The Coronavirus Has Exposed Governmental Failures. It Might Also Offer Hope for Change.

Government agencies and public utilities are the most preposterous examples of stasis. The coronavirus might force them, finally, to innovate and join the modern world.


"The weeks go by in a meaningless blur," my wife complained. "What difference does it make if it's Thursday, or Tuesday or Saturday?" She expressed the frustration most of us feel as we hunker down at home, venturing out only to buy necessities and living without human contact. I bumped into a friend the other day and he instinctively stuck out his hand to shake—as I shuddered at that once-common greeting.

My occasional errands reflect the new, post-apocalyptic universe. The Post Office was draped in plastic sheeting to divide customers from clerks, providing the feel of a nuclear-waste disposal site. Everyone is walking around with masks. Stores allow customers to enter in dribs and drabs, as each person stands in taped-off spots six feet from one another. I've watched dystopian movies with a less-ominous vibe.

So, it's an odd time to be looking on the bright side of a societal shutdown that is distorting our lives, killing businesses and obliterating jobs. But eventually the infections will drop and officials will lift the "stay at home" orders. While it may take a long time before we're hugging and shaking hands again, life eventually will approach normal. At that point, we might be ready to rethink some of the stodgy ways that we've been conducting our lives.

As a slow adopter of new technologies, I still remember going into a record store to buy some new vinyl—only to realize that the store no longer sold LPs. It sold compact discs and cassette tapes only (remember them?). We'd head to the video store on a Saturday night and peruse the racks of VHS and Betamax tapes. It wasn't long ago, either, when a few of us gathered around a colleague looking at his nifty new device called a "smart phone."

During a period of incomparable technological revolutions, however, our public services—and many of our work lives—have remained remarkably unchanged. Sure, all businesses and agencies use the Internet and new technologies in most aspects of their work. But, judging by rush-hour traffic and commuter patterns, most people still queue up on the freeway to work at an office park or shop at a brick-and-mortar business.

Government agencies and public utilities are the most preposterous examples of stasis. We can (kind of, sort of) complete some tasks on the Department of Motor Vehicles website. We can pay our electric bill online. You can check on the status of your traffic ticket on the court website. You can even track an overnight package that you sent via the Postal Service. Mostly, though, these agencies operate as they operated in 1983, or 1965 for that matter.

Even odder, the public schools aren't appreciably different from when the first public school systems were created eons ago. Oh yeah, we now bus kids to the school room, float bonds to build fancy gyms and prosecute the parents of truants. But the model is the same. Your kids sit in a classroom for a set period of time, learning whatever it is the educational authorities have determined that they must learn. Colleges haven't changed too much, either.

In COVID-19-ravaged New York City, the schools are shut down for obvious reasons. An unintentionally humorous New York Times article reported on the trials and tribulations of a school system that's figuring out how to implement some form of distance learning so students could still graduate on time. The article quoted one teacher who "had never heard of Zoom until two weeks ago" but "had some familiarity with Google Classroom, unlike many colleagues who only used their computers for email."

Yikes. At least the New Yorkers are trying, even if the effort has the feel of the old Soviet GUM department store trying to figure out how to compete with Costco. As that state's schools shut down, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators called for a moratorium on enrollments in cyber charter schools, according to a recent Washington Examiner report.

That crystallized why so little ever changes in the public sector: the system is designed to protect the current system and its workers, not to provide the most effective form of education. Why do you think that most government agencies, which have suddenly closed operations during this crisis, aren't offering many ways to provide services? Because you aren't a customer but a subject—there's no incentive for them to make your life easier.

The big question is whether, after this crisis ends, Americans are willing to look at what has worked and what hasn't—and take on the vested interests that protect the government, in particular, from innovating and serving us better. I'm not suggesting that we emerge from this crisis by spending even more time with our faces plastered to a computer screen, but rather that we come out of it with a new sense of creativity and possibility.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

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  1. Apropos of nothing, I saw a gas station in rural North Carolina offering 87 octane for $1.27 a gallon a couple days ago. I didn’t stop, though, because the lines were around the block and I was on a tight schedule. I was able to fuel up for $1.39 a gallon in Virginia a few hours later. And here I’d been thinking the $1.87 gas we have in New Jersey was filthy cheap. I hadn’t seen prices so low since February 2016, when it was $1.55 a gallon in South Jersey. Fuck, I’m dreading moving to Myrtle Beach. The mere thought makes me cringe. Couldn’t even rent a hotel room this week because the governor has shut down all hotels in the state.

