The Upside of The Shutdown

A version of this essay also appeared in Ben Domenech’s new online magazine, The Federalist http://thefederalist.com/2013/10/07/the-upside-of-the-shutdown/

For all the hysteria surrounding the government shutdown, I have to confess that now that it has actually happened, it is a bit anticlimactic.  Sure, I have developed a little crick in my neck from all the back and forth between the the two parties.  And if I hear any more politicians claim that they are willing to negotiate while refusing to negotiate, I might have to seriously consider consulting a professional about that huge frown line that I am getting between my eyes.  It is starting to look like the Grand Canyon, which is currently closed, but doesn’t have to be, because the state of Arizona offered to fund it, but the Federal government refused.  So, you can see how this back and forth could take a toll on anyone–the hypocrisy is so perverse.

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It’s not that I believe them–any of them–I don’t. But one can still get sick of hearing it.

And honestly, as a working stiff, I am pretty much in status quo mode.  I am glad that they are funding the military, as those people really do something that the federal government is supposed to be in charge of–protecting the nation.

And, call me crazy, but since only about 15% of the nation wasn’t insured, couldn’t we have just had a program that insured those people, and called it a day?  Why have this super-comprehensive 2,000 page plus program that has made so many people mad simultaneously?  Has anyone ever heard of a pilot program?  Just wondering.  It just seems like it might have been okay to give out some reasonable insurance to the most vulnerable in our nation, and see if that actually addressed the problem.  Then if not, maybe try something else.  But 1/6 of the economy?  It makes me nervous just thinking about it.  I think maybe some things could go wrong.  Like trying to sign up.

But now that the Supreme Court has essentially ruled Obamacare as a tax, and therefore made it legally justified, now anything can be labeled a tax and added to the list of government requirements demanded of the American people.  I won’t kid around: the whole thing makes me tired.  I want to let freedom ring, but I can’t hear it because so many politicians are telling me what to think and what to do.  But they are not my preferred frame of reference for decision making right now.

So I did a little research outside of my work week, and it turns out that over 80 percent of the federal government is still going full speed ahead.  So the sky isn’t really falling, and if it were, a lot of people wish it were the part of the sky where Congress resides.  We could all use a break from that group.

And then I tried to figure out what a person would do if they were furloughed as a government worker.  Well, I guess the same thing as the employees in the private sector who have been laid off due to cutbacks and such.  Except those people never got to go back to their jobs, and many have dropped out of the workplace entirely.  “Furlough” sounds a lot better to me than “laid off.”  So, I was wondering why many journalists seem to have more sympathy for the temporary cutback of hours of a government worker, and yet there is almost zero discussion about people who have completely lost hope and stopped looking for work at all.  That is more than a furlough, for sure.

And I have to tell you when I was channel flipping trying to figure out what would happen if the government “shut down,” what hit me like a ton of bricks was a CNN reporter telling me, to my complete and utter shock, “that the federal government was the biggest employer in the nation.”  WHAT?????  Fellow Americans:  I think it is time that the biggest employer in the nation be an employer that actually knows something about how to make money. 

And that, friends, is how the debt ceiling issue, Obamacare, and the government shutdown are absolutely related.  We don’t have enough money to fund everything, and that is just the reality that most Americans face every day of their individual lives. How about this:  if Congress can balance the budget and deal with this nation’s debt, then maybe the American people might give them an increase in their allowance.  Just like my parents said to me when I was, oh, I don’t know, 14.

I then tried to find a list of all of the federal departments and agencies so that I could figure out what the stakes were if the government was shut down.  So I Nancy Drewed it and found a partial list, and you too can find that on the US government web site.  It is not super secret or anything, but for a partial list, it sure was long.

In fact, it was 453 pages long and took me over two hours to print out.

Now look, I am not for stuff like organ donations being delayed, or military families suffering, but I don’t get why we have an Agricultural Marketing Service AND an Agricultural Research Service AND The Agriculture Department, because that could all be one thing, and I am pretty sure we have advertisers and universities for marketing and research.  What the heck is the AbilityOne Commission?  Just wondering.  We have something called the African Development Foundation, so can’t we make that a private foundation, because really, hasn’t it failed?  How have we helped Africa develop? Whenever I hear about philanthropic acts in Africa, it is usually missionaries supported by private funds from churches, so why do we need the African Development Foundation?  I am just asking a few questions, because I really don’t know.  But if we didn’t have some of these things, whether unnecessary or simply redundant, then we would never face the “pain” of shutting them down.  Amtrak bleeds money, yet we still have it, and for what?  States that needed rails for transportation or tourism would have trains if they needed them.  We just keep it on life support out of some kind of nostalgia for something that is never going to come back.

But it’s a costly nostalgia, and I am pretty sure if the Botanic Garden arm of the federal government would stop functioning, that horticulturalists would rise up and fill in that gap, but maybe on a local or state level.  And so what is wrong with that?

