Peacetime Bureaucracy / Wartime Bureaucracy

Peacetime bureaucracy forces all tests through the CDC.  Wartime bureaucracy allows hospitals to run their own tests.

Peacetime bureaucracy priorities food labeling rules over functional supply chains.  Wartime bureaucracy gets food out of fields before it rots.

Peacetime bureaucracy creates ethical review boards.  Wartime bureaucracy allows volunteers to infect themselves to test vaccines.

Peacetime bureaucracy inventories ICU beds.   Wartime bureaucracy builds hospitals.

Peacetime bureaucracy certifies medical-purpose N95 respirators.  Wartime bureaucracy uses construction masks.

Peacetime bureaucracy waits for double-blind, controlled efficacy studies. Wartime bureaucracy tells shoppers to wear masks.  

Peacetime bureaucracy prioritizes fraud prevention.  Wartime bureaucracy writes checks.

Peacetime bureaucracy plays diplomatic games to stay funded.  Wartime bureaucracy takes advice from Taiwan.

Peacetime bureaucracy considers every life sacred.  Wartime bureaucracy balances QALYs saved against the price tag.

Peacetime bureaucracy prioritizes racially sensitive nomenclature.  Wartime bureaucracy stops international flights.

Peacetime bureaucracy requires HIPAA certification for telemedicine.  Wartime bureaucracy lets doctors use Skype.

Peacetime bureaucracy optimizes for eventual correctness.  Wartime bureaucracy treats time as the enemy.

Peacetime bureaucracy optimizes for public support in the next election cycle.  Wartime bureaucracy has a long-term plan.


Investors know the difference between peacetime CEOs and wartime CEOs, and trade them out when times demand change.  How do we build institutions which quickly exchange peacetime bureaucracy for wartime bureaucracy? 

Two months into COVID-19, we’re barely halfway there. Next decade (or next year) there will be a next disaster, war, or pandemic.  When that happens, we need wartime officials ready to act — not peacetime officials reluctantly easing into the role.  These public officials must be able to make hard choices with incomplete information.

We need to learn from COVID-19, but the preparation can’t stop at “stockpile masks and ventilators”. Preparation means having officials ready to eliminate red tape, make new rules, and make hard choices on day 1 — not day 30.

We got lucky this time, a trial-run on a pandemic whose victims are (predominantly) the old and sick. To fail utterly at curbing COVID-19 precipitates an ethical, but not civilizational, failure.

We’re unlikely to be so lucky next time. The future is full of darker, bloodier pandemics than COVID-19 — both natural ones, and man-made ones. When one strikes (and it will) we need a wartime bureaucracy and a playbook ready, telling us which of the old rules still matter — and which rules will not.

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