Who’s to blame for govern­ment shut­down? It de­pends

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - Ge­orge Heit­mann, who lives in Al­len­town, is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of man­age­ment sci­ence at Penn State (Univer­sity Park) and pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of eco­nomics at Muh­len­berg Col­lege.

If you were spend­ing a thou­sand dol­lars and were asked to spend an ad­di­tional buck-50, would you make a fuss? Have you no­ticed that the govern­ment has been par­tially closed down for three weeks? Do you think you’ll much no­tice when it’s fully up and run­ning again?

If you were one of the govern­ment work­ers who didn’t get paid Fri­day, you un­doubt­edly did no­tice. But the job mar­ket is vi­brant; maybe you should get an­other job. It might even lead to a net gain in gross do- mes­tic prod­uct and so­ci­etal well­be­ing.

Pres­i­dent Trump wants a wall and Speaker Pelosi and Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Schumer don’t want to give it to him.

So, who is to blame for the shut­down? Thought­ful ob­servers of the con­tem­po­rary scene (TOCS, for short) might say that the in­tran­si­gence ex­hib­ited by the three prin­ci­pals and their sup­port­ers is the rea­son the prob­lem has not been quickly re­solved.

But TOCS are rare these days. So, if you are a Repub­li­can, you know it is the adamant and un­rea­son­able be­hav­ior of the Democrats that has caused the prob­lem. And, if you are a Demo­crat, you know that the feck­less pres­i­dent is to blame for keep­ing the govern­ment shut down.

But, does one side have more right on its side than the other? TOCS tend to equally ap­por­tion the blame, but, as al­ready noted, they pos­sess a dis­pas­sion­ate ob­jec­tiv­ity that’s not much in ev­i­dence these days.

A wall will pro­vide bor­der se­cu­rity, claims the pres­i­dent. “No, it won’t,” ar­gue his de­trac­tors.

If we ig­nore the bick­er­ing for po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage, is it pos­si­ble to eval­u­ate the use­ful­ness of a wall in pro­vid­ing bor­der pro­tec­tion? A cost­ben­e­fit anal­y­sis is, in­deed, con­cep­tu­ally pos­si­ble but dif­fi­cult to im­ple­ment.

As Ross Perot made pop­u­lar some years ago, “the devil is in the de­tails,” and an as­sess­ment of the cost and ben­e­fit de­tails of a wall can­not be eas­ily com­puted.

Of course, TOCS would ar­gue that we should at least make the ef­fort. But that’s bring­ing some eco­nomic sense into a po­lit­i­cal de­bate that has no use for such con­sid­er­a­tions or cal­cu­la­tions.

Here, we can do no more than sug­gest the pos­si­ble use­ful­ness of a cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis. But, let’s at least ac­knowl­edge that walls can keep peo­ple (or armies) out (or in). A few note­wor­thy ex­am­ples might be men­tioned.

Is­rael has built a wall to keep Pales­tini­ans, in­clud­ing some ter­ror­ists, out. It hasn’t guar­an­teed safety for all, but it has helped. Some, of course, have ob­jected to the sym­bol­ism that wall projects.

A sec­ond ex­am­ple is the Ber­lin Wall that long kept “free­dom seek­ers” from es­cap­ing to the West. It, too, didn’t work per­fectly, but from Aug. 13, 1961, un­til Nov. 9, 1989, some 28 years, it ef­fec­tively served its pur­pose. Walls work well, but, like ev­ery­thing else, maybe not for­ever.

And, of course, we must men­tion Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China, both built to keep the bar­bar­ians (although dif­fer­ent peo­ples were cast in that role) at bay.

We might also note the many charm­ing cities of Europe that still have rem­nants of once-pro­tec­tive walls, sup­ple­mented some­times with moats. Not only did these walls work well for a while, but many are now Miche­lin-starred tourist at­trac­tions, sug­gest­ing that we should al­ways take the long-run view when con­sid­er­ing our walls.

And, here in the United States, even in our na­tion’s cap­i­tal, we have gated com­mu­ni­ties, some­times with at­trac­tive vine cov­ered walls.

Pres­i­dent Trump is ask­ing for $5.7 bil­lion to build his wall. That’s a lot un­til you com­pare it with a fed­eral bud­get of about $4.4 tril­lion. If you are not Jeff Be­zos, you might find it dif­fi­cult to think in terms of bil­lions and even he may have some dif­fi­culty get­ting his mind around tril­lions.

For some per­spec­tive, please go back to the ques­tion posed in the open­ing para­graph. If govern­ment ex­pen­di­tures were but a thou­sand dol­lars, the pres­i­dent would be ask­ing Pelosi and Schumer for an­other buck and a half. That ain’t much.

But that would give the pres­i­dent a po­lit­i­cal vic­tory. And, we don’t want to do that. So, let’s keep the govern­ment shut down for a while longer and see who blinks first.

As poet Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall … [but] Good fences make good neigh­bors.”

JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AP

The Li­brary of Congress is closed dur­ing the par­tial govern­ment shut­down that has gone on for more than three weeks over Pres­i­dent Trump’s $5.7 bil­lion re­quest for bor­der wall funds.

Ge­orge Heit­mann

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