Gradually, Then Suddenly

If there’s one thing that the Covid-19 crisis has made extremely clear, laid bare for even the most blinkered to see, it is the pervasive failure of every American institution, at every level of influence and governance. From the federal government on down, almost no governmental entity within the larger constellation of American federalism has acquitted itself well, or even adequately, or even passed a baseline competency test.

The failures have been monumental and they have been bipartisan. Of course part of the story is the Trump administration’s persistent destruction of state capability at the federal level, but lest one be tempted to conclude that the destruction has been driven primarily by failures of Republican governance or lack thereof, it would be worthwhile to consider the examples of deep-blue New Jersey and New York. Together they cumulatively account for almost 50,000 Covid-related deaths, which is to say, one quarter of the American total, and neither state has managed the economic fallout well.

In New Jersey, governor Phil Murphy put out a call for Cobol programmers to update the state’s antiquated unemployment system; where Florida purposefully sabotaged its implementation to prevent people from using it, New Jersey merely let its system fall into ruin through inattention and lack of investment. And in New York, Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio wasted most of March, and much of the subsqeunt months fighting over who should have to shoulder the blame for not taking decisive action, when the real answer is that they’re both horrible and should be catapulted into the sun. During his time as governor, Cuomo repeatedly pursued reductions in Medicaid funding which has led directly to a shortage in hospital beds and therefore directly to the mass suffering that Covid inflicted on the state during the bloody months of April and May. And de Blasio has repeatedly sabotaged his own public health office, driving the commissioner to resign. It is unclear what political benefit causing mass death in your own city is supposed to confer, but hey, at least you’re not sharing credit with an obscure public official! That would be really bad!

One could, I’m sure, compile a similar list for many other states and municipalities, red and blue alike. The rot is so deep and so all-encompassing as to be a feature of American governance tout court and not confined to any particular ideological tendency. To be sure, some typically blue locales such as Washington State have managed to keep the spread of the virus to reasonable levels, but the general picture across the country is one of sustained incompetence by authorities in the face of a massive public health crisis.

Imagine a building that suddenly collapses after its structural elements have suffered decades of compromise. There is typically a proximate cause for the collapse, but that cause on its own would have been insufficient to destroy the structure absent the history of neglect. Likewise, Covid on its own could not have (and did not, globally speaking) usher in what is looking every day more and more like a comprehensive socioeconomic collapse in an advanced, functioning country. But we are not a functioning country, and the foundations that could have prevented this, both from a public health and an economic standpoint, have been eroded for decades by a bipartisan consensus that has aimed at selling off every scrap of state capability and resources that wasn’t nailed down. Simultaneously, in the name of efficiency, various buffers that could have blunted the impact of the pandemic, such as extra hospital beds, adequate reserve stocks of PPE, and sufficient staffing have been eliminated in favor of just-in-time supply chains and tempt work. In normal times, these “efficiencies” manifest themselves primarily as money funneled into the pockets of the corporate leadership, but in the time of Covid, they appear as literal corpses in freezer trucks.

What happens now? We seem to be living a real-life example of Stein’s Law: this process cannot go on forever, which means that at some point it will stop, either because everything has been stripped for parts and money, or because some active impulse on the part of the populace puts an end to it. I’d much rather it be the latter, carried out democratically, but it’s hard to see how that happens given [gestures expansively] all this. Even as the left has notched some isolated small victories in places, Democrats still appear to be operating under the theory that the best state action can be is “tolerable” while Republicans are fully committed to looting as a theory of government. Some kind of confrontation with the inevitable is coming, and we are definitely not ready for it.