I wanted to get some agency from each letter of the alphabet, but we would be here all day.  But I am here to say that after this week, the Capitol Police may be seriously overpaid for their expertise.  Yes, they are on the list.  Ahem.

Now I know we need things like the Coast Guard.  But Community Planning and Development?  Why not let local communities plan themselves?  Wouldn’t they have a better idea of what to do than the folks all the way in D.C.?  Better yet, why not let those folks concentrate on JUST D.C.  You know, one community at a time.

Anyway, I read through the whole list and I could not help but think that we sure do have a lot of federal agencies for problems that are definitely getting worse.  For example, the Institute for Peace.  What do those people do?  I really want to know.

I even thought I would just go through each agency, and give a little status update on each one.  But by the time I did that, I would be dead.

Now if things were getting better, then I would be the first to congratulate the government agency responsible for this.  So if someone can tell me which office it is, and what they have done, then I will write all about it.  But you cannot just have one party blame the other and have that count as a progress report.  The American people deserve specifics, and no one on either side of the aisle seems to have many to offer.

But while this is happening, there may be a silver lining. (Hey, I am an optimist.)  I think the longer the government “shut down” goes on, the faster Americans can realize that there are huge categories of life for which we really do not need the government in our lives.  Maybe just a little self-reliance to remind ourselves that America is great because people decided that they really did not need British control over their lives:   that in some ways it was harder, but much better, without that conditional relationship.  You didn’t have to “let” the government allow you to do something; you just did it.

So here are a few things that I think represent the upside of the shutdown:

1.)  We can clearly see that all the while both Democrats and Republicans claim that the other side is “responsible” for the government shutdown, they really have so very much in common.  Both parties want to exempt themselves from the very constraints and costs that they are willing to ask of the American people, and in particular, businesses who employ Americans. It doesn’t really matter if you are an R or a D when you are really just an O:  Opportunist.  The shut down has served as a kind of truth serum for Americans to see what our currently elected “leaders” are really like.  The truth will set you free, and you are free to express your particular take on the truth the next time you are in the voting booth.  I have a feeling a lot of incumbents on both sides of the aisle will not be returning to D.C. the next time around.  This is not a bad thing–career politicians are not a good thing for democracy to flourish, because they become as entrenched as aristocrats, and they like it that way.

2.)  We can think a little more locally.  Some things are closed, like national parks.  Oh well.  Most of us are working and do not have the time to go, or we are not working and don’t have the resources to go.  So I say give those parks a break and work on job creation and employment, which, as I am sure you have noticed, has fallen completely off of the radar.  Support your local or state park system–they are great and can make you feel proud of your city or state, and the national parks will reopen at a later date.  But the inconvenience of those parks closing is useful in that it reminds all Americans of how petty our Congress as a whole can be when sniping over issues that neither party can convincingly solve.  It is a distraction that should make us concentrate on our own communities, which is not a bad thing.  Don’t let your city turn into Detroit while the federal government is telling you how much it can do for you.

Plus, I just cannot care about all the European tourists who are being interviewed about how their 6 weeks of state subsidized vacations are being ruined by American gridlock. They were sneering at us before they even got off of that plane, and since they are so superior, I am sure they can come up with a plan B.

3.)  We are in debt.  We need to spend less money.  The government is a start.  America is a charitable nation.  We come through when there is need.  When government claims to address a need, I have noticed that that need never goes away.  Just talking out loud here, but when America was being built, it was based on volunteerism, for everything from fire fighters to libraries.  Maybe this shut down can bring some of that spirit back, where we look around the room, and people actually step up and help each other, rather than filling out a million forms hoping the government will come through.  It is worth thinking about.

4.)  We do need government for some things.   But not always the FEDERAL government.  For example, the Department of Education is supposed to work with state and local authorities to make sure that all American children have equal access to education.  Yet since this department had been established, there has never been more disparity in the kinds of education kids receive not only across this nation, but even in individual towns. The homeschooling movement is intensifying because there is so little faith among some parents in the public school system.  So if an agency cannot do its intended job, maybe we don’t need that agency.

5.)  We might rethink the wisdom of so many people being employed by “government,” by which I mean, us.  Every single person I have ever known who has worked at a government job came in at the last possible minute and left at the first possible moment at the end of the day.  Everyone else I know not working for the government is pretty much working themselves to death.  Just sayin.’  There is just not the same level of motivation required when you work for the government.  You can do a terrible or so-so job, and no one is shocked and no one gets fired.  Remember Lois Lerner?  Of course you do.  She just retired, with full government benefits.  Maybe the shut down didn’t come fast enough.

Maybe this shut down will be the opening up of different avenues for solving problems that do not involve someone who represents the government, which, I think, many Americans are quite sick of.  We all have our pet programs, laws, and agendas, but what if we put those into place with our own initiatives, without waiting for some politician to agree with us and put it in some campaign speech?  What if the shut down inspired us to all open up, step out, and figure out what we might do if there were no government to turn to or to blame?

It could be like giving up sugar or alcohol or gambling or listening to liars.

