February 6, 2023

Continuing a series on rot and politicization in administrative agencies… “Sure” comments on Marginal Revolution are fascinating. My excerpts:

The reasons you cannot change the CDC have little to do with remote work.  The major issues are:

2. It is overrun with academics….Many look at the CDC as complementary to an academic career and even the lifers have CVs at least compatible with going academic. This means a lot of the work product and setup is geared more toward publication, conference presentation, and deliberative work rather than rapid response.

A similar culture pervades the Fed. Fed researchers primarily regard the Fed as a home to write publications that will advance an academic career, with “policy work” culturally degraded. Both Board and regional Feds have developed into quite good centers for academic economic research, which seems overall a good thing, but one wonders just why the central bank should funnel what is in the end taxpayer money to this endeavor. However it also means that when inflation surges to 8%, nobody saw it coming, and we wonder why.  

3. The place has gone monocultural. …Since 2015, their political donations have been 99.94% to Democrats. This means that they get bogged down in the latest vanguard concerns of the Democratic base and that they are increasingly ignorant about and isolated from the bulk of the populace. Things that make some sense in dense urban corridors where few people get dirty at work make little sense in sparsely populated areas with significant morbidity burdens from work.

As a monetary economist, I’m fixated on the Fed. According to the Independent Institute,  

…the ratio of Democrats to Republicans among Fed economists is 10.4 to 1. … at the Board of Governors…48.5:1…in leadership positions 22.25:1.

Of course these ratios are not that different from economists overall, as evidenced by studies of AEA members and leadership. Still, academia is different from an agency that does, like it or not, operate in a political world. Back to the CDC 

4. The hiring is completely incestuous. A huge number of low-level folks have parents who worked there or at related institutions (e.g. NIH) and even larger proportions involve folks who share educational pedigrees (universities, med schools, advisers). And even if a president wants to change this, there are civil service protections,…and attribution of any cataclysm to this sort of personnel purge regardless of the real merits.

5. The activists are running rampant. Culturally competent pandemic management, as taught by the CDC, suggests that in a pandemic public health officials should not criticize cultural or ethnic leaders unnecessarily. They also suggest that you cannot shame or browbeat people into compliance with public health efforts, and that attempts to do so often backfire by having identity groups (religious, ethnic, national, etc.) respond to your nociceptive [relating to the perception or sensation of pain. I had to look it up] stimuli by rejecting previously accepted public health interventions. The worst messaging coming out of the CDC, particularly anonymously, violates all the guidelines I have seen the CDC issue when working overseas with MSF.

The deplorables don’t like being treated like deplorables, and distrust your masks and vaccines when you do.   I couldn’t quite figure out whether “Sure” means “cultural or ethnic leaders” on the left or right, but perhaps it is both, 

6. Doing your job well is boring. Most of the time you should be just making certain that resources (e.g. antibiotic stockpiles) are in place and that the same things that worked last time are ready to be implemented again (e.g. surge vaccination). And your ability to innovate and come up with something useful is pretty unlikely as there have been 50,000 people before you who give it their best stab. This leads to people “innovating” for the sake of “innovating”. This leads to people amplifying secondary concerns like “representation”, “equity”, “sustainability”, or the like. And a couple iterations of promoting the “innovators” over the maintainers will rapidly lead to atrophy of core capabilities. Zika or H1N1 represent less than 2% of the total work burden of the CDC, most of being agile is about maintaining capabilities when they are never used. And that is boring and at least currently not great for career advancement.

I wonder how the Defense Department keeps people motivated whose job is to make sure that weapons work over decades of peace, and people and procedures stay trained and ready. It has been widely reported how the CDC morphed in to a social change agency, with tiny fractions of its budget devoted to actual “disease control.” The incentives are clear. 

At the Fed too, I sense that just handling money, inflation and sleep-inducing bank regulations isn’t enough.  The new generation wants to save the world. 

On the initial speculation that started the whole business, that remote work is bad, a fresh insight: 

Remote work, in my best guess, would likely be a boon for the long-term flexibility of the CDC. Getting folks out of Atlanta and DC, having more capability for folks to work from the breadth of the country, and potentially even letting late career clinical folks have more access to the institution without having to disrupt their lives with a cross-country move are all to the good.

…until a bunch of people get fired, the CDC is unlikely to effectively change. On my more pessimistic days, I figure the real solution would involve burning the place to the ground.

In response to later comments, and interesting to the overall theme of politicization of regulatory agencies, 

..every white house dating back to GHWB has promptly incinerated the structures that their predecessors had developed to manage these threats. Bush II eliminated the Biodefense Czar, Obama closed up Bush’s org chart, and then Trump folded Obama’s structure into the NSC. None of these had any significant critics at the other end of Pennsylvania Ave demanding them, rather each of them saw the other side’s politics as emphasizing the wrong things.

…The CDC basically screwed up early Covid testing six ways to Sunday. They contiminated the test. Their own validation efforts showed something like a 33% failure rate and they let the tests go AND did not warn recipients. Failures to follow protocol, document results, and even basic lab hygiene were not followed (and I would note that CAP would not tolerate half of this in clinical lab). And yet none of the principles were fired. …

…mostly what I have seen is the civil servants pushing all the blame onto Trump and his voters for being “anti-science”. I see continued inflammatory behaviors that I fear are starting to show up in overall reduced vaccination rates. And certainly a lot of the equity verbiage I see coming out suggests a quick reversion to the political positioning that best aids one’s career. 

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