The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the most profound challenges in our world. One of the most prominent has been governmental dysfunction. As director for the Center For Effective Government at the University of Chicago, this is an issue close to Prof. William Howell’s work.
So far, experts have largely wanted to focus on the actions of President Trump during this pandemic, but Howell says governmental ineffectiveness goes beyond just the president. It’s rooted deep in our political incentives and institutions.
- Big Brains podcast: Trump and the Changing Power of the Presidency with William Howell (Ep. 27)
- Big Brains podcast: Leading Presidential Scholar Analyzes Trump Impeachment with William Howell (Ep. 32)
Paul Rand: The coronavirus has laid bare some of the most profound challenges in our world today, but one of the starkest problems it’s revealed is governmental dysfunction.
William Howell: The pandemic is not just doing its own work. What we're observing is a government that's failing to meet the challenge at hand.
Paul Rand: Will Howell, a familiar voice to regular Big Brains listeners, is the chair of the political science department at The University of Chicago, co-host another UChicago podcast, Not Another Politics Podcast, and Director of the Center For Effective Government. And that’s exactly why we wanted to talk with him about how this outbreak has shown the ways our governmental institutions and incentives have led to an ineffective government.
William Howell: But I think most of the time what people want to talk about is how awful Trump is or how ill-prepared we were, as if that came out of nowhere. To think about the need for institutional reform is a topic that's just not given the kind of play that it ought to be given.
Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains -- a podcast about pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs reshaping our world. This is our special series focused on how the coronavirus is effecting our society, and what the top minds and researchers are focusing on during this pandemic. I’m your host, Paul Rand.
Paul Rand: Howell joined us from his home. I started by asking him why he thinks our government has shown itself to be ineffective. He says it’s impossible to boil it down to just one thing.
William Howell: We've seen lots of disinvestment in public health. We've seen lots of disinvestment in administrative expertise. We also have a system of separated powers that makes coordination very difficult. That's a fixed feature of our politics that makes it very hard for elected officials to get on the same page with one another. I mean, there's dysfunction all over the place. That isn't to say that what governments are doing is inconsequential. It's worth noting upfront that getting a country to shutter its economy is no small thing.
Paul Rand: Absolutely.
William Howell: It's something that has happened over the last couple of months, which is extraordinary. This isn't to say that it's failure all the way down, but I think there's been a whole lot of ineffectiveness and whole lot of inefficiency along the way.
Paul Rand: If you could point back to it and say, "In hindsight," what should have been done differently?
William Howell: I don't think we have to go back to December of last year, which is oftentimes the starting point, where word of this particular pandemic came out and then there wasn't a concerted effort by the White House in particular to get out in front of it. I mean, that is a real problem for sure, but we can go further back. We knew, public health experts knew that there were going to be pandemics. Then the question is, how prepared are we as a country going to be to meet them? There, with the disinvestment that we've seen over the last several years, and the-
Paul Rand: When you say disinvestment, can you point specifically to what you're talking about?
William Howell: I think there are a host of things. You see the disbandment of the National Security Council's Pandemic Response Team, which happened in May of 2018. You see cuts to the Department of Homeland Security Program, the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center. You see cuts to the CDC, cuts to prevention activities, some of which are focusing particularly on the possibility of diseases emerging from China. There's just been an ongoing disinvestment in this realm of public health. At the same time, you see in the rhetoric of the Trump administration an effort to marginalize experts more generally.
Paul Rand: As you think about this, does this really rest entirely on Trump or does it go beyond that?
William Howell: Trump plays an important role in this because presidents play an important role in meeting national and international calamities. The pervasive lying and the failure to bring a country together and the fights that he looks for with journalists, constitute collectively, to my mind, a colossal failure of leadership, but that's not the entire story. You have, more generally, a system of separated powers that makes coordination really difficult. I mean, it's hard to meet this kind of a challenge, this kind of governance challenge, which is profound. I think that the government's challenges are going to become more acute as we turn towards not just the efforts to shutter an economy, but to responsibly open it up.
William Howell: There's that, just as there also is a Republican party that has been taken ahold of in important ways by populism. Populism is not about investing in government, investing in administrative expertise. It's about disavowing precisely those things. When we observe lots of Republican governors, particularly in the South, doing a whole host of things that public experts point as being irresponsible when it comes to the wellbeing of our country, that's a reason to worry, not just about an individual who heads a party, but the party more generally.
Paul Rand: You mentioned governors. Governors have really been prominent during this entire crisis. I wonder, is that a precedent that is being set? Is that a good precedent, based on how we see things rolling out?
