Commentary Magazine


Topic: public health

Did the NIH Just Accidentally Blame Itself for Ebola in U.S.?

The speed of political social media is such that extraordinarily silly and dishonest claims are subject to an efficient round of public shaming almost immediately. That is currently taking place with regard to the desperate attempt by the left to blame Republicans for everything terrible that’s ever happened, and thus also the spread of Ebola in Texas. With Democrats in control of the executive branch, you might wonder just how such a masterful feat of duplicity could even be attempted. The answer is illuminating.

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The speed of political social media is such that extraordinarily silly and dishonest claims are subject to an efficient round of public shaming almost immediately. That is currently taking place with regard to the desperate attempt by the left to blame Republicans for everything terrible that’s ever happened, and thus also the spread of Ebola in Texas. With Democrats in control of the executive branch, you might wonder just how such a masterful feat of duplicity could even be attempted. The answer is illuminating.

Government bureaucracy depends on taxpayer dollars and rejects transparency, proper oversight, and–most importantly–accountability. So when it can be blamed for something under its purview going wrong, it will immediately turn on the American public. Federal bureaucracy is an obese creature for which your money is the main source of sustenance. Feed it, or it will come looking for you. And now that Ebola has been contracted on American soil, the head of the National Institutes of Health needs a scapegoat. And that scapegoat is you, America:

As the federal government frantically works to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and as it responds to a second diagnosis of the disease at home, one of the country’s top health officials says a vaccine likely would have already been discovered were it not for budget cuts.

Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, said that a decade of stagnant spending has “slowed down” research on all items, including vaccinations for infectious diseases. As a result, he said, the international community has been left playing catch-up on a potentially avoidable humanitarian catastrophe.

“NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It’s not like we suddenly woke up and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here,’” Collins told The Huffington Post on Friday. “Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.”

How convenient. For future reference keep that quote in mind. Bureaucrats simply sub in the appropriate word, depending on what it is they want money for. It’s a great trick: whatever the crisis, it can always be deployed. If only you had given me your money, [enter crisis here] would never have happened in the first place. It’s the Mad Libs of governmental blame deflection.

As National Review’s Jim Geraghty notes, the (tax-exempt) group Agenda Project is out with an ad blaming Republicans for budget cuts and Ebola death, and accompanied it with a press release that included the following thoughtful, not at all psychotic message:

Today the Agenda Project Action Fund launched “Republican Cuts Kill,” a multi-pronged blitzkrieg attack that lays blame for the Ebola crisis exactly where it belongs– at the feet of the Republican lawmakers. Like rabid dogs in a butcher shop, Republicans have indiscriminately shredded everything in their path, including critical programs that could have dealt with the Ebola crisis before it reached our country. Yesterday, a health worker tested positive for the virus– now, the effects of the GOP’s fanatical hatred for our government may finally be exposed.

Now, conservatives might be tempted to be offended by that acid trip. But really, it’s Democrats who deserve the sympathy here: imagine having to treat the above as a serious, legitimate policy analysis. Leftists who aren’t off their rocker might feel some obligation to pretend that press release isn’t completely bonkers. And that can’t possibly be easy.

Over at Reason, Nick Gillespie does a good job debunking the idea behind the “Republican Cuts Kill” ad, and points out that President Obama requested funding cuts, so it’s not exactly an evil Republican death budget, or whatever is plastered on Democrats’ sandwich boards today.

But debating the numbers is only part of the story. The more important lesson here is twofold. First, I mentioned earlier the ridicule this argument is getting online. One way to see that is by checking in on the #TookMoneyFromEbolaResearch hashtag on Twitter, which is among the ways conservatives are drawing attention to the various money wasters in the budgets of the federal health agencies. (And seriously, Collins didn’t see that coming a mile away?)

In this way, the NIH blundered, because it becomes a familiar story of how federal bureaucracies waste money in such large sums and in so many ways as to redirect the criticism. If funding for Ebola prevention is the problem, then the NIH itself ought to take the blame, because the money was there. It wasn’t the American public that lit a pile of taxpayer money on fire instead of devoting it to infectious disease prevention.

The other important aspect of federal intervention here is the existence of layers upon layers of red tape on the road to getting treatments and vaccines to market and maintaining their availability. No doubt a fair portion of health regulations are useful in weeding out harmful medicines. But the cost and time necessary to get lifesaving medical breakthroughs to market clearly in many cases act as a hindrance to public health.