    1. $1.60 here in NoFlo

    1. That ain’t happening in the People’s Republic of NJ. The Progs are all in lock-step. To be fair, we got KungFlu-ed pretty badly.

    2. You can talk all you want, Ed, but your lifelong, obsequious compliance with the preferences of your betters — despite your disaffected, clinger fantasies — is greatly appreciated. Nobody wants to put you down . . . unless you choose “the full LaVoy.”

      1. Ah, the Human Hemorrhoid comes through with more orts and droppings.

      2. Oh Revisionist, you haven’t kicked it from the ‘rona yet?

    3. A gathering of 10 to 20 people 6 feet apart? I’ll pass. When he’s ready to shut down Trenton, I’ll be there.

  2. Rest assured only terrible lessons will be learned from this. The only silver lining is the Public Health community just burnt it reputation to a crisp for a generation. Other than that the message will be we saved you, and people who largely bought into the hysteria will never admit they made a mistake.

    1. my thoughts as well the article title alone made me laugh due to its naivete

    2. I have to disagree with you here, Idle Hands! Donald Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was too little too late. Had he responded sooner, instead of lying about how it was under control (when it really wasn’t), cutting funding for the CDC and WHO, and attempting to destroy Dr. Fauci, the best-known expert on pandemics, and firing all the members of the government office that
      would’ve contained Covid-19 before it got out of hand and caused so much illness, and so many American lives, we would not be in this mess right now. What Donald Trump did was dangerously irresponsible. The man has no conscience, whatsoever! Trump will never admit his mistakes because he thinks he’s on top of the world.

  3. Is there any surprise NYC teachers didn’t know shit about Zoom, and other distance learning technologies. Teachers unions ossify brains. They see distance learning as a threat…and it is…to antiquated pedagogy, teacher rubber rooms, insane contracts, piggish contracts feeding at the public trough.

  4. Blame it on unions…. They once protected people’s rights. Now they protect incompetence and the status quo.

    1. Public sector unions shouldn’t be allowed at all. I do think that even without the unions, government bureaucracies would be inept. Government is only good at one thing and that’s violence. Media drives DC to act, DC creates new bureaucracy in response, media moves on to next fake crisis and so does DC. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy left behind never adapts to changing conditions and ultimately makes whatever problem they were trying to solve worse.

      1. Public unions: One of the many reasons that LBJ takes 1st place over FDR in my list of worst US presidents.

    2. You can’t blame it on unions. The only people who are to blame are the ones who stare back at you from the mirror. WE used to hold government accountable. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Or that there won’t be resistance to that. But if any institution/organization is ever going to be accountable, it has to start with someone making the effort to hold it accountable. With someone who understands the responsibility of self-governance. We abdicated that in favor of pretending that its meaningful to take a couple minutes every few years to cast a vote in an election that we no longer even attempt to make competitive. Unions didn’t do that to us. We did that to ourselves.

      1. Yeh! The United States did that to itself by voting a totally irresponsible person into the Oval Office who not only doesn’t know squat about medicine and controlling pandemics, but whose Administration is full of such people. What he did was criminal. sorry.

    3. “once protected people’s rights”

      When was this, exactly? Back when they used to murder people in their homes for not working under them and paying them tribute out of every check?

  5. Please, please, please God… let these fucking MAGA idiots prolong this virus so I can stay at home, “work”, and continue getting paid my fat paycheck.

    1. Please, please let this Socialist dumbfuck come back on this page in six months to whine about how his homelessness due to a lack of emergency savings and refusal to work is everyone else’s fault.

    2. Nobody cares to see your bestiality porn you produce for PornHub. It can’t be that lucrative of a career.

  6. They get paid no matter what. Schools are closed, yet administrators, secretaries, and teachers are still getting paid. The parents of the students are not. A loss in tax revenue means that next year the government will demand a tax increase to cover the expenses they made no effort to curtail. The guy who has so much sympathy because he can’t cover his rent will have to pay 1-2% more in sales tax. Iron rice bowl.

