Success breeds failure. That’s a lesson taught by America’s current woes. What worked once upon a time no longer proves functional.
Consider policing. There are legitimate criticisms of “overpolicing” — do SWAT teams’ castoff military equipment really stop crime? — but over the past quarter-century, the story of policing has overwhelmingly been one of success.
Look at the numbers. Under former Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, the Big Apple led the way, reducing homicides from 2,245 in 1990 to 333 in 2013. Nationally, homicides declined to 14,164 in 2014, from 24,700 in 1991.
Thanks to the efforts of parents, teachers and counselors, there has been a 55 percent decline in incarceration rates of young black males — the group that accounted for a disproportionate share of violent crime — over the past two decades.
Simultaneously, there’s been a sharp drop in police shootings, of both blacks and others, and the proportion of black victims is below that of black offenders. The death of George Floyd is an exception rather than the rule.
Why do so many people feel otherwise? Because success breeds failure. The success of American policing has made the continued existence of abuse seem like an intolerable failure.
There’s a larger phenomenon here. The successes of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, coming on top of big income and education gains for blacks in the 1940s and 1950s, were abruptly followed by the deadly riots of the late 1960s: success breeding failure.
Peaceful protests and violent rioting came after the election and re-election of the first African-American president. Expectations raised by successes that are quickly taken for granted can provide the basis for perceptions of failure.
And not just perceptions. Genuine expertise based on past accomplishments isn’t a guarantee against future failure. That’s the COVID-19 lesson, too.
Example: On Jan. 21, federal expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said of COVID-19, “This is not a major threat to the people of the United States.”
This isn’t the only thing US government experts have gotten wrong. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention botched development of a COVID-19 test and failed to keep count of COVID-19 cases by, among other things, relying on fax machines. The Food and Drug Administration delayed test development with nitpicking and contradictory requirements.
But careful nitpicking, FDA admirers can argue, produced what many consider its greatest historic success: its refusal in the 1950s to approve the fetus-harming drug thalidomide. The CDC’s procedures perhaps also stemmed from traditions instilled by past successes. Success breeds failure.
As for Fauci, surely, there’s no expert on infectious disease better equipped, through knowledge and vast experience. He has performed successfully through six presidents’ administrations and remained ready to acknowledge mistakes and confess ignorance when warranted.
Similarly, probably no one in the world knew more about the financial history of the Depression of the 1930s than did Ben Bernanke when he was appointed Federal Reserve chairman in 2006. Yet in a May 2007 speech, he said, “We believe the effect of the troubles in the subprime sector on the broader housing market will likely be limited.”
Indeed, one can argue, as biographer Sebastian Mallaby does, that the great success of Bernanke’s predecessor Alan Greenspan in suppressing inflation and stimulating growth created an overconfidence and complacency that contributed to the 2008 market crash. In other words, success breeds failure.
How to prevent this? Perhaps more skeptical examination of success and more imaginative envisioning of failure. The hardest thing for political campaign strategists to do, I’ve observed over the years, is to distinguish the nine times out of 10 they should ignore demands they constantly get to change campaign strategy from the one time out of 10 they should agree. Some people are pretty good at this. But even they are always at risk of failure.
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