Dystopia Journal #25: Shutdown Blues

Dystopia Journal #25: Shutdown Blues January 7, 2019

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Here we go again.

We’ve had shutdowns under Clinton and under Obama, and we can safely assume that from now on, whenever we have a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, the Republicans will shut down the federal government to punish voters.

However, this must be a first: a shutdown that began under a Republican president and a Republican Congress, just because they couldn’t agree on funding for Trump’s ludicrous border-wall gimmick. (As always, it was Trump’s incompetence and wildly swinging demands that are to blame.)

It’s tempting to say that the only result of a shutdown is inconvenience. National parks and museums will be closed for a while, federal employees will have to work without pay or be furloughed, but they’ll eventually get back pay and catch up to where they would have been.

But it’s not so. Every shutdown causes lasting damage. There are research grants that won’t come through, ruining experiments that can’t continue during the shutdown, leaving scientists and academics in limbo for another year. There are training programs for critical jobs like air-traffic controllers and firefighters that can’t proceed, causing staffing shortfalls for years. There are small-business loans that can’t go through, which may cause companies to fail and workers to be laid off. People who had immigration court hearings will have to wait years more for their cases to be heard (although this will also pause deportations).

And then there are the millions of people who can’t afford to miss a paycheck. Even if government workers receive back pay later – which would have to be through a separate appropriations bill and isn’t guaranteed – that doesn’t help when rent and other bills are due now. This is an especially serious problem for the many federal employees who barely make a living wage and are scraping by at the best of times, as pointed out in this thread on Ask A Manager:

I think I had this perception of “Federal workers” as all being D.C.-based, suit-wearing, middle managers who earn good salaries. But the Federal government also includes a lot of people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Two articles I saw reinforced this for me: One dealt with the impact on enlisted coast guard members, who earn as little as $20,000 a year (excluding various additional allowances). Even factoring in housing allowance, dependent allowance, etc., many of them are wondering how they will feed their families.

Here’s one horrifying example that shows concretely how this affects people’s lives: a tax examiner who can’t refill his insulin prescription.

It’s not just the 800,000 federal employees who are affected. The shutdown also matters to the 4 million people who work as government contractors: from ship-builders for the Navy to software companies that work on air-traffic systems to low-wage jobs like janitors, security guards and cafeteria workers in federal buildings. They’re also idled, but because they work for private companies, not the government itself, they won’t get back wages when this ends.

And then there are the small businesses that cater to federal employees and contractors: restaurants and dry-cleaners, corner stores and retailers. All of them can expect to see their income stream dry up as well, and again, they’re not going to receive back pay or compensation when this is over. The damage will ripple outward through the economy. (See #ShutdownStories on Twitter for more stories like these.)

For a while, I thought that the Democrats were at a disadvantage in this fight, simply because they’re negotiating with a sociopath who literally doesn’t care how many people end up broke, homeless or dead because of him. But I’m starting to think that may not be the case.

In another example of “you get what you vote for“, many of the poor, rural, white voters who are Trump’s base are going to take the hardest hit. Like this:

During the government shutdown, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is not processing any new farm loans, loans for rural development, or grants for low-income rural Americans… Farmers cannot apply for the payments Trump promised to offset the effects tariffs had on agricultural exports. It is unclear whether the deadline, which is Jan. 15, will be extended.

If the shutdown drags on much longer, food stamps will run out and tax refunds won’t be issued. Again, the impact from this will be felt the hardest in the deeply impoverished red regions that are dependent on the government they loathe.

For all the harm and human suffering it’s causing, I hope the Democrats do hold out – not just because I’m against this racist border-wall stunt, not just because we shouldn’t hand a victory (even a largely symbolic victory) to the worst elements of America, but also because it would be foolish to reward hostage-taker tactics. If they give in now, we can expect Trump to manufacture another crisis every time he wants something.

It’s conceivable that this will end in spite of him. Senate Republicans are just as hostile to the effective functioning of the government as Trump is, but they know this is a PR nightmare for them, whereas he doesn’t care. If it drags on much longer, it’s possible they’ll blink and join Democrats to pass a funding bill by a veto-proof margin.

Still, this is a lesson that Americans seem to keep forgetting. We all rely on services that only the government can supply for us, whether it’s rule of law, the social safety net, blue-sky scientific research, protection and conservation of natural resources, or emergency help in times of disaster. If you want or need any of those services, then you have to vote for the party of competence and good government, rather than the chaos party whose only mission is to make it impossible to do any of those jobs.

Image based on HARRIS.news via Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

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