  7. These kind of articles from Reason suck. Number one, this guy sounds like an enormous pussy (“I shuddered at that once-common greeting“). Number two, they seem to suggest that this is a big opportunity to remake society in a way that emphasizes how we really DON’T need to leave our homes anymore. Like “see guys, because capitalism allows us to sit home on the couch and still be entertained/order food/”see” and talk to our friends/buy our shit from Amazon/play “sports,” that is what we should be doing anyway. Leaving your house, particularly for any sort of commerce, is icky and Boomer-ish.” While it is true that late stage capitalism has given us all those options, and it is a good thing that it is able to, I certainly don’t think potential widespread embrace of this kind of lazy, decadent lifestyle is something we should be happy about. I am as anti-social as they come, and I am generally a huge introvert mostly because any time I talk to people all they do is prove how dumb and irrational they are and make me hate them. But even I understand the value and necessity of going out and DOING THINGS. Interacting with people, even if that is just going to a crowded store and never talking to anyone. Physically spending time with extended family and close friends. And I think it is important that there are a lot of people not like me- we need the social people and the extroverts as well, painful as that would have been for me to admit a couple months ago. Even though I think public schools teach a lot of crap, and I wouldn’t mind a better model of physical school, I still feel it is important that my kids GO to a school and interact with kids their own age (and ones who aren’t) and other adults and make friends and lose friends and develop a sense of routine and responsibility. The at home stuff they have been doing the last few weeks probably covers a good chunk of actual material they would cover in class, but is missing so much else. All of this stuff is important, and has been developed over thousands of years of the human race organizing itself. It’s more than just going to a restaurant to so you can get sustenance, or viewing a movie to be entertained by the movie, or having a cocktail to get a buzz; it’s about, at least sometimes, the experience that goes along with those things, even if you think you don’t like it. Putting fucking clothes on that aren’t pajamas and getting in the car and driving somewhere and making it a point to schedule something and meet people, or going to a physical office and interacting with co-workers (even those you hate)- those are important, even to an introvert, whether we realize it or not. Saying that this is all great and the future will be an introvert’s paradise is wrong headed and frightening, to me.

    1. Fucking Reason. That WAS formatted so as to be not so wall-of-texty…

        1. Thanks, man. Even the spambots can sense my frustration lately.

    2. +1 , U_P. I would say it was well-written, except for the unintentional mega-graph.

    3. This^ It’s why I really hate the term ‘social distancing’ when the only thing that is virus-related is ‘physical distancing’.

      The stuff directly related to the market/economy itself is quickly becoming secondary to the attempted manipulation of who we interact with and how we interact.

      1. And for all our intense disagreement on things virus-related, that is something I have felt you are spot-on about since it started. The vocabulary around this- “social distancing,” “shelter in place,” “safer at home,” “alone together”- is frighteningly Orwellian. It’s like they try to make it sound as if these actions are not a temporary evil required to deal with a once in a century (at least) event that we should all try to tolerate and make last as short a time as possible, bur rather that these are actually all good things, positive and responsible things, that should be embraced and made part of our lives and culture.

      2. Bingo! Even by the words of the Powers That Be, it is supposed to be “physical distancing” – so why are we supposed to call it “social distancing”? Maybe it’s like “social security”, meaning “financial security”. If you want “social” security, join a church, club, PTA (ick), grange (does anyone even know what that is in 2020?), etc. If you want “social distancing”, do as I do, eat lunch in your office with the door closed (when at work), and sneer at the neighbors when they drive by.

    4. Is methamphetamine back in style?

  8. People really love freaking out. I’m embarrassed for them.

    1. You’re referring to these MAGA idiots protesting in their cars? Pfft, poor things… they have to stay at home and pick up their social security check. I ask… What about freedom? Whose defending the constitution? What we need is more people out and about during a pandemic.

      1. We need more people out during a pandemic?!? No way! Social distancing is the only way to at least slow it down so it won’t cost so many lives and infect so many people! Come on, now!

  9. i suspect the more people will come away thinking “The government messed up…..because the wrong betters were in charge”

    This does not make me feel all warm and fuzzy

    1. Well, it doesn’t exactly make me feel all warm and fuzzy either, but , unfortunately, this:

      “The government messed up…..because the wrong betters were in charge.”

      is the hard truth!

  10. Government originated as and continues as, nothing more than, a better and safer way to steal from us.

    Government is nothing more than a giant and elaborate switchblade and mask and all in government are nothing more than muggers. Government was devised as a bandit’s weapon and disguise and that is all that it ever can be.

  11. The link to illustrate that most public agencies have shut down states that many services are available online and if that doesn’t work, ” DMV offices will be open for appointment-only services on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday office hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

    I am getting mail everyday. Public agencies are some of the few services that are doing their job.