William Howell: I don't see this as a precedent. I see this as a handful of governors, and it's not governors across the board. I think there's been a handful of governors that have provided really strong leadership. They've entered into a leadership vacuum that has been left by the White House.
Paul Rand: Right.
William Howell: As a general matter though, and I think this is going to persist going into the future, as a general matter, the office of the presidency is not just suited for, but we need the kind of leadership that comes from the office of the presidency to meet precisely these kinds of challenges.
Paul Rand: When we talk about the power of the presidency, and certainly as you've talked on Big Brains before, you've always had this idea that more power should go to the presidency in addressing some of the challenges. I wonder, based on your comments right now, how does that resonate in your mind? With this current president, would you still say that applies?
William Howell: Terry Moe and I have a book that's coming out this summer that addresses precisely this issue. It's called Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy. The University of Chicago Press is publishing it. In it, we suggest that there are some selective ways in which presidential power ought to increase, and we stand by that, and there are important ways in which presidential power needs to be curtailed. I think both kinds of correctives are playing out in real time right now. Some of the concerns that we have, ways in which presidential power needs to be curtailed, hinge upon the politicization of the administrative state, that the efforts of presidents to marginalize expertise and to demand loyalty and the costs associated with that, not just the costs in terms of inefficiencies, right now in the midst of a pandemic, the costs in terms of people's lives.
William Howell: That needs to be curtailed, but there also is a kind of leadership that presidents are in a position to offer, and that is to cut through a lot of the parochialism and special interest politics that dominates Congress, and that has been running rampant when you have this spending bonanza happening right now in the efforts of Congress to meet the economic fallout of this, that presidents can ... there's a possibility that they can cut through. Giving them enhanced agenda-setting power, not so that they get exactly what they want, but to set the terms under which we meet a particular crisis can be in the service of a more effective government. We stand by that.
Paul Rand: You mentioned the word spending bonanza. I wonder, what is the number that we are up to? Does this feel like it is the right direction to be going, or do you have concerns about how it's being approached?
William Howell: We're rapidly zeroing in on $3 trillion in spending. You'll recall that we spent less than $1 trillion in the aftermath of the 2008, 2009 great recession. I think most everybody would recognize that a huge intervention is needed. A massive intervention is needed. My objection isn't so much that a lot of money is being spent. The concern that I have is is that what's happening is that the money that is being spent is being spent with very little oversight. There's just a tiny amount of money being allotted to ensure that the money is spent in ways that attend to the public interest. There are all kinds of spending and the lifting of regulations and changes in policies that are embedded in this congressional effort, this legislative effort, that tangentially relate to the economic fallout of this crisis.
William Howell: There are things like increases in subsidies to farmers whose work is not being terribly disrupted. There are protections for small states to ensure that they receive a disproportionate amount of money relative to their populations, in monies that's being directed to state governments. You see organized interests weighing in saying, "We need special buyouts and special ... " Things like pre-tax money, people ought to be able to spend on gym memberships as being a part of this effort. It's just as soon as Congress opens up its coffers and says, "We're going to start spending trillions of dollars," you can expect every organized interest to come forward and make special pleas. That doesn't make for the most effective intervention to ensure that the problem is attended to at hand.
Paul Rand: Do you think other governments have shown an ability to be more effective in this pandemic? Germany for instance gets cited frequently. Does that resonate with you?
William Howell: It does resonate. In the studies that I would like to see, not just now, but in the years ahead, are studies that look at how different governments, by virtue of how they organize their bureaucracies, what kinds of investments they make in public goods prepared them to more effectively attend to the challenge at hand, because what we're observing is huge differences across nations. You look at the differences between Italy and Germany, they're striking, and that is in no small part because of the organization, the effectiveness of their political institutions.
Paul Rand: And their leadership.
William Howell: For sure, and their leadership. I will say though, leadership here in this country counts for even more, precisely because our system of government is so divided and set upon itself.
Paul Rand: Right.
William Howell: Its powers are divided vertically and horizontally. When you've got all these units and organizations each pressing forward in an uncoordinated way, we desperately need leadership in order to corral the troops. You can imagine a public health system, one that doesn't look like the one that we have, but you can imagine one that can more effectively lead, I mean, lead in the sense that they meet the challenge at hand, but that doesn't need a man or a woman coming in on a white horse. It's that they are, by design, institutionally, they're capable of meeting the challenges at hand. That's something that we don't have now.
Paul Rand: One of the major worries with ineffective government is the loss of public trust in our institutions. That lack of trust can further erode those institutions, creating a dangerous feedback loop...that’s coming up after the break.
