Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Coronavirus series in the Financial Times and the failures and successes of governance

 The Financial Times has a multi-part series on the pandemic, "Coronavirus: Could the world have been spared?"

You can argue it's related to the discussion about what Alon Levy calls "state capacity" or what we might call "state competence."  Levy writes about transit and the increasingly inability of local and regional governments to be successful at expanding it.  

In "One thing that Portland doesn't get accolades for: Getting S***/Stuff Done when it comes to sustainable mobility infrastructure," I discuss how Portland is an outlier (and Oklahoma City too, but for different kinds of projects) in its 50 year history of taking on transportation projects successfully, including adding and integrating multiple transit modes into one network.

There are some gaps in the FT series.  For example, I'd have included a piece on Asian countries other than China, specifically Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and their success mostly and failures (a couple) at responding to the coronavirus, which would have furthered the lessons.  

Another important article to include would have been on the massive failures by the CDC and the FDA, not just because of control by the President's office and the HHS higher ups, but because of execution failures and ossification and an unwillingness to act outside of traditional regulatory processes in terms of speed.  As well as control of the data ("Why Can’t We See All of the Government’s Virus Data?," New York Times) etc.

Note that the Wall Street Journal has also been running an ongoing series on response to the coronavirus which is excellent as well: "The Covid Storm;" and they've focused more on the US and have some of the articles that I wished would have also been in the FT series, such as on the failure of the FDA to authorize tests and expanded testing by various types of laboratories ("What Derailed America’s Covid Testing: Three Lost Weeks").

The pieces address China, Europe, New York ("How New York’s missteps let Covid-19 overwhelm the US") and Africa, as well as reader responses. 

I'd summarize the lessons as:

1.  Many countries, not just authoritarian countries like China, at the outset were more concerned about controlling information and the narrative, than responding.

2.  China's authoritarian focus on control and top-down decision making impeded their response.

3.  But once they hammered out a position on what to do, because they are an authoritarian country, they could respond decisively with great control focused on stamping out the virus.

4.  Most Western countries, because they have limited direct experience with pandemics, but with "run of the mill" flu epidemics, didn't take the threat of the potential of a highly infectious disease seriously. Hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result.

5.  Asian countries had experience with SARS and therefore developed the systems to respond.  They understand the asymmetric position they are in vis a vis China and monitor disease-related events there closely.

6.  Africa, despite its lack of resources, is highly experienced with epidemics and takes them seriously.  It responded more quickly than most Western countries, even though at the time it had almost no cases.

Interesting too is image over substance.  

7.  While people like New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo got lots of accolades for high quality communication and action on the coronavirus, the reality is that his failure to respond with alacrity cost up to 20,000 lives.

From the article on the response in New York:

Mr Cuomo has been hailed for how he fought the ensuing fire, calmly informing the public and marshalling resources. His new book contrasts his crisis management skills with an incompetent national response. But a closer examination of those crucial early weeks tells a less flattering story, of divisions between New York and Washington; the governor and the mayor; the mayor and his health department; and the city’s richest and poorest hospitals. 
Many of those divisions persist, raising questions about how many lessons have been learnt from New York’s fraught spring as it enters the winter with cases climbing once more. ...  
Our understanding of coronavirus has improved since March, but interviews with dozens of the people at the centre of New York’s response show that its leaders were warned of the threat and could have acted faster. 
 ... New York’s leaders were trying to quell fears, not rouse them. ... 
Scares over previous epidemics hitting New York had proved unfounded, and the mayor and governor were treating the disease like Ebola — preparing for isolated cases, not a rampant outbreak. But Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiology professor, believes the public health community “lost six weeks” because they saw coronavirus as less of a threat than a flu pandemic. It was “more than a fog”, he says. “It was like Jell-O.”

This particular piece of mine is good on linking more closely public health and health care systems, albeit not just for pandemics but for chronic health conditions:

-- "More communities need to integrate health care and public health programming: Prince George's County, DC, etc."

In the comments thread on that entry, I add links to new relevant information and concepts as I come across them.

American exceptionalism.  While yes, there is the trope of American exceptionalism, the pandemic shows that plenty of countries, not just the United States, have a form of exceptionalistic thinking which means that much of the time they aren't particularly interested in scanning other places for examples of better practice.

(One counter to this, although it's a trend in academia and the information gathered and knowledge created probably tends to stay within academia despite the attempts at dissemination are the think tanks created that have "Observatory" in their name, such as the Observatory on Latin America at the New School.)

Fareed Zakaria had a column on this topic a couple months ago ("What sets apart countries that successfully handled the pandemic? Failure," Washington Post).  I disagree with his conclusion--that previous failures better prepared the countries that best responded to the coronavirus, but then, I've always been oriented to gathering best practice ideas from "elsewhere," be it another university, a journal, different academic disciplines, other states, and later, different countries.

I'd say not failure, but having to respond because they had no other choice, was the "secret" to their success.

When I first got involved in urban revitalization, I paid a lot of attention to best practice in other cities, especially cities more economically challenged than Washington, DC, like Pittsburgh--at the time, or Baltimore.

My line about them was that they had "a desperate willingness to be innovative, because they had no other choice."

Economic success too often breeds complacency.  And complacency is the biggest problem in governance in the US, at all levels.

It's why many cities and states are doing a bad job expanding transit and taking care of infrastructure.  It's why the federal government is failing at responding to disasters like Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico.  

The WMATA train crash at Fort Totten in Washington, DC, in 2009 killed 9 and is a perfect of complacency and governance and operational failure.  The problem with signal communication had come up previously, but train crashes had been avoided.  Rather than accepting that these incidents were indicators of deeper, systemic problems, the managers of the subway operations focused on system uptime. Photo: US Transport Society.

Complacency is built upon disinvestment in government--people, capacity, material, etc.  The US has been able to muddle through for a long time since Reagan ushered in neoliberalism and a continued disinvestment in government capacity and tax receipts, because of the high level of investment in government and infrastructure before then.

Photo:  Emergency crews work at the scene after the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007.  Photo: Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press, "The day a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis and lives changed forever."

The bridge collapsed because of faulty maintenance and inspection.  Thirteen people died and 145 were injured.

But finally, that previous level of "over" investment has been exhausted, tapped out, and failure is now much more frequent. As long as the Republicans control significant swathes of government, disinvestment will intensify ("Stunning' Executive Order Would Politicize Civil Service," Government Executive; "Trump’s historic assault on the civil service was four years in the making," Washington Post).

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At 9:26 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Thinking about the possibility of failure:

At 1:53 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Oh no, I hope you haven't got a FT sub!

"Incompetence is the real threat to democracy"

At 9:58 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

(No. I was looking at the weekend life and arts section online... But I do have a kick butt registration evader that works on both the FT and WSJ sites.)

Thanks for the cite. Will check.

I do miss the hard copy, which I had access to in DC>

At 4:35 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

yes. Wish more papers would pay attention to the hard products -- a well folded paper is an urban delight.

I'd tie this is to your PBS post -- at many many levels Americans are giving up on elective democracy and just want a benevolent dictator.

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Hmm. A lot here.

WRT a folded paper, sadly, the Salt Lake Tribune has announced they are going primarily digital, with one weekly printed edition.

This has happened in many smaller metros, where the newspaper is published only 3 days/week.

The big cities are fortunate that this isn't an issue for them. (Even though circulation numbers, compared to the heyday, are paltry. E.g. back in the day both the Flint and Grand Rapids papers had more than 100K daily circulation.)

I was looking at an UP paper (I went to the MTU summer youth program, working on the newspaper for the camp, and we toured the Houghton Daily Miner). It still publishes, but stopped publishing the Sunday paper. At least it still publishes. When I was young we vacationed in Canada and they didn't used to publish on Sunday. Their "Sunday" paper was the Saturday edition. I often thought that would make sense for the US. Of course now, the major Canadian city papers publish on Sundays.

2. WRT benevolent dictatorship, there's a lot there. People want to limit their civic participation to the minimum, like voting, and want the people in charge to make good decisions without them having to put much energy into it.

But they do want to be able to complain about the decisions, but they don't want to have to be outraged because of corruption.

(E.g., maybe I am just too jaded but I didn't think the City Administrator negotiating with HU about their hospital and then taking a job with HU was a super big deal because HU would have gotten that money regardless of who negotiated. Similarly, are people bitching that Bowser's earlier Deputy Mayor for Planning and Ec. Development is now a top exec for Amazon's HQ2. Or I noticed because of a quote that Emeka Moneme, a top official at WMATA and DDOT and then the Executive Director of the Federal City Council is now a top VP for TransUrban.)

