Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

January 27, 2019

Lessons From the Shutdown

By David K. Shipler

                It’s too bad that air controllers and TSA agents didn’t call in sick on day one of the shutdown. Maybe next time. They’d get the government reopened in about 90 minutes.
               That’s Lesson One. Here are some others:
·         Financial security is a mirage for huge numbers of fulltime employees, not only of the federal government but of private firms as well. Wages are too low and expenses too high to generate an adequate cushion of savings for families in the so-called middle class. People quickly ran out of cash for such basic needs as housing and food. As a former Coast Guard commandant told NPR, petty officers with two or three kids are paid below the poverty line.
·         If those with steady government jobs are so vulnerable, think of the fragility of low-skilled laborers paid less, who might not be able to get more than part-time work. Every dime that comes in goes out, leaving them on the constant edge of crisis. An uncovered medical bill, missed work for a child’s illness, a car repair, a layoff, reduced food stamps, delayed housing subsidies, or myriad other disruptions can send families into a downward spiral.
·         Those housing subsidies—particularly the government’s Section 8 vouchers that help pay rent to private landlords for low-income tenants—faced interruption, exposing the poor to eviction and surely undermining owners’ willingness to accept the vouchers. It’s hard enough in normal times to get landlords’ participation in the program, and funding is inadequate anyway. Waiting lists are long, and families who have to pay unsubsidized market rents are often forced to cut spending on food. That leads to malnutrition among children at crucial stages of brain development, studies have found, creating long-term intellectual impairment. This is likely to be a hidden cost of the shutdown.
·         Public-private partnerships in antipoverty work are damaged. Much private charity to nonprofit organizations is stimulated by a steady stream of government funding to those organizations, which gives them stability that encourages private donors. Even in the best of times, the short-term nature of government grants makes sensible planning difficult. Now, such planning and confidence in the longevity of the programs have been undermined.
·         The motion of money through the economy is like blood through the body, and when the heart stops beating adequately, cells begin to die. Plenty of cells died during the 35 days. The unreliability of government work will surely contribute to a brain drain from public service, especially among scientists, engineers, and other specialists with options in the private sector. News media have reported as much. This is likely to dumb down professional government, in parallel with the dumbing down of the political class.
·         Government does a lot of useful things, which mostly pass under the radar of common awareness. Depending on how many American voters paid attention to the benefits that began to disappear, conservative Republicans might have a harder time generating anti-government hatred. They want smaller government (except when it controls women’s intimate reproductive rights), and President Trump has been giving it to them by dismantling the protections the government provides to ordinary folks: worker safety, drug safety, food safety, the safety of air and water, the rights of consumers, and the like.
·         Conservatives might get a boost in their perennial efforts to privatize government services, if contractors could be guaranteed payment. Before 9/11, airport security was generally handled by private firms, for example. The costs to taxpayers would be higher.
·         Boss Trump couldn’t care less about his employees, and his rich aides and cabinet officials are clueless about the real world. “Let them eat cake,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross might as well have said when he expressed puzzlement at why unpaid federal workers would have to visit food banks when they could just get loans. A question is how many of Trump’s white, working class devotees will finally see through the emperor’s clothes.
·         Political traction for Democrats exists right on that working-class ground, if they’re skillful enough to pursue a constituency whose economic interests are best addressed by a moderately liberal Democratic agenda. The presidential primaries will be a test of which candidates can navigate this territory.
·         Trump is an incompetent deal-maker when he can’t bully the other side, a serious liability for him. The slight fall-off in his approval rating among white, blue-collar men is less about the border wall, according to Mara Liasson of NPR, than about his appearing less strong, less in command. The tough guy they voted for doesn’t look as tough, at least in the immediate wake of the shutdown. He has painted himself into a corner in which an accommodating impulse to compromise actually diminishes his standing rather than enhances it. The danger is that he will try to repair this damage by rash behavior or extra-legal means.
·         The United States government has proved more erratic under Trump than was commonly imagined. It is no longer perceived as a dependable stabilizing factor in either domestic or foreign affairs. It has lost the trust of many of its partners abroad, and now at home, including many of its own employees. If you worked for a company that locked you out or made you work and didn’t pay you, how much loyalty would you have? The problem is broader than Trump, however, given that voters elected him partly to break up the system they considered unresponsive to their needs. If they come to recognize that he is leaving them only ruins that also don’t meet their needs, the 2020 election might begin to save the country’s reputation.
There’s nothing like flight delays to focus politicians’ minds, so let’s hear it for the air controllers, who got us out of this jam by rerouting planes at high altitudes for safety’s sake. They know how to resolve complications in three dimensions and avoid deadly collisions. We need some of them in Congress—and maybe one in the White House.


  1. I don't know why ALL the Government workers didn't walk out on Day One!! Now THAT would REALLY have cut the whole thing short - and fast. But - your point is well-taken - of course.

  2. Thank you for another excellent piece. I particularly appreciate your point that government does a lot of useful things and only wish I hadn't learned from the shutdown just how much people deny and resent this. Many thanks to Trump for bringing this form of hatred out into the open along with all the others he has stoked.

    My agency sends employees emails acknowledging each Federal holiday and each commemorative month (Black History month, etc.), and I usually don't pay too much attention, but this year's MLK Day message felt necessary. I needed the encouragement.

    I'm sure the air traffic controllers contributed to ending the shutdown, but I firmly believe it was Trump's narcissistic need for his State of the Union Address that did it. Air time is more important to him than the wall. Hats off to Speaker Pelosi for finding Trump's Achilles heel!