Paul Rand: Yeah, absolutely. There's a question of public trust in government that comes up out of this. Certainly, it's remarkably low, and it seems like it's even lower now once we're in this pandemic. Why do you think that is?
William Howell: There are declines in public trust that have been playing out over years. I mean, in the late 60s, early 70s, trust of Congress was north of 60%. It's now in the single digits. We don't need to point to just the pandemic as a reason for the decline in public trust. These are longterm trends, but I think precisely because the pandemic reveals not just the ineffectiveness of governments but the costs associated with that effectiveness, that you have people who are losing their lives and losing their jobs and feeling like their government isn't there for them and that isn't meeting them and the needs that they have in a forthright, serious-minded way.
William Howell: That is a part and parcel of what leads Trump to rise to office. I mean, this was his message. "Look, nobody cares about you. These so-called experts don't have you in mind," but what that has the effect of doing is exacerbating the problem, because then when a real challenge like a pandemic come along in which we need an effective government, and you have Trump who then disinvests in the very institutions that would allow for some relief, that would save lives, it just propagates the problem. It exacerbates the public distrust, which then, I mean, we end up in this really bad equilibrium, because then you have individuals who are less likely to take guidance from public health experts in how they live their lives and what they do, which then exacerbates the pandemic itself, which then leads to greater loss of life, which you could see, it becomes this vicious circle.
William Howell: The decline in public trust in government is something that we should really worry about. It's not just a nice feature, a thing that we might root for that is a tribute to a healthy economy. It speaks in really important ways to both the capacity of our institutions to meet problems, and as both an input and an output.
Paul Rand: Right, right. I wonder, as you think to the politics of this pandemic, what are people missing, or what are they getting wrong?
William Howell: I think there are two things to underscore here. We started here, but I don't think that's where most discussions of this topics start, which is that our inclination in the main is to pin the failures of leadership on Trump himself, and there are many failures to point to, but that we need to think more broadly, to my mind, about the failures and the challenges of the Republican party more generally. Beyond that, we need to be thinking about the failures and the ineffectiveness of government itself. We have a lot of work ahead.
William Howell: I mean, this pandemic has revealed real challenges in the domain of public health, but when we think about what it means to responsibly address the challenges of global climate change, or what it means to responsibly address the challenges associated with massive inequality, or of rising debt, we're adding trillions of dollars to the national debt, how do we get a handle on these things? What we need are a set of institutions that train our attentions on the problems at hand and allow for us to effectively and forthrightly and in a serious-minded way make headway. That requires institutional reform. There's a reason why we haven't made headway on climate change.
Paul Rand: Right.
William Howell: It doesn't have to do with a lack of good ideas about what good policy might look like. It has a lot to do with the structures of the institutional system that we have that allows for or impedes problem solving.
Paul Rand: And why is it, do you think, that we don’t focus more on institutional reforms as a country?
William Howell: Look, there's lots of reasons why discussions of institutional reform don't take hold in our politics, the disinterest in the general public, the polarization between the two major parties, the vested interest of some individuals in ensuring that our government remains ineffective, because what many of these individuals want is not an effective government, they want a small government. As long as government is ineffective, their claims that government ought to be small resonate all the more, but in the aftermath of a crisis, and we are decidedly in a crisis, opportunities can arise for meaningful reform, first because the costs of ineffective government are laid in stark relief.
William Howell: Moreover, there's a recognition that something needs to happen. I suspect efforts in the coming months and years that focus on corruption and conflicts of interest could well take hold, just as I suspect that reforms to the 1976 National Emergency Act, I think that there's a constituency now in both parties that could focus on that particular set of reforms. Then the question is, will ... We talk about the need for leadership. Part of the role of leadership, and this comes not just from government but from universities, from the decisions that editors make, and newspapers that are on TV, how much time and space they want to afford to the topic of institutional reform will have huge implications for just how deeply we can get and how better prepared we can be to meet the challenges that decidedly lie right around the corner for us.
Paul Rand: As we wrap up this conversation, and you've really laid out the challenges of all this, is it recoverable?
William Howell: I think it is recoverable. I do. I mean, it depends on who we're talking about. I think that the costs are real and the loss of life, I mean, is something that we're going to have to reckon with, but the work of institutional reform that lies ahead allows for the possibility of a positive agenda moving forward. It's something that we can set our minds to. It's not something that we recover all at once. It's going to require dedication at all levels of government. It's going to require carving out a space in our politics where we think anew about the legislative process, we think anew about the relationship between federal and state governments.
