Media

The ‘Failed State’ Canard

A man walks by an illuminated flag of The United States as the coronavirus outbreak continues in Manhattan, New York City, March 13, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
While there’s been plenty to criticize and lament in our nation’s response to this pandemic, such a sweeping charge is unsupportable.

We’re living through a global pandemic and staring down the specter of a sudden-onset economic recession. One should expect a certain amount of overstatement and anxiety from analysts and writers dealing with cabin fever, myself included. Weeks ago, exasperated by the U.S.’s still-much-too-meager testing capacity, I wrote that ours had been a “sub-third world” response to the coronavirus. But I was wrong, as are the other writers who have subsequently expanded on the same notion.

George Packer, in a widely noted jeremiad in The Atlantic, complained that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the United States as a “failed state” with “a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault.”

This is just not true. As our own Jack Butler pointed out, Packer’s claim that President Trump stripped funding from the CDC is false. Although Trump favored cuts, the CDC’s funding has increased — not that it has made good use of the extra money. This is not a lean and mean virus-fighting machine, getting by on starvation-level resources. It maintains a Hollywood liaison to consult on films. In recent years, it has expanded beyond its core mission to promote motorcycle safety and sponsor programs dedicated to fostering “safe, stable, nurturing relationships” in schools. If you’re wondering why there was lots of political and social messaging larding up CDC documents on COVID-19, just realize that when Congress increases an agency’s funding, the result is likely to be more ideological make-work jobs rather than a more effective workforce.

“Fine,” you might say. “So the CDC is not evidence of a failed state. But what about the larger health-care system?” Well, there is much to complain about in the way the United States provisions and distributes health-care resources. But the underinvestment and underdevelopment that are characteristic of failed states are not remotely present here.

The United States spends more per capita on health care than any other nation on earth, and it’s not particularly close. Yes, much of it is private spending, but that private spending also drives research and innovation — there’s a reason why the world is increasingly depending on the U.S. for the scientific breakthroughs necessary to combat the pandemic. And as for public-sector health-care spending, ours is not notably low — it’s roughly equivalent to those of the developed nations of Western Europe.

Packer’s piece depends on the belief in a fairy tale common to prosperous liberals, the myth of a government starved by the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions while more enlightened governments in Europe continued to grow their egalitarian public sectors. In fact, almost the opposite is true. Since the 1980s, as our nation has continued to age, the share of our citizens covered primarily by government entitlement programs has continued to increase, while European countries have tended to engage in privatizing reforms.

It’s actually easier to imagine a British version of Packer’s lament, but that would implicate the austerity policies of more fashionable Europhiles and Tory “modernizers” such as George Osborne and Philip Hammond, rather than the uncouth American right-wingers or the spendthrift populist Boris Johnson. The East Asian states that have done best in fighting COVID-19 are not social-democratic but hyper-capitalist. Compared with them — and to America —Western Europe has done much worse at containing the spread of the coronavirus and the holding down the death toll. Even the response of Germany, which has been praised so much for its competence, looks little different from that of, say, Oregon, or Texas, or even Florida.

Of course, there is much to criticize and lament in the American effort to fight the virus. President Trump’s mixed messages and relentless partisanship have made everything harder. The White House still lacks a clear vision for getting a sufficient test-and-trace regime together. And America has been slower to describe and educate the public on what it will look like to live with the virus between this initial phase of the crisis and its final abatement. But to one extent or another, these problems have plagued our peer nations in Europe, too, and it isn’t as if our response has been without its virtues.

Indeed, while much of the criticism leveled by Packer and others at the White House is true, their lamentation about American society is mostly false. Our bottom-up, federalist response to the virus is encouraging and showing results. Our partisan lines have blurred somewhat, if you look beyond Twitter: Colorado, governed by a Democrat, is easing restrictions early; some red states, such as Ohio, closed quickly and decisively. A supermajority of Americans that cuts across party lines supports the notion of staying home and has stayed home. The curve is looking more than flattened in most regions now.

Packer’s own critique of American life, while passionate, is one-sided, betraying the very lazy partisanship and privileged lack of self-awareness he claims to decry. America’s endless culture war is the sort of thing in which rich and free countries engage with a spirit of leisure. Packer’s rant only proves how inadequate it is to the needs of the moment.

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