    I had a “free” flight to Ecuador thru my accumulated skyline miles at Delta. They flew me there, but when the Ecuador government prohibited them from flying in new passengers (but not flying out stranded Americans and others), they canceled my flight home to Phoenix. They could have flown in empty legally, then filled up and taken us home, but they just cancelled all flights out. Now they are getting billions in free grants from the government, and tho my path home cost me over $1600 and an extra two weeks locked down in a village in Ecuador, they are not going to help me pay off the credit cards I bought my trip home with. They will refund half of my skyline miles for future trips….tho I am so disgusted with them for choosing profits (empty planes to Ecuador would lose money, tho cost less than a filled plane) over honoring their contracts (roundtrip tickets), and now they are taking free money for their losses. In 2018 they made profits of 4 billion, and in 2019 4.8 billion. Yet they are taking free govt money (taxpayer money). This shows the mendacity of the corporate agencies we rely on……abandoning us in foreign lands and costing us time and huge sums to find a way home on our own.

    Thank you DMV for staying open, thank you Post Office for delivering mail every day to my home…and fuck you Delta and you other bloodsuckers!

  12. “The Coronavirus Has Exposed Governmental Failures. It Might Also Offer Hope for Change.”

    When you have people that keep electing people like Pelosi, Schummer, etc. and Ken dolls like Gavin Newsom get elected into even higher office after already demonstrating incompetence, pandering, etc. then no. The CV will not offer hope for change since too many people will ignore the failures or forget about them immediately as soon as the next vote buying policy is talked about.

    1. Small party votes increase after every Crash. The Food and Drug Panic of 1907 soon brought us the income tax, proletarian Senate elections, Harrison Act and Prohibition Amendment making beer a felony. OUR votes tripled after the Bush asset-forfeiture Crash.

  13. Greenhut’s piece is well-meaning but ill-conceived. He seems to believe the liberal idea that government can be innovative if it chooses to be, and that government lethargy and incompetence isn’t necessarily a given. That’s wrong.

    Innovation happens in the private sector through self-sacrifice, struggle, special effort and competition. That’s why the private sector is a miracle zone. Miracles rarely happen in government, because the focus is on employee well-being and job security. No one’s future is threatened, and survival is guaranteed because there’s no competition. Lethargy and mindless bureaucracy is inevitable. As a result, more government means less innovation. And the sectors that government owns are frozen in time.

  14. Are you serious Reason?

  15. Funny how the same folks lament the governments botched COVID response…

    Want the same government overseeing their day-to-day health care needs under universal care.

  16. Communist partisans doubled during the Prohibition Crash and Depression of 1920-23. They increased fivefold after the 1929 Increased Penalties Act Crash. This pressured FDR’s policies toward socialism and American Nazionalsozialisticher demonstrations were popping up in NY by 1937-38. After the Bush asset-forfeiture Crash of 2008 folks realized there is a non-socialist pro-choice alternative. I will bet that small party votes increase now that the Kleptocracy has dropped the ball and helped China-controlled FATF crash the market in time for the pandemic to finally make CNN. Bill Weld would be a good candidate, a known quantity, to get us law-changing spoiler votes.

  17. The only thing we’ll learn from this is “test everyone at the first sign of outbreak now!”

    A TSA level pandemic prevention team is inevitable. Widespread testing is useless if people who test positive decide to disappear, so expect some sort of national registry or even smartphone tracking.

    BTW I still have cds and cassette tapes and CD players that can play both and radio. When power goes out I’ll be able to listen to music until the batteries run out.

  18. Well, having more testing for Covid-19 would help. So would the development of a vaccine for Covid-19.

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  20. It takes a lot of wise and wise considerations from the Government and the community at large.

  21. I think this is on target as to government agencies, but less so public utilities. The DMV, USPS, Obamacare roll-out, problems with the VA, we all have gov’t agency troubles thrust at us constantly. But actually, our utilities in general are kind of a bright spot, and one I think should actually serve as model for fixing healthcare. Basically, the states have public utilities boards that are tasked with making sure utilities make enough profit to stay solvent and even have a little incentive for investors and to keep a modicum of innovation flowing, but not so much profit as to reach the level of gouging. When a utility wants a rate increase, they have to apply for it through that board, to whom they must justify their expenses and profit levels and business plan if they want to be granted that rate increase. This system gives us the best combo of cheap and abundant electricity anywhere in the world, and we do similarly well on other utilities. Can’t you see how that model could work in healthcare? Private sector “industry” with a governing greed moderator. Should/could work. I’ve been proposing this for a decade, but probably not to anybody important enough to matter.

  22. CV19 and the idiocy that firmly established it in the major cities of the world will not result in freer societies, because except perhaps for pointing the finger at the PRC, the media will not focus on the extent of governmental screwups. Reason, Cato, and all of the other small government promoters need to bang the drum loud and wide on this.

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