Thursday, December 15, 2022

CDC, more on politicized agencies

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 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. 


  1. Many federal/central agencies in the United States and Canada seem to suffer from that unreal level of political homogeneity. And when you highlight that mark of 99.94% donations to Democrat, you should keep at the back of your head that educated people tend to be more partisan than the rest of the population. If I had to bet, I'd say they stand to the left of not only the median voter, but also the median Democrat voter -- they're probably much closer in views to the Squad than, say, Manchin or Obama during either of his terms for that matter.

    It's not exactly a surprise that Republican voters seem to distrust federal agencies more than do Democrat voters: they literally are filled wall-to-wall with people who do not only disagree with them, but consider them to be despicable, hateful, intolerant and ignorant.

    That being said, I have observed distrust left of center as well. Many of the more radical progressives do not trust any of those institutions in spite of them being rather sympathetic to their cause. Likewise, as I said, it's fairly probable the staff in those agencies tend to agree with the more activist base of the Democratic party, but I have not seen sign that more moderate people in that party distrust those agencies.

    What do you think is going on here?

    1. I worked both at the Volker Fed and the IMF for over 25 year. the vast bulk of the staff at both works on policy-related issues. At both institutions, however, there is a (relatively) small group working on academic issues of great interest to the institutions. At the Fed, Garber and I worked on our regime switching stuff and at the IMF we did speculative attack theory and estimation. At the Fed, Meece and Rogoff were doing the empirical work showing that academic models of exchange rate determination were nonsense and Bulow and Rogoff started academic interest in debt. Salant invented the speculative attack model....... Henderson-McKibben showed that the Fed followed the "Taylor Rule" empirically before before Taylor 'invented it . Both papers were presented at the same CRC conference. Of course I left the IMF 13 ears ago and maybe things have changed

  2. US is becoming China at accelerated pace in almost every ways. The two party system is degrading to one party system, the media become the mouth piece of government, the government agencies and universities are getting cumbersome and inefficient, states rights are eroded bit by bit, identity trumps merits, justice system is politicized, rampant corruptions. Stanford president's academic scandal should surprise the whole world.

  3. "the ratio of Democrats to Republicans among Fed economists is 10.4 to 1. ... at the Board of 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. "

    Well, that would settle it wouldn't it? Consider completely politically unbiased random samples of economists, or of leading economists. Both would produce a ratio of Democrats to Republicans similar to the one observed.

    Maybe there are far more Democrats than Republicans among economists because the education in economics convinces 90-98% of them to support Democratic policies.

    Is this a problem? If it is a problem, perhaps the only solution is for the Republicans to adopt policies that make sense to economists.
    Or be glad that there do NOT appear to be political tests to work at the Fed or be a Governor.

    I say this as an independent who has never come across something that John Cochrane says with which I disagree.

    1. Maybe there are fewer Republican economists in government/academic positions. They are out in the private sector where the pay and opportunities are better. This is based on my observation of people who work in financial markets.

  4. Another of your right on observations regarding political and/or inept in "vital" (I guess) bureaucracies. You are not alone in these observations of course. The issue is always that the wise preach to the wise. Now if you can come up with a way to alter that without getting arrested!

  5. Not certain, but, in addition to the revolving door at CDC/academia, there may also be revolving doors between Congressional staff/agencies, and, of course, famously, defense/defense contractors.

    Perhaps the rest of us might be better off, in some respects, to the extent that their focus on personal gain results in less legislation and fewer regulations, and certainly fewer executive orders - where the pendulum clearly and dramatically swings with a new administration of the other party.

    Consider Madison's Federalist 62, written 200+ years ago "... It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?"

    Should be required reading.

  6. It is time to for Cochrane to present his research to Powell on the fiscal contribution to inflation now that the Fed is losing credibility and refuses to admonish the administration for fiscal recklessness (that is related to the % Dems in the profession, which, by itself is incredible for modern market economists). The WSJ reported today: "The Federal Reserve has a credibility problem. It wants markets to believe that it will keep raising rates, that they will peak above 5% and that it will then hold them there until at least the end of next year. But investors flatly refuse to accept the third"...

    1. Kwaku; 1. Investors have also refused to believe the 1st for months now and probably the 2nd. 2. The Fed just does what it must with the two controls they have. It does not have the charter to influence fiscal policy, nor would they be listened to. It will take what it takes in order for Congress to wake up, and that won't be pretty. Would you listen to your Bank if they told you to stop spending because you are in danger of overdrawing your account?

  7. Much ado about hearsay. "Sure" is a nom de plume. Rank, position, qualifications are nowhere in evidence, yet has observations are taken to be facts warranting further study and action. JFK's observations after the Bay of Pigs incident should inform the current debate. One man's opinion does not make a dog a cat.

  8. This all goes back to the environmental lobby purging the right from academia, starting way way back in the 1980s; and the relentless efforts of the left to move grade schools from teaching 3 Rs to teaching environmental and socialist propaganda. Teaching reading to someone who's struggling is hard. But "teaching" them to cut and paste pictures of endangered Cuties is cake!

    I have an MS in geology. My decision to work in the mining industry was widely reviled by friends. One of my closer friends went on to become a geology prof at a major US uni. When one of his early PhD students opted to work in the oil industry, it was a personal catastrophe. To him it was analogous to the student selling his soul. This was 20yrs ago.

    I recently saw a mind-blowing editorial by a conservative congressman in our state. He wants to incentivize STEM education. Great! So what does he do? Sponsor an app contest for high school kids!! The winning app helps people donate to prevent hunger! Aw!!!!! But this is not science. If he wants to promote science, he should sponsor a contest for the best explanation of how my state's left wing economic policies create hunger and homelessness, and what economic policies would reverse it. THAT would be useful science. An app to donate to NGOs is feel-good puffery.

    But his silly STEM promotion is disturbing in another way: it flogs the liberal "Scooby Doo" view of the sciences, where four kids in a van can solve the world's problems in a 30-min episode (hence the promotion of technically incompetent "leaders" on scientific issues, like Thunburg). News flash: the world's technical problems aren't amenable to a gaggle of ignorant 12-year-olds on a mission. They won't be solved by people who took "science for non-majors" classes to avoid the hard work of calculus and statistics - which are the fundamental skills underlying scientific success. And calculus and statistics and other hard science courses (including economics) are the courses that our future STEM leaders should be focused on, not coding up apps for NGOs.

    John, if you want to stem the tide of left-wing dogma, it has to start in the schools and start in kindergarten. Our schools need a strong emphasis on reading, numeracy, history - and the fundamentals of science rather than the left's dogm on the issues of the day. We are a free-market merchant nation - why is economics not required in the curriculum? We need this!! We need economics in the curriculum, early and often!

    1. This is a wonderful set of comments. I love the Scooby Doo analogy. So much education even in college is now "appreciation" not actual knowledge of how to do anything. Alas, before you recommend lots of economics classes, take a look at today's high school and college economics classes. Sadly it's a long parade of injustice and inequality and evils of capitalism, with very little supply, demand, budget constraint, invisible hand.

    2. John, thanks for posting my comment.

      I'm only vaguely aware of the specifics of modern HS courses.

      I contend, however, that the teaching that you describe is not economics. It's political propaganda masquerading as economics. I accept that it is legit to teach about the "evils" of capitalism. However, teaching *actual economics* as opposed to political propaganda demands that one teach that the benefits of capitalism *dramatically* outweigh it's "evils". Yes, Elon Musk is idiotically wealthy while some people are horribly poor. But is it not obvious that people buy new products because those products are beneficial? No one is forcing anyone to buy a Tesla or pay with PayPal. People do those things because it makes them better off - e.g., wealthier! The public is scoring big on SpaceX products, which are dramatically reducing the cost to taxpayers of space exploration. In other words, much of the wealth Musk created is distributed to society via the products he created! Duh! IOW the poor in capitalist societies *directly benefit* from the wealth created by entrepreneurs, because the products they create reduce the cost of living and increase societal wealth. It is capitalism and free markets that drove the cost of lighting down from rouhgly $150/hr in 1800 to $0.05/hr today, not government regulation!

      As a geologist, I've been on the periphery of the evolution teaching debate throughout my life. The left is absolutely hell-bent on teaching evolution, but even more hell-bent on denying how the exact same underlying principle - the principle of selection - works to benefit society through free markets!!! This situation is ample evidence of how rarely our education system *actually* teaches either fundamental principles or the critical thinking relies on them, but instead is designed to foster belief in the "right" things.

  9. A very interesting article. It is true that an alarming political homogeneity is now forming within Federal Agencies, and this causes distrust among Republican voters.

  10. The FED: - Every asset on their balance of $8 trillion is in dollars except $18 billion of assets in foreign currencies and the gold held by the US Treasury - $460 billion at today's prices. The FED PhD's think that the dollar is king. Well, it won't be in less than a dozen years. Russia, China, Poland and other countries are getting rid of US dollar assets and buying gold. They see what is coming and not just Biden's weaponizing the dollar through not allowing access to the SWIFT system - the dumbest mistake in decades.

    When I was born in 1947 gold was $35.00 and ounce and it is now $1,800.00.

    So what do smart people do when they see the US has a massive Debt to GDP ratio well past the Reinhart/Rogoff threshold of 90%. Well, they buy gold with a portion of their assets and so do smart central banks. They see the dollar as damaged goods that has a finite end.

    Make me the head of the FED and secretively I will print US dollars like mad and buy gold - doubling our reserves from 8,000 to 16,000 tons as an example instead of throwing the money away buying Mortgage Backed Securities. I would have started this policy years ago. Judy Shelton might have done something like this but when she was proposed for this position by president Trump she was turned down not by Chuck Schumer and the Democrats but by the dumbest most pathetic excuse for a man in the US Senate - Mitch McConnell.

    The FED will almost certainly not buy more gold - they don't employ people who are open minded and smart enough to see what is coming nor if they were able to see what is coming actually do something intelligent. In money management you sell when you can not when you have to. That means you use your dollars to buy gold now cheaply rather than a few years down the road when it is too late.

  11. The FED should have secretly started buying gold years ago when they saw the disastrous fiscal policies being implemented by Congress that will eventually destroy the dollar. The Central Banks of Russia, China and other countries have figured this out. They see what is coming. They are getting rid of US Treasuries and buying gold. Then the Biden administration weaponized the dollar through removing Russia's ability to use the SWIFT system. That was incredibly stupid given the dollars demise within the next dozen years or so.

    The FED does not employ people remotely wise enough to do something like this. The rest of the world and the common man knows gold is wealth. The FED believes it is actually US Mortgage Backed Securities. Judy Shelton might have recommended increasing our gold reserves, but when Trump selected her as a FED member the dumbest and most pathetic man in the US Senate turned her down. No, not Chuck Schumer but Mitch McConnell.

    When I was born in 1947 gold was $35.00 an ounce, It is now $1,800.00 ounce. In the next ten years what item would you like on your own personal balance sheet: $1 million in gold at today's prices or $1 million in US Treasury bonds?

    Your choice, amigo.


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