The Federal government’s partial shutdown enters Week 4, and Washington’s elected officials aren’t worried enough to end it. Apparently they feel confident that they will suffer no punishment at the polls for depriving the public of services like access to National Parks, fully staffed airport security, and food inspections, among others. So long as the Social Security, Medicare, and military checks are issued–and the Post Office still delivers them–there is no “crisis” greater than the one involving immigration on the Southern border.
Americans like to complain about government. We regularly express surprise when the line is short, the form arrives quickly, the website works, or the employee is polite. Since the Reagan era–which was a significant turning-point in Boomer history–“more government” has been depicted as the problem not the solution, and now it turns out that most of us can live without a lot of it, at least for a month.
What is a fair measure of government’s role in our lives? Is it getting bigger? In terms of its direct civilian workforce, it hasn’t grown much since the Eisenhower administration, when this Boomer was born.
So what’s all the fuss about? Well, as George Will was at pains to point out a year ago, there’s a lot more to the story. Many State and local workers are really employed by Washington, that is, they operate or administer programs that depend on Federal funding. Then there are the Federal ‘contractors,’ about whom we hearing more now, although the most remarkable example of their use came in the Iraq Wars a generation ago, when the government “outsourced” many logistical and quasi-military functions. It turns out that foreign wars generally encourage government to reach new, higher levels of “encroachment,” beginning in this century with World War I. Government spending, which is what really gets people’s attention–the Federal income tax appeared in 1913–was twice as high in 1927 as in 1916. Even though the Great War was over, expenditures on education, law enforcement and agriculture picked up the slack.
I have to confess that, as a child of the 1960s, I took this situation for granted. Vietnam virtually taught me what a “billion” dollars looks like. But billions have also been spent on poverty relief, health care, space exploration, the environment. Much government spending goes on outside of Congressional budgetary “discretion”–I use the term loosely–it’s mandatory: debt payments and “entitlements” (see Social Security and Medicare, above). The current impasse reminds people my age of all these facts, or should, and the question arises, “How much of the remaining government do we actually need?”
My complaint about today’s situation, then, is that even a government shutdown will not cause people to ponder this question. The political leadership on both sides of the border “crisis” are entrenched. For the Federal employees who are deemed “essential” and therefore working without a paycheck, as well as those who have been furloughed, even to raise the issue is at best academic, at worst insulting. Their first concern is with household solvency, not the purpose of the Federal government. But for those who have the leisure or the inclination, it could be worth taking this occasion to wonder–what would I be willing to do without? If the answer is “nothing,” and yet you are content to pay the tab, perhaps because of the Republicans’ tax reforms, consider this: one of the departments currently laying off workers is the IRS. Surely that’s a potential Catch-22–we’re not paying the people who are necessary to give us our money back. But don’t worry, even though the Treasury is shut down, so far tax refunds are not in jeopardy.