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Archive for May 14th, 2020

I’ve written four columns (here, here, here, and here) on the general failure of government health bureaucracies to effectively respond to the coronavirus.

The pattern was so pronounced that it even led me to unveil a Seventh Theorem of Government.

I’m not surprised at this outcome, of course, given the poor overall track record of the public sector.

But I was negatively surprised to learn how red tape from these bureaucracies prevented the private sector from quickly reacting to the crisis.

Today, let’s take a closer look at one of those bureaucracies, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Eric Boehm, writing for Reason, has a nice summary of the CDC’s failures.

Over the past three decades, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has seen its taxpayer-funded budget doubled. Then doubled again. Then doubled again. And then nearly doubled once more. But spending nearly 14 times as much as we did in 1987 on the agency whose mission statement says it “saves lives and protects people from health threats” did not, apparently, help the CDC combat the emergence of the biggest disease threat America has faced in a century. In fact, …inflating the CDC’s budget may have weakened the agency’s ability to handle its core responsibility by giving rise to mission creep and bureaucratic malaise. …the CDC’s budget has ballooned from $590 million in 1987 to more than $8 billion last year. If the agency had grown with inflation since 1987, it would have a budget of about $1.3 billion today. …Has all that extra funding made America safer? …hindsight now suggests that the CDC should have spent more time and money researching emergent influenza-like infectious diseases, a project that received just $185 million in funding… Instead, the CDC was doing things like spending $1.75 million on the creation of a “Hollywood liaison”.

A big problem with bureaucracies is that they engage in mission creep. They concoct new roles and responsibilities in hopes of justifying bigger budgets and more staff.

The CDC certainly is no exception. In its early years, the bureaucracy had a targeted mission, focusing on diseases posing a major threat to public health, such as malaria, plague, and tuberculosis.

Over the years, though, it has lost focus and become involved with social issues.

Daniel Greenfield opines on the CDC’s foolish diversions on issues such as obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control has…one job which it messes up every time. The last time the CDC had a serious workout was six years ago during the Ebola crisis. Back then CDC guidelines allowed medical personnel infected with Ebola to avoid a quarantine and interact with Americans… There were no protocols in place for treating the potentially infected resulting in the further spread of the disease inside the United States. …Meanwhile, CDC personnel had managed to mishandle Ebola virus samples, accidentally sending samples of the live virus to CDC labs. …During the Ebola crisis, the CDC had been spending…$2.6 million on gun violence studies. But the CDC has a history of wasting money on everything from a $106 million visitor’s center with Japanese gardens, a $200K gym, a transgender beauty pageant, not to mention promoting bike paths. …the CDC’s general incompetence…, like that of other government agencies, just ticks along wasting money. In 1999, the CDC announced a plan to end syphilis in 5 years…an unserious social welfare proposal that wanted to battle racism and was such a success that by 2018, syphilis rates had hit a new record high. … The CDC’s fight against the “obesity epidemic” is even sillier. That includes…giving LSU over a million bucks to work with farmers’ markets. Obesity obviously can kill people, but it’s not something that the CDC can or should be trying to fix. …Unfortunately, the CDC, like every federal agency, has drifted from its core mission into social welfare. …No one thinks about the CDC until we need it and discover it doesn’t work. And then the same story repeats itself a few years later while the CDC goes back to battling obesity and racism. …We don’t need a CDC that changes people’s minds about eating chocolate or engaging in unprotected sex. There are already multiple redundant parts of the government that are trying and failing there.

In a column for Forbes, Larry Bell reviewed the history of the CDC’s politicized campaigning against gun ownership.

