointing fingers, playground-style insults, or partisan attacks.

Either lead, or get out of the way.

Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek. Reach him at rambleusa@gmail.com.