Covid testing failure and the state of American democracy

A little-noticed part of Biden’s covid address last night covered testing.  He promised to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of rapid tests, to make at-home tests available through retailers at cost, and to increase the availability of free pharmacy-based tests. (A few details here.)

Making testing faster, cheaper, and easily accessible seems like such an obvious thing to do.  In fact, it was an obvious thing to do months ago.  If the authority and funding have been available to do this, why on earth wait?  Yet instead of acting to get ahead of the curve, the administration appears to have stood on the sidelines and allowed manufacturing capacity to shut down.  And why didn’t Congress specifically demand the use of advanced market commitments for all kinds of covid tests in one of its many covid bills?  Perhaps there is more here than meets the eye, but on the surface it seems like an almost incomprehensible policy failure – one that Biden and Congressional Democrats had every incentive to avoid.

A natural response to this kind of government failure – and there are many other examples just related to covid – is to throw up our hands and endorse a very limited role for government.  In my view this is a mistake.  We need a government that has the capacity to address common challenges with a reasonable level of strategic foresight and competence.  How we get there is a complicated question, but the journey needs to start with a recognition that, yes Virginia, we have a serious problem here, and that it won’t solve itself.  Democrats and progressives who want the government to play a more constructive role in American life will need to think hard about what has gone wrong and how to fix it.