Thursday, October 10, 2013

Government Slimdown

I wrote a blog post last spring asking liberals why they were so self-congratulatory after Obama won re-election (for example, they couldn’t even get gun control legislation passed after a mass shooting at an elementary school). At that time there was widespread speculation that the Republican Party was weak and doomed. Six months later I’m hearing the same sort of predictions that the Republican Party is self-destructing with their hostage-taking tactics in both the government shutdown and the threat not to raise the debt ceiling.
But Republicans are geniuses at turning a defeat into a victory. Listen to FOX News; they’re not calling this a shutdown; they’re calling it a slimdown. Look at the polls that put almost as much blame for the shutdown on the Democrats and Obama as the Republicans. Last night I talked to someone who is, for me, a representative of the average person who doesn’t pay much attention to the news. She asked, “Why won’t Obama talk to the Republicans?”
Last spring’s sequester was a big win for the Republicans; it was supposed to be a worst-case scenario—a line no one would cross—that would force the two parties to a compromise; instead the Republicans chose to cross it and got what they wanted: smaller government.
What people don’t seem to realize is that the conservatives in the Republican Party hate government. They think there are only a few things the government should do, mostly provide for a military and service the national debt. Everything else should be eliminated. Remember Rick Perry’s meltdown in the debates last year when he couldn’t think of all the government departments he wanted to eliminate (he remembered Education and Commerce, Romney helpfully suggested EPA, later Perry remembered the third was Energy)? Liberals laughed at him instead of paying attention to what he was saying.
Now six months after the sequester the “self-destructing” conservatives are once again getting what they want: an even smaller government. The insanity in the Republican Party has spread so far that there is a growing number of congressmen willing to risk a default on U.S. Treasury responsibilities. What they are arguing is that there is enough tax revenue coming in to pay the interest on the U.S. debt that will come due. The New York Times had an article today quoting some of these Republicans: 
Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, a reliable friend of business on Capitol Hill and no one’s idea of a bomb thrower, isn’t buying the apocalyptic warnings that a default on United States government debt would lead to a global economic cataclysm.
“We always have enough money to pay our debt service,” said Mr. Burr, who pointed to a stream of tax revenue flowing into the Treasury as he shrugged off fears of a cascading financial crisis. “You’ve had the federal government out of work for close to two weeks; that’s about $24 billion a month. Every month, you have enough saved in salaries alone that you’re covering three-fifths, four-fifths of the total debt service, about $35 billion a month. That’s manageable for some time.”
… “It really is irresponsible of the president to try to scare the markets,” said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. “If you don’t raise your debt ceiling, all you’re saying is, ‘We’re going to be balancing our budget.’ So if you put it in those terms, all these scary terms of, ‘Oh my goodness, the world’s going to end’ — if we balance the budget, the world’s going to end? Why don’t we spend what comes in?”

Once again, my argument is that liberals need to do a much better job educating the public about what government does. The government shutdown is providing some education; every day it seems another agency is recalling workers to deal with a crisis: FEMA brought back workers when Tropical Storm Sandy threatened the Gulf coast, FDA is bringing back some workers to deal with an outbreak of salmonella. Other closings, like the national parks and monuments, are affecting the lives of tourists and those whose income depends on those tourists.
But these individual examples can get lost in the whirlwind of daily news. Liberals need to keep hammering on this point: government is good. Yes it can always be improved, but the basic system is sound.
Elizabeth Warren is one of the few prominent liberals trying to educate the average American about the value of government. In this video about the government shutdown she calls the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party “anarchists.” She defines government as a system where we work together to solve problems; we have decided that there are some things we do much better together. This is what government is. It’s not some scary boogeyman.
Update: Michael Lynch, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, published an op-ed in the New York Times on Oct. 15 that says some similar things as this post:
Even if the immediate crises — the partial shutdown and the looming debt default — are resolved, we will still be living in a dangerous political moment. The danger in question is because of the recent emergence of a political philosophy — and I mean that in the loosest sense — which threatens to unravel our joint commitment to a common democratic enterprise.
What is the “political philosophy” I have in mind? The conservative writer John Tamny at puts it this way: “It quite simply must be asked,” he writes, “what the point of the Republican Party is if it’s not regularly shutting down the federal government?” No point at all, Tamny seems to think, suggesting that “shutdown should be a part of the G.O.P.’s readily unsheathed arsenal of weapons meant to always be shrinking the size and scope of our economy-asphyxiating federal government.”
This, Lynch argues, has two dangers. First, it weakens the commitment to the social contract, that sense that we work together within our democratic institutions to govern ourselves. The second danger in this strategy is to democracy itself:
Should shutdowns, debt-ceiling fights and the radical political legislative gridlock they represent really become a fixture of American political life, it will be more tempting, more reasonable, to think that someone should  “step in” to make the decisions. The chorus calling for action — for the president, for example, to go around the Congress — will only increase. If you are on the left, and Obama is still in power, you may even tell yourself that is a good thing. But it is a bad precedent, the type of precedent that causes democracies to erode.
Social contracts don’t have to be made for democratic intentions...
In the end, that’s the real danger we are now facing. Not just the shutdown, but the rise of the shutdown strategy. By unraveling the threads of our joint commitment to shared governance, it raises the chances those threads will be rewoven into something else: something deeply, and tragically, undemocratic.


  1. I love Elizabeth Warren and I love your writing, Katie, but our government doesn't work anymore. It has become too corrupt and there is no going back, because it is impossible. Our government, like possibly our ability to survive on the planet, is past the tipping point. I had a similar discussion with my Republican father recently and we were both resigned to the same point...which is that big money controls the government and until that is taken out of the equation, there is no "fixing it." Both of us continuing to connect the dots realized that a majority of politicians are not going to vote money out of politics. Therefore, the system is caught in a death spiral...end of story, or the federal government as the case may be. Dismantling may be the best thing that can happen and the only way we may be able to get out of this mess. Of course, if we could come up with a system of government that would make the old system obsolete, well story.

  2. You're not going to get any argument from me about our government being controlled by the wealthy which means it is currently dysfunctional and not serving the interests of all of the people. However, what I'm talking about here is a fundamental divide between those who think government is a good thing in principle, and those who think government is an evil that needs to be shrunk to a minimum/eliminated.