Why America’s Institutions Are Failing

The country’s law-enforcement and public-health systems are flunking 2020’s test.

An illustration of "USA" with the letter F written across.
The Atlantic

The pandemic and the police protests, the twin crises of this horrendous year, might initially seem to have nothing to do with each other. In some ways, they are totally opposite cataclysms.

The COVID-19 outbreak, which demanded a swift and efficient response, revealed a discombobulated country painfully slow to deploy its arsenal of health interventions. The killing of George Floyd—like the attacks on peaceful protesters—demonstrated a rush to violence by American law enforcement, whose military arsenal is too often deployed with tragic efficiency.

Beneath these differences, however, lies a unifying failure. “The government agencies we thought were keeping us safe and secure—the CDC, the FDA, the Police—have either failed or, worse, have been revealed to be active creators of danger and insecurity,” Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University, wrote on Twitter.

Why have America’s instruments of hard and soft power failed so spectacularly in 2020? In part because they are choking on the dust of a dead century. In too many quarters of American leadership, our risk sensor is fixed to the anxieties and illusions of the 1900s. We are prepared for wars against states and militant groups, but not against stateless forces such as pandemics and climate change. We’re arming and empowering the police like it’s 1990, when urban crime had reached historic highs. But violent-crime rates have fallen by more than 50 percent in almost every major American city in the past generation, while police still drape themselves in military gear and kill more than 1,000 people annually.

The failures of our law-enforcement agencies and public-health systems are not one and the same. But our orientation toward militarized overpolicing and our slow-footed response to fast-moving pandemics both stem from an inability to adapt our safekeeping institutions to the realities of the 21st century. Lost in the anxieties and illusions of the past, United States institutions have forgotten the art of change in a changing world.

Let’s start with law enforcement.

There are many reasons why men and women, a disproportionate number of them black, keep dying at the hands of police—and why, more recently, social media is filled with images of peaceful protesters met with tear gas and rubber bullets. These include a long history of systemic racism among those who wield state violence, overworked officers, and laws that immunize deplorable police behavior.

But in conversations with policing experts, another thing came up over and over again: Too many police are instructed to believe that the 20th-century crime wave never ended.

Between the 1960s and the early 1990s, the violent-crime rate in many U.S. cities rose “to levels seen only in the most violent, war-torn nations of the developing world,” Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at NYU, has written. As American cities became perceived as war zones, police responded by adopting a “warrior” mentality. Then violent crime plunged by more than 70 percent from 1993 to 2018, according to data maintained by the Department of Justice. Although officers routinely face threats that most white-collar workers never will, cops are safer now than at any point in nearly 50 years.

Policing, however, hasn’t caught up to the good news. “The world has changed dramatically since the most violent years of the 1990s, but police training trails lived experience,” Stephen Rushin, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago, told me. Veteran officers share horror stories about the “mean streets” of the 1990s, and new recruits soak it in. Union leaders stir the pot by claiming that groups such as Black Lives Matter make policing “more dangerous than ever.” The message is clear: Be a warrior, because it’s a war out there.

The warrior mentality encourages an adversarial approach in which officers needlessly escalate encounters. That’s why Seth W. Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, calls the idealization of the warrior “the most problematic aspect of modern [police] policy.” The U.S. has about the same number of police officers per capita as, say, Australia; but adjusted for population, U.S. law enforcement kills 10 times more people. (The prevalence of guns in the U.S. is a factor here.)

Police aren’t just trained to feel like warriors; many are armed for war. After the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department formed a special unit of officers with military-grade equipment called the “Special Weapons Attack Team.” To soften the imagery, the name was changed to Special Weapons and Tactics, but the acronym stuck: SWAT. At first, SWAT teams were used sparingly. But after the announcement of the War on Drugs—another ruinous anxiety born of the late 20th century—deployments soared from 3,000 in the early 1980s to more than 30,000 in the late 1990s. Over time, SWAT itself served as a gateway drug for police militarization, as equipment once reserved for special teams, such as AR-15 rifles, was made available to ordinary officers.

In the 21st century, the War on Drugs has been roundly discredited as a trillion-dollar failure that incurs thousands of unnecessary deaths. But it has bequeathed us a world where police bearing semiautomatics are armed with the wrong tools for the actual job.

Violent crime plays a minuscule role in the day of a modern officer, who spends most of his or her time driving around, taking ho-hum radio calls, and performing the tertiary duties of traffic patroller and mental-health counselor. Given the dramatic decline in inpatient mental-health spending since the middle of the 20th century, the U.S. mental-health crisis has been effectively outsourced to the streets, where police who aren’t trained as social workers or behavioral therapists must perform the ad hoc duties of both.

Rather than respond to the drastically changing nature of American life, our cities and counties use police as a civic Swiss Army knife to solve problems such as homelessness and mental-health emergencies that have little to do with police training. In this respect, the failures of American police are not unique, but rather a symptom of a broader breakdown in high-quality governance.

The failures of American police have unleashed one disaster. The failures of the regulatory state have exacerbated another.

