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  • Oren Levin-Waldman

Managing a Crisis, and Especially Now, Requires Real Leadership

With the advent of public administration during the early part of the Twentieth Century came what is regarded as the administrative state. Critics deride it as the “deep state.” Still, classical public administration rested on a couple of basic principles: separation of politics from administration, and staffing based on merit, which would revolve around division of labor, specialization of function, and ultimately deference to expertise. And yet, the expert, in line with the first principle, was only to advise; not to be dispositive. That is, key decisions affecting the public interest were to made by political leaders who would be held accountable through elections. Amidst government shutdowns due to COVID-19, we are actually seeing what might be viewed as the abdication of leadership. Let’s first take each principle separately. The idea of separation of politics from administration is the idea that decisions are made by those who are held accountable to the public through elections, but they are implemented by those who are not subject to popular pressure, i.e. those protected by civil service rules. But this also meant that because civil servants are not held accountable through elections, they shouldn’t be making policy decisions that may have a profound impact on people’s lives. Nevertheless, in the name of good competent government and efficiency, there should be division of labor and specialization of function. Modern public administration relies on deference to professional expertise, and in the current era deference to the expertise of the scientists. Still, that never meant that the word of the expert and/or scientist would be the ultimate determinant of policy. Rather, policymakers would weigh the advice of experts against other considerations. Optimally they would weigh the advice of one group of experts against the advice of other groups of experts. Decision making, in other words, would require real acts of political leadership. In recent years, however, especially in matters of economic policy, public officials are all too willing to allow the Fed to make decisions affecting the economy because public officials simply don’t want to be held responsible. One wonders if the nation’s governors aren’t relying too heavily on public health experts, while not being mindful enough of the severe consequences for millions of people around the nation. Of course this applies to the nation as a whole and the rest of the world. Nobody will argue that human life isn’t sacred and that government doesn’t have a responsibility to protect it. But we can’t just be tone deaf to the economic destruction and the toll that will also take on human life due to these shutdowns. As the country prepares for phased processes of reopening throughout the country, we already see public officials seeking to be absolved of responsibility. On the question of reopening the country, the President claimed he had absolute authority to make decisions. Constitutionally he does not. This is a federal system where the president can use his bully pulpit to influence the decisions of governors. And yet, when he said the federal government would issue new guidelines and leave final decisions to the governors, they screamed foul. One would think they would want to reopen sooner than later, given that economic disruption resulting in massive unemployment also disrupts the flow of state revenues. On the contrary, the governors turn to their medical experts for cover. But why should they decide? Addressing the fallout from forced shutdowns is really beyond their expertise. The real question now becomes whether there may have been too much deference. Arguably a case could be made for full deference if the data is beyond question. Of course, there is no such thing. These shutdowns were only going to flatten the curve to alleviate pressure on hospitals, especially their intensive care units. They were never going to stamp out the virus. Only new therapies and a vaccine can do that. The obvious question, then, is whether it is reasonable to remain under a lockdown until either are available. In other words, what is the basis for abridging people’s civil liberties and rights? In constitutional jurisprudence the basis for the exercise of regulatory authority is that a compelling case can be made that the ends justify the means. But those means also have to be viewed as reasonable in the minds of most. Many of the decisions have been made on the basis of forecasts from predictive models that in the absence of mitigation there would be many more deaths. But the absence of testing has been the real problem here. Of course, the number of confirmed cases was going to increase with more testing. But in the absence of instant tests for the entire population, we really don’t know how many people are infected, or may have been infected and recovered. If it turns out that the number of infected is several times higher than official confirmed cases, the death rate is considerably lower. This, of course, only begs another question. If we had reason to believe that the death rate would have been proportionately lower, would the draconian measures that were taken have been taken? Yes, we are asking this in hindsight, but it appears that decisions were made with a view of only one set of experts. There is another argument to be made about the composition of the national coronavirus task force chaired by the Vice-President. Why is there nobody on there from the CDC or the FDA? Reference is often made to models; so why aren’t any of the modelers on it? Wouldn’t we have all been better served if there had been a couple of econometricians who have a sophisticated understanding of both data and statistics? In other words, if a compelling argument was to be made to lock down a country, then more expertise was needed; not less. Less expertise only makes it easier to defer to the experts at hand who may not be attuned to consequences beyond the parameters of their immediate protocols. On the contrary, more expertise would have resulted in competing views and the need for public officials to actually exercise leadership in making decisions. Students of public administration should come to the immediate conclusion that the task force was deficient. One of the giants of the field, Herbert Simon, famously distinguished between economic man and administrative man. Economic man based on pure rationality makes decisions looking at all the possible consequences that could arise. This is a luxury that those in the policy realm simply don’t have. If we have to wait for all therapies to go through the standard FDA testing and approvals, we will be waiting a long time. At least somebody from the FDA could have explained the approval process and why FDA approval is based on 30 to 50 percent effectiveness. The administrative man makes decisions on the basis of bounded rationality, taking into account realities on the ground such as resources, capacity, budgets and timing. The administrative man, then, ends up ‘sufficing.’ The object is to make as good a decision that can be made given various realities. The administrative man, then, might conclude that if there is any reason to believe that existing therapies based on preliminary trials, albeit for different purposes at the moment, would be effective in treating COVID-19, then the standard round of FDA testing and approval processes are perhaps a luxury of the economic man that we really cannot afford right now. Moreover, it would strain most people’s sense of reasonableness. At the moment, our experts will tell us that this is the process we need to go through. But leadership requires making decisions which strike a better balance between legitimate public health concerns and the legitimate needs of people to function in an economy that is equally important to the sustenance of life.

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