So it’s risible to blame budget cuts when what we’re really looking at is the irresponsible management of taxpayer money, bureaucratic waste, and miles of red tape. Government physician, heal thyself.

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The Soda Ban and Helicopter-Mayoring

Today the Michael Bloomberg era in New York City drew to a close. Not officially, of course; Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty was inaugurated at the beginning of January. But today it can begin in earnest, and in modest acclamation: the soda ban is dead. And with it exits a style of governing that will most indelibly be remembered for perhaps its greatest flaw: an obnoxious paternalism that told even the city’s starving homeless precisely what they can and cannot consume.

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Today the Michael Bloomberg era in New York City drew to a close. Not officially, of course; Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty was inaugurated at the beginning of January. But today it can begin in earnest, and in modest acclamation: the soda ban is dead. And with it exits a style of governing that will most indelibly be remembered for perhaps its greatest flaw: an obnoxious paternalism that told even the city’s starving homeless precisely what they can and cannot consume.

New York State’s highest court today rejected the final appeal to keep the ban on large sodas in place. The New York Times headline on the story is “City Loses Final Appeal on Limiting Sales of Large Sodas,” but I think we’re all winners here, the city included. Bloomberg is to be commended for some of his policies: the full-throated defense of public safety chief among them. But Bloomberg got caught up in paternalistic social engineering and the soda ban was one of the most invasive–and illegal–results. The Times reports:

In a 20-page opinion, Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr. of the State Court of Appeals wrote that the city’s Board of Health “exceeded the scope of its regulatory authority” in enacting the proposal, which was championed by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

The decision likely will be seen as a significant defeat for health advocates who have urged state and local governments to actively discourage the consumption of high-calorie beverages, saying the drinks are prime drivers of a nationwide epidemic of obesity.

Two lower courts had already sided against the city, saying it overreached in attempting to prohibit the purchase of sugared drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces, about the size of a medium coffee cup. By a 4 to 2 vote, the justices upheld the earlier rulings.

In that article, however, you can see who Bloomberg’s real constituents were: first and foremost, the media. Proponents of intrusive statist powers are, according to the Times, “health advocates.” Simply because they say so. Even though some of the schemes the “health advocates” have pursued have been shown to produce exactly the opposite result–that is, the population’s choices become less healthy. But as with most liberal projects, the intentions are all that matter. Who wouldn’t want to ban large sodas? Think of the children.

The irony of the Bloomberg administration’s overreach on sugary drinks is that such helicopter-mayoring overshadowed other policies and came to identify him. He’s been replaced by a much more liberal politician, who may actually restore some of Bloomberg’s reputation. Say what you will about Bloomberg’s nanny statism, but he did not acquire his inspiration for public service by watching the Marxist Sandinistas.

Bloomberg’s record on public safety threatens to be undone by de Blasio, whose election ended the era of hugely popular and undeniably successful police commissioner Ray Kelly, after which the police were instructed to stop gun violence by smiling at passersby. It’s too early to say if the resulting recent spike in violent crime is here to stay, but all indications are that de Blasio’s terrible ideas about public safety are just as irresponsible and unserious as they seemed when they began emanating from Planet Brooklyn during the campaign.

The biggest initial threat to de Blasio’s public approval was his staunch opposition to charter schools. De Blasio prefers to delegate his education policy to the unions, with the result that minority students have even fewer opportunities. De Blasio soon realized that trashing proven educational opportunities perhaps struck the wrong “tone.” (We can cut de Blasio some slack here though: it’s doubtful the Sandinistas had anything to say about charter schools, so the mayor was learning on the job.)

De Blasio represents a different kind of progressivism than Bloomberg’s version of city governance. For Bloomberg, that has advantages. Had he been followed by a more conservative mayor, his successor would have simply built on the better policies Bloomberg instituted while quietly scrapping the restrictions on fizzy bubblech. Instead, he’s being followed by an ideologue testing the limits the people will place on his airy radicalism, using New Yorkers as crash-test dummies.

That may leave New Yorkers pining for Bloomberg, but there’s a caveat: de Blasio has so far shown himself responsive to public opinion. If that ends up curtailing his leftist impulses, such populism will distinguish itself from the pompous elitism with which New Yorkers had in recent years been treated.

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