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The Upside Of The Shutdown

Americans may realize that there are huge categories of life for which they really do not need the federal government in their lives.

For all the hysteria surrounding the government shutdown, I have to confess that now that it has actually happened, it’s 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 at the same time refusing to negotiate, I might have to seriously consider consulting a professional about that huge frown line I’m 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 to allow that.

I did a little research over the past few days and it turns out that more than 80 percent of federal employees are still working during the shutdown. 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.

I tried to figure out what a person would do if they were furloughed as a government worker. Well, I guessed it might be 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. As James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute put it after the August 2013 jobs report came out last month:

4. Sure, the unemployment rate fell to 7.3%. But that’s only because the labor force participation rate fell to a 35-year low. If it were still at January 2009 levels, the unemployment rate would be 10.8%. As RDQ Economics cautions, “This continued fall in participation should give pause to those who argue that the decline is cyclical and will be reversed.” In other words, the US faces a permanently larger pool of jobless Americans.

In that respect, “furlough” sounds a lot better to me than “laid off.” So, I wondered why many journalists seemed to have more sympathy for the temporary cutback of hours of a government worker, and yet there has been so little discussion about people who have completely lost hope and stopped looking for work entirely. That predicament is significantly more dire than a furlough, for sure.

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, the list of federal agencies was 453 pages long and took me over two hours to print out.

Why do journalists have so much sympathy for the temporary cutback of government worker hours and so little for people who have completely lost hope and stopped looking for work entirely?

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’s Marketing and Regulatory Program, 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. (Turns out it’s a program for blind Americans that the Government Accountability Office just dinged in March for being riddled with waste and lack of oversight.) We have something called the African Development Foundation. GAO has also noted that the Foundation has oversight problems and overlaps with other federal agencies such as US Agency for International Development. Besides, 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.

GAO’s most recent report on high-risk areas in the management of federal government included this snippet about Amtrak:

In addition to challenges in funding high speed rail projects, the federal government finances nearly all of Amtrak’s capital costs. Further, Amtrak’s revenues typically do not meet its operating expenses and the federal government subsidizes a portion of these costs. For example, in fiscal year 2011 Amtrak reported that ticket revenue covered about 79 percent of its operating expenses. In fiscal year 2011 the federal government provided about $1.5 billion to Amtrak–about $922 million for capital and debt service and an additional $562 million for operating grants. Amtrak’s reliance on federal financial support is likely to continue given its estimated capital needs of about $52 billion for Northeast Corridor improvements through 2030 and an additional $23 billion for locomotive and passenger car replacement by 2040.

These numbers are staggering, particularly considering the small percentage of the population that uses trains. 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 could go through the list and find a questionable federal agency for each letter of the alphabet, but we would be here all year.

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.

Now if the problems these federal agencies were targeting were actually getting better because of government action, then I would be the first to congratulate the government agency responsible for this. The American people deserve specifics, and no one on either side of the aisle seems to have many to offer that stand up under scrutiny.

In fact, the list of federal agencies was 453 pages long and took me over two hours to print out.

But while this government shutdown is happening, there may be a silver lining. (Hey, I am an optimist.) I think the longer the government “shutdown” goes on, the faster Americans can realize that there are huge categories of life for which we really do not need the federal government in our lives. Maybe just a little self-reliance to remind ourselves that America is great because our forefathers decided that they really did not need or desire 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:

Democrats and Republicans really have a lot in common.

While both parties 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 shutdown has served as a kind of truth serum for Americans to see what our currently elected leaders are really like. 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 if we want democracy to flourish, because they become as entrenched as aristocrats, and they like it that way.

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, have 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 President and 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.

We are in debt.

We need to spend less money. The government is completely over its head in managing so many agencies and projects. America is a charitable nation. We come through when there is need. When government claims to address a need, we’ve all noticed that that need never goes away. The problem frequently gets much worse. 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 shutdown 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. Let’s have some real community development and planning.

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 coordinate federal assistance 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.

We might rethink the wisdom of so many people being employed by government.

Should we be employing millions of people? There are many fine federal workers, of course. They work hard and do a great job. But it’s also true that every single person I have ever known who has worked at a government job has found that creativity and hard work are not rewarded or encouraged. Most of the folks in private sector careers are working around the clock. It stands to reason that there is just not the same level of motivation required when you work for the government. Federal employees will be the first to tell you horror stories about how 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 shutdown didn’t come fast enough.

Maybe this shutdown will be the opening up of different avenues for solving problems. 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 shutdown 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.

Doni M. Wilson is an Associate Professor of English at Houston Baptist University and a contributor to Reflection and Choice.

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