William Howell: There have been times though in our history past where we have set to work on those kinds of things, and with great consequence. This was a defining feature of the progressive era. To my mind, it's what we need today. We need to just lament past failures. We can set to work on a positive agenda and the service of institutional reform. There are huge challenges that we face that our governing ... The solutions require changes to our governance structure as well.
Paul Rand: This conversation about effective government is an important one, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask a leading Presidential scholar about his view on how this outbreak could impact the 2020 election. That’s after the break.
Paul Rand: I had seen a recent poll, I think it was a NORC AP poll, that said only 20 something percent of Americans thought they could believe what Donald Trump was saying around this issue. Yet his approval rating, at least among his party, seems to be well into the 80s. Can you talk about that seeming disconnect?
William Howell: Yeah, I mean, we live in an incredibly polarized time. While here I am criticizing Trump left and right, the preponderance of Republicans around the country stand with him. They stand with him, I think, for a variety of reasons. One is he's doing things that Republicans like. He is cutting regulation, he's cutting taxes, he's nominating and placing all kinds of conservative justices to the judiciaries. These are real wins for them. At the same time, he is speaking in a full-throated way to people's anger and disaffection with government more generally, and that's the populist wing.
Paul Rand: Right.
William Howell: That's a part of his presidency. It's not clear what it would take in order to push his approval ratings down further than where they already are, at least when it comes to the Republican party. I mean, that it's not north of 90% is noteworthy, that we're in the 80s is not nothing, but I think, look, he can count on, in this coming election, the support of the vast preponderance of Republicans around the country, that people are locked in. They've made up their mind about him and they've made up their mind about the opposition who's screaming and hollering about how awful Trump is. They're just tuning them out.
Paul Rand: You had predicted last time we had spoken, which is a few months ago, that Trump is likely to get reelected as it comes this November. Do you still think that's the case? Has this whole episode impacted any of your thinking on this?
William Howell: On net, I think this pandemic has been bad for Trump's reelection prospects for two reasons. One is that it's taken away his best argument for reelection, which is a booming economy, and that we've gone in very short order from an economy on steroids to one that's on life support, but it also has revealed the very real costs associated with his brand of leadership and his failures of leadership, that we passed the 50,000 person mark in terms of the number of people who've died and that that's going to continue for a while, that his persistent lying and deflection of responsibility, I think, has led, again, not most Republicans, but some people at the margin to say, "The bargain that we've made here isn't necessarily a bargain I want to continue to make, a bargain that says I'm going to get some conservative goodies and I'm going to put up with some misbehavior on the part of the president." Well, when that misbehavior bears materially on the health of our country in the ways that this pandemic has, he takes a hit.
Paul Rand: Right. You mentioned, Will, a little bit ago of not wanting to make predictions, and completely understandable, but you're also quite recognized as a presidential historian. I wonder if I can get you, instead of looking forward, to look backwards? If the history books are going to talk about this presidency, and it was being written today, how do you think Trump will be looked at in history?
William Howell: I don't think the history books are going to be kind to this president, because I think the things that make this president distinctive are things that have to do with his ability to disrupt, to displace, to marginalize, to cut, and to divide. He's been remarkable in his ability to capture the public attention and capture the imaginations of some segments of the Republican party. The currency, the political currency that those kinds of action offer, doesn't endure. Typically, when we look back on presidents and we try to assess their greatness, but we look to are achievements. Achievements speak to their ability to meet catastrophes. Think the Civil War, think World War I, World War II.
William Howell: Think the Great Depression, and a set of policy accomplishments that endure, and we're not getting that from this president.
William Howell: What we're getting at is his ... He's able to exacerbate disagreement, and to further polarize the country, but when future historians look back, I think they're going to see the costs of those failures of leadership just as they see a weak set of policy achievements.
Narrator: Big Brains is a production of the UChicago Podcast network. If you like what you heard, please give us a review and a rating. The show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp, with assistance from Alyssa Eads. Thanks for listening.
Examining the 17 goals that could achieve a sustainable global future
UChicago-Argonne scientist explores more sustainable ways to make use of water
UChicago president discusses his field-defining research, how universities can support scientific discovery
Economist’s how-tos on changing behavior—from eating better, exercising more and saving money
Space historian examines our militaristic relationship to the stars, and how it still shapes our future
By tweaking RNA, scientists boost crop yields by 50%, increases drought tolerance
Scholar examines persistent decision-making errors in ‘Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment,’ co-authored with Daniel Kahneman and Olivier Sibony
Founder and CEO ‘cracking the code’ of plant-based products to help save humanity
By outbidding polluters, Climate Vault nonprofit aims to make net-zero emissions a reality
Cosmologist discusses what happened after the Big Bang, ‘breaking’ the Standard Model of Physics