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Inability to prepare for coronavirus is a failure of U.S. government

Mitigating the virus’ impact will require major federal action

by | March 26, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is illustrating a basic truth about the U.S.: We are poor at long-term preparation and better at short-term reacting.

The country was unprepared for dealing with a worldwide public health crisis. Even if other countries were similarly caught off guard, that’s no excuse for a country that considers itself — and is widely considered by others — to be the world leader.

The principal reason for lack of preparedness was the popular belief that the federal government is too big and people ought to be able to keep their money rather than turn it over to a faceless government that follows its own agenda.

When the U.S. House of Representatives voted 363-40 for an economic stimulus package to deal with the virus’ effect, one member opposed it because it would “expand government massively.” In fact, it increases the size of government little but would be a major increase in government spending.

The basic function of any government is to protect public health and safety. But that takes money. Even worse, from the viewpoint of opponents, it needs funding before there is even a problem, when people would rather keep their money. Why spend money on a police force when there’s no crime?

A variation on this theme was President Trump’s initial focus on the stock market and, indirectly, on the economy. He favored stranding potentially ill people on a cruise ship rather than bringing them ashore for testing and treatment. At home they would run up the count of those affected, potentially harming the stock market.

Then the president complained about the inadequacy of federal procedures to deal with the new virus, implying it was the fault of his predecessors. By then he had been in office for more than three years, so if there were a preparedness problem, it could have been fixed on his watch. Instead he proposed spending cuts.

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world faces similar problems. For a century the world has looked to our nation for leadership in a global crisis. This one gives the U.S. an opportunity to recover that role, work with Europe and demonstrate its superiority to the Chinese regime.

If any proof was needed of a panic, look no further than the stock market. Share prices are supposed to be forecasters of the future economy. If they are to be believed, a recession seems inevitable.

How can government leaders prevent panic? Merely counting gross numbers of tests and respirators is not the way. They need to inform in an honest way and complete their explanations. That creates a sense of confidence and reduces harmful rumors.

Having taken credit for the run-up in stock prices, Trump worried that his political fate could be undermined by their collapse. In minimizing the crisis, he failed to understand that he would not be held responsible for a development nobody could control. He pushed for lower interest rates and easy money, and the Federal Reserve obliged him.

Then, Trump made a major course correction. He began talking about the market being secondary to controlling the spread of the virus. He talked with the nation’s governors. He stopped blaming his predecessors.

He even praised the media. In fairness to him, some outlets seemed intent on tripping him up. In fairness to them, they did not report fake news.

Above all he has backed a huge economic stimulus, contrary to the usual GOP position and closer to the Democrats’. But massive new spending and creating more money will add to an already large national debt and fuel inflation. Eventually there must be a tax increase, but the bill will be paid long after the presidential election.

The stimulus should be targeted at relieving economic pain and preserving key industries when their revenues fall to the point they cannot pay workers. Many opponents of “big government” now recognize that only the government has the economic power to help.

The crisis will impact the presidential election. The question will be whether it has educated people that they are, in fact, choosing how to spend their own money when they elect leaders to use tax revenues in preparing to meet future needs and crises.

The Democratic proponents of increased government action for dealing with the long-term effects of this and other problems are not socialists. In fact, much work can be carried out by the private sector, as in the current development of a coronavirus vaccine.

Without understanding that we must devote more resources to being better prepared, the coronavirus crisis would serve mainly as a sign of worse things to come.

The coronavirus pandemic is illustrating a basic truth about the U.S.: We are poor at long-term preparation and better at short-term reacting.

The country was unprepared for dealing with a worldwide public health crisis. Even if other countries were similarly caught off guard, that’s no excuse for a country that considers itself — and is widely considered by others — to be the world leader.

The principal reason for lack of preparedness was the popular belief that the federal government is too big and people ought to be able to keep their money rather than turn it over to a faceless government that follows its own agenda.

When the U.S. House of Representatives voted 363-40 for an economic stimulus package to deal with the virus’ effect, one member opposed it because it would “expand government massively.” In fact, it increases the size of government little but would be a major increase in government spending.

The basic function of any government is to protect public health and safety. But that takes money. Even worse, from the viewpoint of opponents, it needs funding before there is even a problem, when people would rather keep their money. Why spend money on a police force when there’s no crime?

A variation on this theme was President Trump’s initial focus on the stock market and, indirectly, on the economy. He favored stranding potentially ill people on a cruise ship rather than bringing them ashore for testing and treatment. At home they would run up the count of those affected, potentially harming the stock market.

Then the president complained about the inadequacy of federal procedures to deal with the new virus, implying it was the fault of his predecessors. By then he had been in office for more than three years, so if there were a preparedness problem, it could have been fixed on his watch. Instead he proposed spending cuts.

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world faces similar problems. For a century the world has looked to our nation for leadership in a global crisis. This one gives the U.S. an opportunity to recover that role, work with Europe and demonstrate its superiority to the Chinese regime.

If any proof was needed of a panic, look no further than the stock market. Share prices are supposed to be forecasters of the future economy. If they are to be believed, a recession seems inevitable.

How can government leaders prevent panic? Merely counting gross numbers of tests and respirators is not the way. They need to inform in an honest way and complete their explanations. That creates a sense of confidence and reduces harmful rumors.

Having taken credit for the run-up in stock prices, Trump worried that his political fate could be undermined by their collapse. In minimizing the crisis, he failed to understand that he would not be held responsible for a development nobody could control. He pushed for lower interest rates and easy money, and the Federal Reserve obliged him.

Then, Trump made a major course correction. He began talking about the market being secondary to controlling the spread of the virus. He talked with the nation’s governors. He stopped blaming his predecessors.

He even praised the media. In fairness to him, some outlets seemed intent on tripping him up. In fairness to them, they did not report fake news.

Above all he has backed a huge economic stimulus, contrary to the usual GOP position and closer to the Democrats’. But massive new spending and creating more money will add to an already large national debt and fuel inflation. Eventually there must be a tax increase, but the bill will be paid long after the presidential election.

The stimulus should be targeted at relieving economic pain and preserving key industries when their revenues fall to the point they cannot pay workers. Many opponents of “big government” now recognize that only the government has the economic power to help.

The crisis will impact the presidential election. The question will be whether it has educated people that they are, in fact, choosing how to spend their own money when they elect leaders to use tax revenues in preparing to meet future needs and crises.

The Democratic proponents of increased government action for dealing with the long-term effects of this and other problems are not socialists. In fact, much work can be carried out by the private sector, as in the current development of a coronavirus vaccine.

Without understanding that we must devote more resources to being better prepared, the coronavirus crisis would serve mainly as a sign of worse things to come.

Author

Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil has been active in politics, journalism, publishing and energy consulting. A graduate of Bowdoin College, he has a master’s degree from the College of Europe (Belgium), and a Ph.D. from Columbia. He is an Army veteran.

He was a top aide to U.S. Sen. George McGovern during his run for president. In Maine, he served as Commissioner of Business Regulation, Director of the Office of Energy Resources and the state’s first Public Advocate.  He was a Harpswell selectman. He led the negotiations that created the unified New England power grid and chaired the national organization of state energy agencies.

He reported for the Washington Post, Newsweek, London’s Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and WNET (New York). His weekly commentary has appeared in Maine newspapers since 2008. He has written or edited 16 books or collections ranging from the biography of Sears, Roebuck to the three-volume U.S. Supreme Court original jurisdiction decisions. His company, sold in 2005, was the largest publisher of state government regulatory codes.

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