Ebola's Bureaucracy Lesson

CDC2Questioning the effectiveness of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has become the national pastime ever since two nurses in Dallas became infected with Ebola after following CDC protocols. Yet, one overriding fact rarely sees the light of day: CDC does not deliver medical care, none at all, and rarely ever sees or touches it. It is a data collection and analysis agency that makes recommendations to those who actually live with and treat the diseases.

CDCs legitimacy comes from its claimed abstract scientific expertise. President Barack Obama defended CDCs recommendation against state quarantine efforts to control the disease by insisting “We don’t just react based on our fears. We react based on facts and judgment and making smart decisions.” We rely on the “best science.”

Do they? The front cover of the official document “CDC Facts About Ebola in the U.S.” announced in bold letters: “You CAN’T get Ebola through AIR.” However, if one looks within the document at the questions and answer section there is this little gem: “Although coughing and sneezing are not common symptoms of Ebola, if a symptomatic patient with Ebola coughs or sneezes on someone, and saliva or mucus come into contact with that person’s eyes, nose or mouth, these fluids may transmit the disease.” Last one looked sneezes come through the air.

Ever wonder why the U.S. Army and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps sent Ebola health teams to Africa rather than the CDC? There was no one but the uniformed services to send. Most of the government in Washington pushes paper rather than does anything. The federal government mostly sends money to outside private individuals, associations and local governments to do things, or more often to study something, sending checks to them, the elderly and the poor. Anything more introduces enormous complications. Payments to individuals has increased from 56 percent of the budget in 1994 to 70 percent in 2014, plus regularly sending checks to 18 million private contractors.

When President Obama announced at the beginning: “We know how to do it,” to stop the spread of Ebola he was wrong. We did not, which he in effect admitted by appointing a czar to lead Ebola efforts from the CDC bureaucracy. But the czar stills needs that same bureaucracy to back him up. He is pretty much in the same spot as was Obama’s secretary of energy during the BP Horizon tragedy when he announced that the federal government would “take over” if BP did not act more expeditiously. You will recall that he was publicly corrected by the Coast Guard commander in charge who stated that they did not have the equipment or expertize to do so.

It is difficult to comprehend these days that centralized bureaucratic expertise was the 20th century ideal for solving all the world’s problems. But it ran into a little thing called human complexity. As Nobel Lauriat F.A. Hayek taught those who would listen, progressive attempts at central planning based on physical science analogies vastly underestimate human complexity. In his classic “Use of Knowledge in Society” he noted there were more physical interconnections in one person’s mind in a few moments than atoms in the entire solar system. With DNA and micro-technology today we understand this complexity is even greater. When a major recent study found that the majority of DNA ignored by scientists as “junk” actually might be as meaningful as the non-junk that we have just begun to comprehend, things get even more complicated.

While experts of the last century were certain they had or could tame or eliminate the business cycle, for example, today the Bank for International Settlements in its latest annual report announced that the 2007 economic crisis has changed completely how one must look at the economy. Previously, except for the inflationary recessions of the 1970s and 80s and the long-lasting Great Depression, it looked like economic science had conquered the business cycle with long expansionist runs between 1961 and 1969 and 1991 and 2001. But BIS notes that after 2007 and billions of dollars in stimulus U.S. output is 13 percent below where it would have been if previous growth rates had continued, and is 19 percent below in Britain, 12 percent in France and even 3 percent below in Germany. No one knows how to control a modern economy.

Indeed University of Chicago economics professor Casey B. Milligan believes the stimulus programs, the six year “emergency assistance” for the long-term unemployed, the food stamp program expansion, the mortgage assistance programs and the rest actually reduced the incentives to work and earn. “Waves of new programs increased the typical marginal tax rate [for people under these programs] from 40% to 48% in two years” in taxes paid and subsidies forgone, disincentivizing them from seeking work and employers from offering it. The result is the present economic malaise and the lowest labor force participation rate in 30 years.

The whole expertize myth about the bureaucracy is just about shattered. It does not work and just about everyone other than the progressive naïfs and ideologues knows it. Today 60 percent of Americans tell the Washington Post/ABC News pollsters they do not trust the government in Washington to do what is right.

Look at the record. The CDC earlier misplaced deadly anthrax, H5N1 and smallpox samples for years; the Federal Protective Service brought an unopened package containing a bomb into a 26 story federal building in Detroit and left it unattended for three weeks; the Veterans Affairs Department put vets on long waiting lines and lied about it; Obamacare kick-off malfunctions, administrative errors, and favoritism became a national joke; the Secret Service allowed a man who scaled the White House fence to penetrate into its East Room; Internal Revenue Service partisanship delayed exemption applications for conservative groups until after the 2012 election; political connections dominate awards to companies for “green” cars, windmills and other favored environmental strategies that are not cost effective; weapons routinely pass through airport screening tests; the National Institutes of Health have advised low-fat diets for 35 years that are now found harmful by its own studies; backlogs are everywhere; and on and on. But the checks do get out whether they help or not.

Even New York University’s progressive public administration expert Paul C. Light concedes “Americans know that the federal government already has too much to do” and implicitly realize it is riven with “the kudzu that clogs government hierarchies and makes even routine decisions risky.” He is hopeful more money and government bureaucratic reform can restore confidence and performance but concedes a general governmental indifference to taking on the challenge.

Hayek called the hope that centralized bureaucratic experts could use science to solve complex human problems a modern “superstition” that will mystify future generations. Human problems can only be alleviated by dealing with them close to those who have the information and understanding of the situation, by decentralizing to private individuals, institutions and local governments closer to the problem with concrete knowledge to meet the challenges. To do so, the national government must do less.

With the record of big government incompetence in the 21st century now overwhelming, the bureaucratic myth is exposed. The little man behind the curtain pretending to be a wizard is revealed to be a fraud by all who will but look.