It could be like a little practice run.  We could try it.

9 responses

  1. But since states and communities are economically strapped and corporations exist to make profits, not jobs- how would this work exactly? Those ‘working stiffs’ may not do things of which you approve, but do you want them on the unemployment rolls too? And the 15 % uninsured or 48 million are what the Act is designed to cover. What is the alternative to big government in a huge country geographically with a multi-ethnic population of over 300 million people?

    • No, I AM a “working stiff”–so my point is that for many people, the government shutdown has a negligible, if any effect on our lives….I disagree that “corporations exist to make profits, not jobs”–they do both. But if they make no profit, then it is impossible for them to create more jobs. By not being on unemployment “rolls,” many Americans cover their own healthcare needs themselves, or through their employers, making job creation, which has fallen completely out of the discussion, even more important. Americans without jobs cannot afford the new plans offered–this morning alone were many reports of sticker shock at what is offered, and so where is the “affordability” in the Affordable Health Care Act? So while this might have merits as an IDEA, offering the 15% expensive plans with some subsidies does not in fact accomplish what was intended. Not all states are economically strapped–take Texas and North Dakota–why not follow their models for job creation and then insure the very indigent first? I think that there are always alternatives to big government, but that seems to be the only discussion on the table: your assumption that there really is no alternative is what leads to cumbersome and unmanageable plans in the first place. And last, I am not sure what multiethnicity has to do with it. If we focus on job creation for everyone, then won’t some of that identification of groups fall away? If you need health care, or a job, it does not matter who you are or what your ethnicity is, you still need a solution. Thanks so much for reading. I really appreciate it. And yes, it is a mess, and our congressional impasse simply underscores the limits of big government, does it not?

      • I live in Texas. Highest rate of un insured in the nation- poverty rate also quite high. The touted Texas miracle is way over-hyped. And yes, many workers provide their own healthcare or get it from their employers. And many working do without it and get no care. You may not personally know such people- lucky. I do. If the discourse had been, let’s reform these parts of the law because of x, y, z and instead do x, y, and z fine. But that was never the discourse. And sure, you and I may not know personally someone on furlough. But if the federal government is the largest employer and you go up the street in your own neighborhood you may find people who are affected or have family members who are. Our impasse shows the limits of our current government, it’s makeup and where we are as a people. We have had impasses before- our system of government does not prevent that. It can actually foster it. Democracy can be uncomfortable and only works when people are willing to be reasonable.

      • Well, it may be true that Texas is over hyped. I am not sure about that. But people are pouring into the state, and that says a lot. I do know many people without health insurance, and it is a nightmare–I agree with you that that is not a good thing. But the Federal government just does not seem ready or equipped to run this massive program, so I think we should consider alternatives. I am not really a very partisan person–but if something seems unworkable I see no reason to go full steam ahead. This is not to say the status quo is perfect, but that does not mean we should proceed with something with political appeal if it is going to lead to severe unintended consequences, such as employers dropping insurance and forcing people to go into more expensive exchanges, or cutting hours so that people are suddenly part-time workers with no benefits as opposed to full-time workers with some benefits. My fear is that “willing to be reasonable” means accommodating party politics rather than spending time addressing alternative solutions. My point is that this impasse, as embodied by a partial government shutdown, may be an opportunity to be more circumspect about what the federal government can reasonably handle. Thanks so much for reading.

  2. Doni,
    It seems like every time I read something you write, I agree with you some more. Two things:
    1. The vast majority of American people, I believe, don’t realize just how many unnecessary programs and departments are within the federal government. Obviously, you couldn’t list more than you did, because you’d still be typing.
    2., along with #1, above, once something gets started in government (federal, state, or local, really), it almost never goes away. It might start as someone’s pet project, and then some extreme minority is benefited by it, and it is here to stay. There are a lot of things that could be cut that the vast majority of us could live without.

    Keep up the good work, I enjoy reading your stuff! Although, I must admit I usually forget to check unless I see Doug’s link on Facebook, reminding me to read it.
    James

  3. Doni, I loved your idea of providing a pilot program that covered those uncovered. I feel for those unable to afford insurance. I’ve heard students in my classes here in Texas say their parents can’t afford to take them to the doctor because they have no insurance. “And, call me crazy, but since only about 15% of the nation wasn’t insured, couldn’t we have just had a program that insured those people, and called it a day?” Couldn’t this work, as you said, alleviating the uninsured dilemma?

    • Yes, I would love it if this would be tried before doing something on such a wide scale that employers feel that they have to cut back from full-time hours to part-time hours in order to cope with Obamacare. I think no one wants the most vulnerable to be ignored, but if we had a pilot program I think it would have been a sensible thing to try that maybe (!!) both parties could actually agree on. Thanks so much for reading.

  4. I have thought a lot about the shutdown over the last few days (haven’t we all?)… but here, you got me thinking about it all over again and in a completely different way. Your writing is flawless and I love reading everything you post. Keep it up!

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