Before it stood for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC was founded as the Communicable Disease Center in the 1940s. Its original mission was to stop an epidemic. The organization’s first 400, Atlanta-based employees were tasked with arresting an outbreak of malaria in the Southeast. Today, the center’s 14,000 employees work “at the speed of science”—that is, slowly and deliberately—to understand an array of health issues, including cancer, obesity, and vaping.

There is nothing wrong with an institution devoted to deliberate scientific research. The CDC does much wonderful work. But its mission creep has transformed what was once a narrowly focused agency into a kaleidoscopic bureaucracy with no fast-twitch instinct for achieving its founding mission to protect Americans from an epidemic.

The CDC’s recent failures are well known, but worth repeating. It failed to keep track of early COVID-19 cases in part because of a leaden-footed reliance on fax machines and other outdated record-keeping technology. It failed to compile accurate case counts, forcing private actors—such as The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project—to fill the void. It failed its most basic coordination functions as an agency. As The New York Times reported, the CDC had waited “its entire existence for this moment,” but it was so unprepared to deal with COVID-19 that the group initially in charge of the response, the Division of Viral Diseases, had to cede responsibilities to the Influenza Division, despite the fact that COVID-19 is not caused by any kind of influenza virus. Most important, the CDC failed to manufacture basic testing equipment. Its initial test kits were contaminated and unusable, which allowed the disease to spread undetected throughout the U.S. for weeks.

Compare the situation in the U.S. with the one in East Asia, where several countries have navigated the pandemic far more deftly. China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam all updated their infectious-disease protocols based on what they learned from 21st-century epidemics: Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003; H1N1 in 2009; and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, in 2012. These countries quickly understood what artillery would be necessary to take on COVID-19, including masks, tests, tracing, and quarantine spaces. Yet the CDC—armed with an $8 billion budget and a global team of scientists and officials—was somehow unprepared to read from the playbook.

The FDA fumbled just as tragically. In January, Alex Greninger, a virologist at the University of Washington, was prepared to build an in-house coronavirus test. The FDA required that he spend 100 hours filling out an application online; so he did. Then the FDA told him that it couldn’t process the request until he mailed a hard copy; so he did. Then the FDA told him that he also had to request samples for other respiratory diseases, such as SARS; so he did. Then the CDC told him that he couldn’t have SARS samples, because they were too dangerous. Back and forth they went. By the time Greninger was ready to set up his lab, the calendar had turned to March. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were sick, and the outbreak was uncontrollable.

How could the FDA have done better? In economics, there is a recession-fighting concept known as “countercyclical” spending. That is, when the economic cycle turns down, government spending goes up. One lesson of the COVID-19 crisis may be that the U.S. needs a better framework for countercyclical regulatory policy: When emergency needs go up, regulations come down. In this emergency, the U.S. desperately needed more masks, kits, and testing materials. But at every turn, the regulatory state was slow, unresponsive, or bafflingly resistant to fast action.

Some of the failures of the CDC and the FDA surely reflect the Trump administration’s “deep state” paranoia and its war on science and competent career officials. But the White House cannot be entirely blamed for the ponderous incompetence of what ought to be the greatest public-health system in the world.

Not every American institution is trapped in amber. For a perhaps surprising example of one that has adapted to 21st-century needs, take the Federal Reserve.

The U.S. is facing its second financial crisis in 12 years. The first was an unprecedented collapse in the housing market; the second was an unprecedented shutdown of the physical-world economy. To address these challenges, the Federal Reserve had to quickly discern which 20th-century lessons to apply and which to discard. Ben Bernanke, the Fed chair during the Great Recession, used his expertise about the 1930s economy to avoid a similar collapse in financial markets in 2008. Today’s Fed chair, Jerome Powell, has gone even further, urging Congress and the Treasury to “think big” and add to our already-historic deficits. This is a far cry from Fed Chair Alan Greenspan telling President Bill Clinton to reduce the deficit, lest inflation devour the economy.

While too many American police are escalating encounters like it’s 1990, and the FDA is slow-playing regulatory approval as if these are normal times, and the CDC is somehow still using fax machines, the Federal Reserve has junked old shibboleths about inflation and deficit spending and embraced a policy that might have scandalized mainstream economists in the 1990s. Rejecting the status-quo bias that plagues so many institutions, this 106-year-old is still changing with the world.

Why haven’t other American institutions done the same? Perhaps America’s dependency on old leadership makes our institutions exquisitely responsive to the anxieties and illusions of old Americans. Perhaps the nature of large bureaucracies is to become lost in the labyrinth of mission-creeping path dependency. Perhaps years of political polarization and right-wing anti-science, anti-expertise sentiments have wrung all of the fast-twitch smarts out of the government. Or perhaps we should just blame Trump, that sub-institutional creature summoned from the bilious id of an electorate that lost faith in elites when elites lost their grip on reality.

Whatever the true cause for our failure, when I look at the twin catastrophes of this annus horribilis, the plague and the police protests, what strikes me is that America’s safekeeping institutions have forgotten how to properly see the threats of the 21st century and move quickly to respond to them. Those who deny history may be doomed to repeat it. But those who deny the present are just doomed.