America's shutdown indifference
Why most Americans aren't wailing about the government shutdown
I have two memories of the federal government shutdown of 2013. One is not actually mine but my wife's. At the time she was employed as a waitress at a restaurant in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia. During those 16 days she waited on hundreds of furloughed government employees, in many cases during what would otherwise have been their ordinary working hours.
The vast majority of these public servants left no tips regardless of the size of their bills, some of which were substantial. Many of them instead wrote notes politely explaining that they wished they could contribute a gratuity but given the circumstances they were sure everyone would understand. Perhaps they were under the impression that my wife and her co-workers, most of whom were African-American women who had made the long commute from over the river in Anacostia in order to serve novelty drinks and gigantic appetizer platters to these selfless officials, had Ted Cruz's cell number and could bring the whole thing to a halt if they so chose. Or maybe they were just being the lazy, entitled, self-aggrandizing make-work goons millions of Americans imagine them as.
The other memory, which is less horrifying but even more ludicrous, is of barriers being erected around various D.C.-area landmarks, including open-air war memorials. To this day I cannot think of any good reason for this save sheer caprice. If the idea was that 550-foot obelisks made of granite simply could not be meaningfully serviced during those lean two weeks in 2013, then who was responsible for putting up the rent-a-fence barricades around them? Civic-minded volunteers? The U.S. Marine Corps? Barack Obama himself? It was beautifully cynical, and I congratulate whoever came up with it.
I mention these anecdotes not because I think the present record-setting shutdown is good or sane policy but because I am trying to illustrate why I and other Americans have a hard time caring much about it. In the popular imagination — and sometimes in dozens of little-read memos from the inspectors general of various departments — the average federal employee appears to be lazy, incompetent, performing meaningless tasks for too much pay, with an enviable array of benefits and other amenities (I still roll my eyes in disgust whenever I am reminded that there exist special credit unions for federal employees, whose pay and job security would be the envy of a hundred million other Americans). Government employees, at both the state and federal level, are among the only workers in the United States who continue to be represented by powerful unions, despite the fact that by definition they're not bargaining against capital but against their fellow citizens.
This is to say nothing of the vast assortment of contractors, consultants, and hangers-on whose "work" has been temporarily interrupted by the shutdown. Their grotesque salaries have blighted the landscape with McMansions and driven housing prices in Maryland and northern Virginia to a level beyond what most families with children will ever be able to afford. So the people whose job it is to bid up the price of useless airplanes or dream up rival marketing schemes for some "cloud" project while our nation's capital lacks a functional public transit system are going to have .05 percent fewer billable hours for the year? Boo hoo.
Comparatively few people are outraged about the fact that as I write this General Motors and Ford are preparing to lay off many thousands of workers because management paid consultants millions of dollars to give them the idea. Few care about the shuttering of small auto parts plants, like this one in a small Michigan town not far from where I live, or the hourly employees affected, who lack the financial and other resources of our federal workforce. When Capital One kindly announces its "solutions" for customers affected by the shutdown, I ask myself why this courtesy is not extended to the millions of other Americans who also struggle to pay the debts they are tricked into running up with the credit card companies.
All of this is a long way of saying that while I wish the Department of Commerce were operating at full steam I do not have an inordinate amount of sympathy for the workers temporarily affected by it. Nor can I agree with those who argue that the current shutdown is Trump's and only Trump's fault. The leadership of the Democratic Party is using people's paychecks as leverage against the president, just as Republicans did in 2013. They are claiming, pace their position only a few years ago, that the construction of a border wall is on its face immoral rather than overly expensive or impractical. If they have genuinely changed their minds, more power to them. But they should understand that principles come with a price and that it cannot always be the GOP's fault.
I wonder when pollsters will finally come around to the fact that Americans hold many views that they don't necessarily wish to discuss over the telephone with strangers, even under the pretense of anonymity. One of these is almost certainly widespread indifference about the shutdown, which is not the same thing as thinking it is a good idea or something that should be sustained in order to ensure the construction of a border wall. In casual conversations with family, friends, and acquaintances in the rural Midwest over the last several weeks I have not heard a single person, including lifelong Democratic voters, express anything like the sort of horror that appears every day in newspapers and on cable television. Most people dismiss the shutdown as nothing but more paid time off for people who already receive more of it than they ever will. Are they wrong?
The answer to all of this should not, of course, be to congratulate people like us on our cynicism but wider recognition of the fact that economic uncertainty is not the exclusive province of otherwise well-remunerated unionized federal employees once every half decade or so.