The shutdown: what’s it all about, Alfie?

The Thinker by Rodin

Congress is threatening to send me back to work tomorrow. As of this writing (about 4PM ET) the final votes have not been taken but the thinking is that the Senate will approve the proposed “compromise”. House Republicans, bruised and bloodied, will allow Democrats and its few moderate Republicans to pass the bill. The real majority in the House, which is curiously not the Republican Party but Democrats and some moderate leaning Republicans, will finally wield its power, weak though it is. Government will reopen, the trash will be picked up off the National Mall and tourists and homeless people will start urinating inside the public restrooms on the mall, instead of outside of it.

And people like me will go back to work and try to pretend the whole two-week nightmare didn’t happen. I know it happened though. I got my final paycheck through the end of September. It was 43% smaller than the last one. Basically I was paid for six days of work instead of ten (we are paid biweekly). It seems likely that I will get back pay, although the Senate has not approved the bill yet. If there are winners in this debacle, I may be one of the few. I did not have a vacation per se, as it was full of nervousness, just with the cushion of a decent cash reserve. I never stopped working, but it was just not for the feds. Instead I mostly painted. I actually could use one more day as I did not quite finish restaining our deck (rails to come later). I was quite productive, just not for the mission of the United States. As part of my retirement mission: mission accomplished! Many of the chores I would have to do anyhow before we relocate in retirement are now done and two years ahead of schedule.

Mostly though this shutdown screwed lots of people. For most federal employees it was mostly a lot of time at home and trying to swallow their anxiety. For many federal contractors, it meant furloughs for the duration of the shutdown, and zero likelihood of being repaid. For the support people who service federal buildings, the janitors and cafeteria workers, for example: it’s a disaster with no income and no prospect that their employer will pay them for circumstances beyond their control. They tend to live paycheck to paycheck and their paychecks are paltry. For the economy as a whole, this is going to hurt, perhaps through a temporary rise in unemployment and loss of gross domestic product. The uncertainty caused by this shutdown will be quantified at some point and the number will be in the billions of dollars. Less tax revenues will increase the deficit. Less expenditure will affect retail sales.

The stakeholder that matters most is you, the taxpayer. Maybe you weren’t inconvenienced at an airport security line, but for the most part you could not enter a national park. You may discover yourself in the emergency room in a few weeks poisoned by meat you consumed that was unsafe because meat inspectors were furloughed. Certain people trying to close on house sales could not because their papers were not in order. The Center for Disease Control may be behind the eight ball if a new infectious disease breaks out as most of them were furloughed. Don’t assume the government saved money by “closing”. Federal employees like me will be paid retroactively but even if we were not, the actual costs would still be higher than not closing the government.

In reality, government is like a vast machine. It costs serious money to shut it down and serious money to start it up again. To use one example, many servers (computers used to serve information) were shut down. Servers usually work great provided you don’t turn them off. Some percent of these servers will not come back up, and will require parts and service calls. A lot of them will come up but won’t actually work properly. I expect when I turn my government computer on, it will complain because the antivirus software is more than two weeks out of date. I’m sure there will be other issues too. Computer woes will dominate most of my day tomorrow when I shuffle back into the office.

There will be lots of this plus also restarting the human processes. There will be more than two weeks of email to sift through and all sorts of conversations about how our priorities will shift that will take time and tax productivity. I was supposed to have all my employees’ performance evaluations done by the end of October. That’s probably not going to happen. My guess is that our productivity will be fifty percent less than usual for several weeks. Some of our planned work for the year is going to slip. You will get less governing for your tax dollars.

This of course was part of the calculus of Tea Party Republicans. They want less government. True believers as they are, they were willing to die on their swords for the cause, except of course for a few loudmouths like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) who has reluctantly decided not to filibuster this last minute “compromise”. He’s having a hell of a first term, having won the antipathy of every senator except possibly Mike Lee (R-UT), who also has agreed to suspend his craziness. You have to wonder why they did, because breaching the debt limit and creating a massive recession is a great way to shake up Washington. Maybe in a fit of sanity they realized they would be marked men when NRA members whose investment portfolios would be halved in value because we breached the debt limit put them in the crosshairs.

The sad reality, which was easy to predict but that Republicans probably won’t admit, is that they lost badly. Obamacare was not stopped, as I predicted. The debt limit was not breached, although rating firms may downgrade our credit worthiness anyhow for all this pointless brinkmanship. The sequester remains but now it appears that agencies will have more discretion on how it will be implemented, plus both sides agree to have talks about getting rid of it altogether. The government could shut down again in January and the debt limit may be breached again in February as well. It’s more likely though that this will be handled more sanely, considering how badly it went for Republicans this time around. The only “concession” I see is a fig leaf one: people getting subsidies for Obamacare are subject to a more stringent audit, but auditing was already in the law. The agreement is basically a tacit surrender by Republicans. What is worse, it they have tarnished their brand. Less than a quarter of the country now “like” Republicans. They are likely to lose the House in 2014.

It’s too early to say whether the Republican Party suffered a fatal wound from this. Gerrymandered districts will be a reality through the next census but it is likely that Tea Party influence will quickly wane now. What is likely to replace them are not moderate Republicans, but sane conservatives.

Hopefully one lesson they will learn is that shutting down the government is counterproductive. Obama, and by inference all future presidents, will no longer negotiate under threat of shutdown or default. Power will have to be wielded the constitutional way again. We will remain the United States of America. The South’s new attempt at open rebellion has failed.

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