The great American Ebola freakout of 2014 seems to be over. The disease is still ravaging Africa, and as with any epidemic, there’s always a risk of a renewed outbreak. But there haven’t been any new U.S. cases for a while, and popular anxiety is fading fast.
Before we move on, however, let’s try to learn something from the panic.
When the freakout was at its peak, Ebola wasn’t just a disease – it was a political metaphor. It was, specifically, held up by America’s right wing as a symbol of government failure. The usual suspects claimed that the Obama administration was falling down on the job, but more than that, they insisted that conventional policy was incapable of dealing with the situation. Leading Republicans suggested ignoring everything we know about disease control and resorting to extreme measures like travel bans, while mocking claims that health officials knew what they were doing.
Guess what: Those officials actually did know what they were doing. The real lesson of the Ebola story is that sometimes public policy is succeeding even while partisans are screaming about failure. And it’s not the only recent story along those lines.
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Here’s another: Remember Solyndra? It was a renewable-energy firm that borrowed money using Department of Energy guarantees, then went bust, costing the Treasury $528 million. And conservatives have pounded on that loss relentlessly, turning it into a symbol of what they claim is rampant crony capitalism and a huge waste of taxpayer money.
Defenders of the energy program tried in vain to point out that anyone who makes a lot of investments, whether it’s the government or a private venture capitalist, is going to see some of those investments go bad. For example, Warren Buffett is an investing legend, with good reason - but even he has had his share of lemons, like the $873 million loss he announced this year on his investment in a Texas energy company. Yes, that’s half again as big as the federal loss on Solyndra.
The question is not whether the Department of Energy has made some bad loans – if it hasn’t, it’s not taking enough risks. It’s whether it has a pattern of bad loans. And the answer, it turns out, is no. Last week the department revealed that the program that included Solyndra is, in fact, on track to return profits of $5 billion or more.
Then there’s health reform. As usual, much of the national dialogue over the Affordable Care Act is being dominated by fake scandals drummed up by the enemies of reform. But if you look at the actual results so far, they’re remarkably good. The number of Americans without health insurance has dropped sharply, with around 10 million of the previously uninsured now covered; the program’s costs remain below expectations, with average premium rises for next year well below historical rates of increase; and a new Gallup survey finds that the newly insured are very satisfied with their coverage. By any normal standards, this is a dramatic example of policy success, verging on policy triumph.
One last item: Remember all the mockery of Obama administration assertions that budget deficits, which soared during the financial crisis, would come down as the economy recovered? Surely the exploding costs of Obamacare, combined with a stimulus program that would become a perpetual boondoggle, would lead to vast amounts of red ink, right? Well, no – the deficit has indeed come down rapidly, and as a share of GDP it’s back down to pre-crisis levels.
The moral of these stories is not that the government is always right and always succeeds. Of course there are bad decisions and bad programs. But modern American political discourse is dominated by cheap cynicism about public policy, a free-floating contempt for any and all efforts to improve our lives. And this cheap cynicism is completely unjustified. It’s true that government-hating politicians can sometimes turn their predictions of failure into self-fulfilling prophecies, but when leaders want to make government work, they can.
And let’s be clear: The government policies we’re talking about here are hugely important. We need serious public health policy, not fear-mongering, to contain infectious disease. We need government action to promote renewable energy and fight climate change. Government programs are the only realistic answer for tens of millions of Americans who would otherwise be denied essential health care.
Conservatives want you to believe that while the goals of public programs on health, energy and more may be laudable, experience shows that such programs are doomed to failure. Don’t believe them. Yes, sometimes government officials, being human, get things wrong. But we’re actually surrounded by examples of government success, which they don’t want you to notice.