While too many American police are escalating encounters like it’s 1990, and the FDA is slow-playing regulatory approval as if these are normal times, and the CDC is somehow still using fax machines, the Federal Reserve has junked old shibboleths about inflation and deficit spending and embraced a policy that might have scandalized mainstream economists in the 1990s. Rejecting the status-quo bias that plagues so many institutions, this 106-year-old is still changing with the world.
Why haven’t other American institutions done the same? Perhaps America’s dependency on old leadership makes our institutions exquisitely responsive to the anxieties and illusions of old Americans. Perhaps the nature of large bureaucracies is to become lost in the labyrinth of mission-creeping path dependency. Perhaps years of political polarization and right-wing anti-science, anti-expertise sentiments have wrung all of the fast-twitch smarts out of the government. Or perhaps we should just blame Trump, that sub-institutional creature summoned from the bilious id of an electorate that lost faith in elites when elites lost their grip on reality.
Whatever the true cause for our failure, when I look at the twin catastrophes of this annus horribilis, the plague and the police protests, what strikes me is that America’s safekeeping institutions have forgotten how to properly see the threats of the 21st century and move quickly to respond to them. Those who deny history may be doomed to repeat it. But those who deny the present are just doomed.