US shut­down a re­minder of good things govt does

The Straits Times - - OPINION - Paul Wald­man

Over half a cen­tury ago, re­searchers Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril iden­ti­fied a para­dox in Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion that largely holds true to­day.

Most Amer­i­cans, they ar­gued, were “ide­o­log­i­cally con­ser­va­tive” but “op­er­a­tionally lib­eral” when it came to their be­liefs about gov­ern­ment.

Peo­ple liked the idea of lim­ited gov­ern­ment in the ab­stract, be­liev­ing they could and should be able to get along with­out gov­ern­ment’s help. But when you asked them about the spe­cific things gov­ern­ment does, it turned out that they liked just about all of them, and thought gov­ern­ment should spend as much or more to keep per­form­ing those tasks.

This con­tra­dic­tion, and the per­sis­tence of that ab­stract be­lief in small gov­ern­ment, is in large part what al­lows Repub­li­cans – whose po­si­tions on pol­icy is­sues are mostly un­pop­u­lar – to stay com­pet­i­tive and hold on to power.

But the par­tial shut­down of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is giv­ing all of us a vivid demon­stra­tion of what gov­ern­ment ac­tu­ally does. By tak­ing it away.

Let’s look around at just some of what’s hap­pen­ing right now:

• The Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion has halted food safety in­spec­tions.

• En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency in­spec­tors are no longer mon­i­tor­ing com­pli­ance with en­vi­ron­men­tal laws.

• Air traf­fic con­trollers, who make sure the 43,000 daily flights in the US don’t slam into one an­other and send some of the

2.6 mil­lion pas­sen­gers plung­ing to a fiery death, are work­ing with­out pay.

• Aid pro­grammes like food stamps and the Women, In­fants, and Chil­dren pro­gramme, which pro­vides for­mula, food and other kinds of as­sis­tance to poor moth­ers and their chil­dren, could soon run out of money and have to cur­tail ben­e­fits.

• Fed­eral con­trac­tors are los­ing US$200 mil­lion (S$270 mil­lion) a day, ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg.

• The back­log at im­mi­gra­tion courts, which was al­ready se­vere, is grow­ing worse by the day as the pro­cess­ing of cases has shut down.

• The E-Ver­ify sys­tem, which al­lows em­ploy­ers to ver­ify that em­ploy­ees are le­gal to work in the United States, is no longer op­er­at­ing.

• Small busi­ness loans and gov­ern­ment-backed mort­gages are on hold, leav­ing busi­nesses stuck and home buy­ers in limbo.

• Farm­ers who rely on gov­ern­ment loans and ser­vices have been par­tic­u­larly hard hit, leav­ing the sur­vival of many fam­ily farms in jeop­ardy.

• The FBI Agents As­so­ci­a­tion is warn­ing that the shut­down “is threat­en­ing na­tional se­cu­rity as thou­sands of fed­eral law en­force­ment pro­fes­sion­als, work­ing with­out pay, grow anx­ious that per­sonal fi­nan­cial hard­ships may jeop­ar­dise their se­cu­rity clear­ances and as fur­loughs of their sup­port staff slow in­ves­ti­ga­tions”.

• Prepa­ra­tions for the vi­tal 2020 US Cen­sus have been im­peded by the shut­down, and dozens of other sur­veys the bureau con­ducts have been stopped, lead­ing to in­for­ma­tion gaps that could desta­bilise the US econ­omy, econ­o­mists say.

• With­out park rangers to keep or­der, na­tional parks have been over­run with trash, van­dal­ism and mis­be­haviour by vis­i­tors; some peo­ple have even cut down trees in Joshua Tree Na­tional Park.

That’s just a small se­lec­tion of the ef­fects the shut­down is hav­ing, which range from the in­con­ve­nient (mu­se­ums be­ing closed) to the life-threat­en­ing (no food in­spec­tions to make sure your kids don’t get E. coli poi­son­ing).

It’s al­most as if the US fed­eral gov­ern­ment, rather than just be­ing an op­pres­sive bunch of face­less bu­reau­crats tak­ing your money and get­ting all up in your busi­ness, ac­tu­ally per­forms lots of im­por­tant du­ties that al­low a mod­ern so­ci­ety to func­tion!

And of course, as we’ve seen so of­ten, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has a unique abil­ity to take some­thing that’s bad and make it worse.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion is now con­sid­er­ing declar­ing a state of emer­gency and tak­ing money from “dozens of flood con­trol projects in ar­eas af­fected by re­cent nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, in­clud­ing the Texas coast­line in­un­dated by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey and parts of Puerto Rico bat­tered by Hur­ri­cane Maria” in or­der to pay for Mr Trump’s bor­der wall. If you find that hor­ri­fy­ing, that’s the whole point.

One ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial told The New York Times that float­ing ideas like that one “was as much a po­lit­i­cal ex­er­cise in­tended to threaten projects Democrats val­ued as a prag­matic one”.

The idea be­hind that is the same one that has driven Repub­li­can strat­egy in ev­ery shut­down they’ve cre­ated. It says that since Democrats care about gov­ern­ment and Repub­li­cans don’t, as the ef­fects of the shut­down on the coun­try get worse and worse, Democrats will in­evitably cave to Repub­li­can de­mands.

The Democrats’ con­cern for hu­man suf­fer­ing makes them weak, while Repub­li­cans can watch the chaos un­fold and be as­sured that if any­thing, it will just con­vince vot­ers that gov­ern­ment doesn’t work and there­fore they should elect the party that holds gov­ern­ment in noth­ing but con­tempt. The strat­egy is not com­pletely crazy, but it does have one ma­jor flaw: Tak­ing away gov­ern­ment re­minds peo­ple of what gov­ern­ment does.

It puts the fo­cus not on the

Tak­ing away gov­ern­ment re­minds peo­ple of what gov­ern­ment does. It puts the fo­cus not on the ide­o­log­i­cal, ab­stract sense of gov­ern­ment but on the op­er­a­tional, spe­cific sense of gov­ern­ment. It shows peo­ple all the things so many would pre­fer to ig­nore as they con­vince them­selves that they are com­pletely self-re­liant. That’s why it’s usu­ally Repub­li­cans who lose these con­flicts.

ide­o­log­i­cal, ab­stract sense of gov­ern­ment but on the op­er­a­tional, spe­cific sense of gov­ern­ment.

It shows peo­ple all the things so many would pre­fer to ig­nore as they con­vince them­selves that they are com­pletely self-re­liant. That’s why it’s usu­ally Repub­li­cans who lose these con­flicts.

They may not care about what hap­pens to Amer­i­cans in a shut­down, but they do care about their own po­lit­i­cal for­tunes.

As the pub­lic grows more and more dis­mayed over the sit­u­a­tion, and prop­erly af­fixes blame on the GOP, Repub­li­cans even­tu­ally de­cide that it needs to end.

The only ques­tion is how much dam­age will be done by the time we reach that point.

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