State capacity in the US and Singapore
By Scott Sumner
The Singapore government seems to have done a good job getting on top of the coronavirus problem. They have incredibly detailed websites (here, here, and here) with all the information you could possible want about all 112 cases in Singapore, including what type of person was infected, how they related to other infected people, and whether they have recovered
been cured. (Most have been cured, including all of the first 33 cases.)
In contrast, the effort in the US has been almost comically ineffective. Here’s Noah Smith:
In South Korea, the number of people who are confirmed to have been infected with Covid-19, the pandemic disease commonly known as coronavirus, has ballooned to over 5000 as of the time of this writing and will certainly continue to rise. In the U.S. the official number infected is only 118. But much of this difference may be an illusion, due to differences in how many people are getting tested. South Korea has made a concerted effort to identify all the people infected with the virus, creating drive-through testing stations. The U.S.’ testing efforts, in contrast, look almost comically bungled.
The list of ways that U.S. institutions have fumbled the crisis reads like something out of a TV comedy: The number of test kits issued in the U.S. has been a tiny fraction of the number issued in South Korea. An early testing kit from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) contained a faulty ingredient and had to be withdrawn. Regulatory hurdles have slowed the rollout of tests, with officials from the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration only now discussing what to do. There are stories of possible coronavirus patients being denied testing due to maddeningly strict CDC limits on who can get a test. Some cities may have to wait weeks for tests to become widely available, during which time the populace will be left in the dark. Worst of all, the CDC has now stopped disclosing the number of people being tested, a move that seems likely to spread panic while reducing awareness.
Smith points the finger at a lack of “big government” in the US. But that’s not really the problem. The US government spends a far higher percentage of GDP than does Singapore. More specifically we spend far more on public health than does the Singapore government, and we have far more bureaucrats dealing with these issues. The real problem is a lack of what Tyler Cowen calls “state capacity” in the US. Our government’s ability to do almost anything, from space travel to building subways to dealing with public health problems has been deteriorating over time. This isn’t an issue that can be addressed by throwing money or people at the problem. Rather, we need an entirely different approach to governance.
We need to dramatically cut back on government activities that are better left to the private sector (which is most activities), so that we can focus on the few issues that actually require government competence, such as global warming and global pandemics. The quality of our effort in these areas will be higher if we focus almost all of our government resources on dealing with these “externality-type” problems.
The image below doesn’t even come close to showing the detail provided by the Singapore government, as there are many embedded links that can be clicked for more detailed info: