Imagine two cities. In City A, town leaders notice that every few weeks a house catches on fire.
So they create a fire department - a group of professionals with prepositioned firefighting equipment and special expertise. In City B, town leaders don't create a fire department. When there's a fire, they hurriedly cobble together some people and equipment to fight it.
We are City B. We are particularly slow to build institutions to combat long-running problems.
The most obvious example is the fight against jihadism. We've been facing Islamist terror for several decades, now, but every time it erupts - in Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria and beyond - leaders start from scratch and build some new ad hoc coalition to fight it.
The most egregious example is global health emergencies. Every few years, some significant epidemic strikes, and somebody suggests that we form a Medical Expeditionary Corps, a specialized organization that would help coordinate and execute the global response.
Several years ago, then-Sen. Bill Frist went so far as to prepare a bill proposing such a force. But, as always, nothing came of it.
The result, right now, is unnecessary deaths from the Ebola virus in Africa. Ebola is a recurring problem, yet the world seems unprepared. The response has been slow and uncoordinated.
The virus' spread, once linear, is now exponential. As Michael Gerson pointed out in The Washington Post, the normal countermeasures - isolation, contact tracing - are rendered increasingly irrelevant by the rate of increase.
Treatment centers open and are immediately filled to twice capacity as people die on the streets outside.
An Oxford University forecast warns as many as 15 more countries are vulnerable to outbreaks. The president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, warned: "At this rate, we will never break the transmission chain, and the virus will overwhelm us."
The catastrophe extends beyond the disease. Economies are rocked as flights are canceled and outsiders flee.