The image of scientists standing beside governors, mayors or the president has become common during the pandemic. Even the most cynical politician knows this public health emergency cannot be properly addressed without relying on the scientific knowledge possessed by these experts.
Yet, ultimately, U.S. government health experts have limited power. They work at the discretion of the White House, leaving their guidance subject to the whims of politicians and them less able to take urgent action to contain the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines only to later revise them after the White House intervened. The administration has also undermined its top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, over his blunt warnings that the pandemic is getting worse – a view that contradicts White House talking points.
And most recently, the White House stripped the CDC of control of coronavirus data, alarming health experts who fear it will be politicized or withheld.
In the realm of monetary policy, however, there is an agency with experts trusted to make decisions on their own in the best interests of the U.S. economy: the Federal Reserve. As I describe in my recent book, “Stewards of the Market,” the Fed’s independence allowed it to take politically risky actions that helped rescue the economy during the financial crisis of 2008.
That’s why I believe we should give the CDC the same type of authority as the Fed so that it can effectively guide the public through health emergencies without fear of running afoul of politicians.
There is a paradox inherent in the relationship between political leaders and technical experts in government.
Experts have the training and skill to apply scientific knowledge in complex biological and economic systems, yet democratically elected political leaders may overrule or ignore their advice for ill or good.
This happened in May when the CDC, the federal agency charged with controlling the spread of disease, removed advice regarding the dangers of singing in church choirs from its website. It did not do so because of new evidence. Rather, it was because of political pressure from the White House to water down the guidance for religious groups.
The ability of elected leaders to ignore scientists – or the scientists’ acquiescence to policies they believe are detrimental to public welfare – is facilitated by many politicians’ penchant for confident assertion of knowledge and the scientist’s trained reluctance to do so.
Given these constraints on technical expertise, the performance of the Fed in the financial crisis of 2008 offers an informative example that may be usefully applied to the CDC today.
The Federal Reserve is not an executive agency under the president, though it is chartered and overseen by Congress. It was created in 1913 to provide economic stability, and its powers have expanded to guard against both depression and crippling inflation.
At its founding, the structure of the Fed was a political compromise designed make it independent within the government in order to de-politicize its economic policy decisions. Today its decisions are made by a seven-member board of governors and a 12-member Federal Open Market Committee. The members, almost all Ph.D. economists, have had careers in academia, business and government. They come together to analyze economic data, develop a common understanding of what they believe is happening and create policy that matches their shared analysis. This group policymaking is optimal when circumstances are highly uncertain, such as in 2008 when the global financial system was melting down.
The Fed was the lead actor in preventing the system’s collapse and spent several trillion dollars buying risky financial assets and lending to foreign central banks – decisions that were pivotal in calming financial markets but would have been much harder or may not have happened at all without its independent authority.
A health crisis needs trusted experts to guide decision-making no less than an economic one does. This suggests the CDC or some re-imagined version of it should be made into an independent agency.
Like the Fed, the CDC is run by technical experts who are often among the best minds in their fields. Like the Fed, the CDC is responsible for both analysis and crisis response. Like the Fed, the domain of the CDC is prone to politicization that may interfere with rational response. And like the Fed, the CDC is responsible for decisions that affect fundamental aspects of the quality of life in the United States.
Were the CDC independent right now, we would likely see a centralized crisis management effort that relies on the best science, as opposed to the current patchwork approach that has failed to contain the outbreak nationally. We would also likely see stronger and consistent recommendations on masks, social distancing and the safest way to reopen the economy and schools.
Independence will not eliminate the paradox of technical expertise in government. The Fed itself has at times succumbed to political pressure. And Trump would likely try to undermine an independent CDC’s legitimacy if its policies conflicted with his political agenda – as he has tried to do with the central bank.
But independence provides a strong shield that would make it much more likely that when political calculations are at odds with science, science wins.
Nearly a third of the laid off workers who were able to go back to their previous jobs have been laid off again, according to a Cornell survey released Tuesday.
The survey was conducted by RIWI from July 23 to Aug. 1, as a slew of states experiencing major COVID-19 outbreaks slammed the breaks on their economic reopenings and reimposed social distancing restrictions.
Danielle Goldfarb, head of global research at RIWI, said it was a sign that a second wave of layoffs was well underway.
“Official and private sectors jobs data have not yet picked up the significant share of American workers that have already been re-laid off,” said Goldfarb.
“Since the impact is actually worse in states that have not seen COVID surges, these data indicate a systemic problem and a much deeper recession than the mainstream data suggest,” she said.
The survey found that about 37 percent of people who were not self-employed were laid off after the pandemic struck in March, but over half (57 percent) had been called back to work since then.
But of those, 31 percent had been laid off again and another 26 percent had been told there was a possibility they would lose their jobs.
A deeper dive into the data, however, suggested that the second round of layoffs may be less about the resurgence of the virus than the loss of aid. It found only small differences in “healthier” states, those not experiencing a surge, than in places with new outbreaks.
One possible reason for the additional layoffs are problems with businesses that had remained afloat with the help of forgivable loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
The funds, which started rolling out the door in April, were supposed to be enough to cover eight weeks of salary and expenses.
“The RIWI dataset output clearly shows that a substantial portion of the job growth experienced in May and June resulted from anomalies associated with PPP requirements, as opposed to underlying economic strength,” said Daniel Alpert, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of macroeconomics at Cornell Law School.
Congress has made scant progress in negotiating a new COVID-19 response bill which is expected to include an extension of the PPP and may allow businesses to apply for a second loan.
The survey was completed by 6,383 respondents, though some questions had smaller samples because they were only applicable to some people.
The margins of error for the survey questions ran from plus or minus 1.5 percent to plus or minus 3.9 percent.
After a week that brought the most disastrous economic data in modern history, the death of a former Presidential candidate from COVID, and signs of an alarming surge in virus cases in the Midwest, Congress left Washington for the weekend without reaching a deal on a new recovery bill. That left millions of unemployed Americans without supplemental benefit payments, business owners wondering whether more financial assistance would be forthcoming, and hospitals facing the requirement to begin repaying billions of dollars of advance payments from Medicare.
Also remaining on the table was funding to bolster coronavirus testing, with the top health official in charge of the testing effort testifying on Friday that the system is not currently able to deliver COVID test results to patients in a timely manner. While the surge in cases appears to be shifting to the Midwest, there were early indications of positive news across the Sun Belt, as the daily new case count in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and California continued to decline, while daily death counts (a lagging indicator) continued to hit new records.
Nationally, the daily case count appears to have reached a new plateau of around 65,000, with daily deaths rising to a 7-day average above 1,150, matching a level last seen in May.
Meanwhile, new clinical findings continued to refine our understanding of how the virus attacks its victims. Reporting in JAMA Cardiology, researchers used cardiac MRI to examine heart function among 100 coronavirus patients, 67 of whom recovered at home without hospitalization, finding that 78 percent demonstrated cardiac involvement and 60 percent had evidence of active heart muscle inflammation—concerning signs pointing to possible long-term complications, even in patients with relatively mild courses of COVID infection.
And yesterday in JAMA, investigators reported that while young children are typically less affected by COVID-19 than adults, children under 5 may harbor 100 times as much active virus in their nose and throat as infected adults. While the study does not confirm that kids spread the virus to adults, it is sure to raise concerns about reopening schools, which has generally been considered relatively safer for younger children.
US coronavirus update: 4.8M cases; 151K deaths; 52.9M tests conducted.