Joe Biden has won the 2020 Presidential election. But there is a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and the chances of Democratic control of the Senate seem remote. Therefore, Biden will have difficulty passing legislation, appointing judges, and perhaps even getting his cabinet approved.
I had hoped that a Biden victory and a Democratic recapture of the Senate would give America the chance to pass legislation that would provide better health care to all its citizens. Even more important, we could begin transforming our energy production and distribution systems. We need to develop and implement technologies that will enable us to prosper without destroying the biosphere. None of this looks possible today.
So what is the scope for progressive policy under the Biden administration? Let’s begin with a diagnosis of what was wrong with the Trump administration. For me, the worst feature was a pervasive contempt for empirical facts.
With the Biden victory, we can work to restore competence, professionalism, and integrity to the executive branch of the United States government. We can reform the Centers for Disease Control, which was the world’s leading public health institution and can be again. Biden can work to reconstruct international cooperation on fighting pandemics. We can provide consistent and evidence-based guidance to states and the public on how to mitigate the COVID-19 epidemic. On climate, Biden can rejoin the Paris accords. He can renew federal support for research on advanced energy technologies. He can drop obstructions to California’s efforts to move toward carbon neutrality.
In general, we need to strengthen and, where necessary, cleanse the federal institutions that support science and that collect and curate vital data. We must build out the datasets that accurately describe population health, the social determinants of health, the atmosphere, our freshwater, and the ocean. We must make these data accessible to the public.
These measures are incommensurate to the gravity of our needs, but you do what you can. Our future will depend on our collective ability to learn and drive policy based on what we learn. We can make progress on these fronts with Biden as president, even without the Congress.
The most important book I read on the Trump administration was The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis. He makes the case for the importance of competence and empiricism in government.
If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.
What we can do in the Biden administration is to redirect the US government toward becoming an engine for generating data that enable us to understand the world.