Again, I think that's why Brooke Pinto won in Ward 2. So many candidates (and the lack of RCV), so the average thinking person, who pays some attention, but isn't super involved, relies on the Post editorial endorsement. Maybe some were influenced also by the Karl Racine endorsement (without worrying about how many of the Councilmembers have come out of his shop--Trayvon White, Robert White, Janeese George, Brooke Pinto).

I mean, do you really expect the average citizen to search out information on all 8 candidates to be able to make an informed choice?

So yes, basic competence.

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

3. The problem is the huge disconnect between politics and governance. You've always gotten on my case, justifiably, about my desire to remove politics from a lot of governance ("let planners rule").

People elect people on the basis of politics and a lot of the people elected are uninterested in governance or actively opposed to it (tea party, Republicans more generally) except in limited instances like lowering taxes for corporations and the wealthy and selecting conservative judges. At least at the national level.

But the flip side of neoliberalism is the decades long denigration of government and the veneration of the market has finally come to pass in terms of underfunding and disinvesting in government competence (capacity) making incompetence the routine outcome.

And also looking to the private sector first for solutions. For example, Utah did some stupid stuff--going to "Silicon Slopes" for a test and trace program that mostly is worthless (not worthless, but not noteworthy). The company then used that contract to get other state contracts elsewhere. And there was a shady deal to buy hydroxycloroquine and give it to pharmacies, although that deal got cancelled.

The UK's test and trace program, outsourced to Serco, is a disaster too.

I'm not saying the government is always best. It needs to be flexible when circumstances warrant, and e.g. compared to South Korea and Taiwan or Germany, the US, in particular the FDA and CDC failed.

But that's even different altogether from the top executive branch failure for dealing with the coronavirus (Trump, HHS, Kushner the boy blunder, etc.).

CDC and FDA failed in terms of testing while South Korea excelled.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

4. Getting back to the FT cite, and basic competence, and the disconnection between politics and governments, two different articles in the Post.

One on Arizona, where a (granted) Democratic consultant is quoted about how the issues promoted by the Republican party aren't relevant to the needs of the average citizen.

“What we’re seeing this year is a result of a political party’s failure to really speak to people around what they care about,” Rodd McLeod, a Phoenix-based Democratic consultant, explained. The Monmouth poll confirms his observation: 53 percent of Arizona voters say Biden “has at least some understanding of the day to day concerns of people like them,” while just 47 percent say the same about Trump.

McLeod’s words also underscore a grasp of the nuances of Arizona that comes from being based in Arizona. Local consultants on both the left and right told me they recognize ideological alignment on important issues, not party loyalty or demographics, as a driving force behind the preferences of voters in our state.

2. And many articles of course about Trump and Don Jr. The Dana Milbank article focuses on the abject failure wrt the coronavirus.

I mean, by January 20th, far more people will have died than were killed by Saddam Hussein. Trump is the equivalent of a war criminal.

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The Janan Ganesh article is good. I haven't really read him since I left... (and sometimes his columns would piss me off).

I've been thinking about the flip side of his argument for awhile.

You see lots of comments and articles about how the US can recover from Trump.

I think it will be a lot harder than people realize. It's not just Trump, although it is Trump.

The Republicans (McConnell as an example, the Kochs, etc.) have been building the foundation for government incompetence and/or corporate fealty for decades.

We'll need to build new "systems" of collective action and competence. And that's hard when people are happy with benevolent dictatorship.

I hope to have a short piece by election day about national service and community service requirements at the elementary, junior and senior high school levels, civic education, and tying national service to paying for college.

People need to work on things together. Accomplish projects.

I didn't do that in K-12 much. I pushed an environmental project at an elementary school I went to, but in high school I participated in running.

(I delivered newspapers, read a lot, and then worked in a restaurant too.)

It wasn't until college that I got involved in stuff.

We need to rebuild the sense of collective responsibility and action through this.

2. Plus we probably need to add 100 people to the House, probably add Senators to the big states (and a bunch of big states are conservative), get rid of the EC.

And we probably need to make the civil service more like the UK and limit the number of political appointees, and disallow the rejection of science and evidence in decision making.

And make the AG popularly elected, and the DOJ an independent Executive Branch agency.

3. Public health... Ideally, like with what Britain experienced/learned during WW2 with how unhealthy so much of the population was, leading to the creation of the NHS, we would figure out that our system of nonsystems for health, public health, hospitalization, etc. isn't working in terms of optimal outcomes.

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