In 1996, the Congress axed $2.6 million allocated for gun research from the CDC out of its $2.2 billion budget, charging that its studies were being driven by anti-gun prejudice. …There was a very good reason for the gun violence research funding ban. Virtually all of the scores of CDC-funded firearms studies conducted since 1985 had reached conclusions favoring stricter gun control.  This should have come as no surprise, given that ever since 1979, the official goal of the CDC’s parent agency, the U.S. Public Health Service, had been “…to reduce the number of handguns in private ownership”… Sociologist David Bordura and epidemiologist David Cowan characterized the public health literature on guns at that time as “advocacy based upon political beliefs rather than scientific fact”. …Dr. Katherine Christoffel, head of the “Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan”, a CDC-funded organization…said: “guns are a virus that must be eradicated…”

Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote for Inside Sources about the CDC’s senseless efforts to restrict vaping.

Our health agencies had the information and the resources, so they should have been planning for this, but they weren’t. The problem isn’t because they’re underfunded, it’s that they are bloated and mismanaged. …a close look at how CDC spends its budget reveals it has strayed from this mission of protecting Americans from communicable diseases, turning more toward influencing people’s lifestyle choices. …Indeed, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CDC and other agencies were busy sounding the alarm about the nonexistent “epidemic” of youth vaping. Collectively, they spent billions on anti-vaping advertisements, biased research and lobbying, wasted countless hours of congressional hearing time, and squandering public trust. Had they remained focused on infectious disease, might have been prepared to fight real epidemics, like the COVID-19. …there’s nothing new about exploiting a crisis to expand budgets and score political points. Similar claims of inadequate funding were made during the 2014 outbreak of Ebola, for which various health agencies got an additional $5.4 billion. And what do we have to show for it now?

Let’s wrap up by noting that squandering money should be viewed as the CDC’s indirect failure.

The direct failure was how the bureaucracy bungled its one legitimate function of fighting infectious disease.

Jacob Sullum, writing for the New York Post, explains what happened.

The grand failure of federal health bureaucrats foreclosed the possibility of a more proactive and targeted approach… At first, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ­monopolized COVID-19 tests. When the CDC began shipping test kits to state laboratories in early February, they turned out to be defective. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration initially blocked efforts by universities and businesses to develop and conduct tests… The CDC still insists that “not everyone needs to be tested for COVID-19.” But without testing everyone — or at least representative samples — for both the virus itself and the antibodies to it, we can do little better than guess its prevalence, its lethality and the extent of immunity among the general public. …Our ignorance about COVID-19 will have profound consequences, potentially leading to an overreaction that wrecks the economy while saving relatively few lives… You can thank the same agencies on which we are relying to guide us through this crisis.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center summarizes the issue, noting that the CDC is a monumental failure.

The lack of preparedness at every level of government (federal, state, and local) has nothing to do with a lack of funding or inadequate staffing. Instead, it has everything to do with governments’ bloat, mismanagement, cronyism, and poor focus. That’s particularly true of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). …it is no secret how much the CDC is to blame for the country’s lack of preparedness to take on the coronavirus (followed very closely in ineptitude by the Food and Drug Administration). …By now, every major newspaper has reported on the incredible failure of the CDC during this crisis. …Messing up is not a new thing for the CDC. However, unlike what its employees and political allies like to claim, the agency’s poor record and its lack of preparedness has nothing to do with a lack of funding. …For instance, funding for its National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases—which aims to prevent diseases like Ebola—received only $514 million in 2018, a tiny sliver (less than 5%) of total CDC funding. And less than half of that $514 million went to emerging diseases like COVID-19. The rest of that budget is spent on stuff like chronic fatigue. Meanwhile, funding…to prevent smoking, alcohol consumption, and poor diets…received nearly $1 billion over that same time, almost double the funding for infectious-disease prevention.

Here’s a look (courtesy of Chris Edwards) at what’s happened to the CDC budget over time.

As you can see, the bureaucrats got more and more funding. Yet when America needed competence, they didn’t deliver.

P.S. The bureaucrats are not the only ones to blame. A big reason for the CDC’s lack of focus is that headline-seeking and vote-buying politicians created new roles and responsibilities. The CDC was happy to get more power, staff, and money, of course (just as it will be happy to get more power, staff, and money as a reward for its failure to deal with the coronavirus).

P.P.S. It’s almost as if there’s a lesson to be learned.

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