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Confidence in the American Future: The Terrible Unrecognized Cost of the Government Shutdown

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Allan Rosenbaum
January 28, 2019

During the four plus weeks of partial government shutdown—the 21st government shutdown since 1976 and the longest in our history—both politicians and pundits have spoken at length about the variety of costs imposed by this needlessly self-inflicted wound. In some cases, the focus has been upon the services not being delivered—from the maintaining of treasured resources, our national parks; to the decline in the provision of basic minimum security for air travel. Likewise, and certainly appropriately, growing attention has been paid to the increasingly desperate plight of those, including many who continue working every day, who are not receiving their pay checks.

Unfortunately, little or no attention has been paid to what, over the long run, is the single greatest tragedy of this, and all prior government shutdowns, the undermining and slow erosion of the average citizen’s faith in the fundamental capacity of what, to this day, remains, whether always recognized or not, the most important enabling institution of any society — it’s government. One obvious manifestation of this is seen in virtually all surveys regarding confidence in the ability and likelihood of government to do the right thing for its citizens. Positive responses over the past few decades routinely run at the 20 percent level, a far cry from the almost 80 percent positive response received when pollsters first began to ask that question in the late 1950s. In turn, and even more concerning, the decline in citizen confidence in government seems to be leading to a lessening of faith in our democracy as well.

Ever since the unexpected ascent to the Presidency of a little known Governor of Georgia, who campaigned on the premise that he was best suited to clean up the organizational and ethical mess in Washington, it has become routine for America’s political leadership to seek office by attacking the very organization they are spending enormous sums of money to seek to lead, the government. In the process, we have witnessed 40 years of increasingly vigorous attacks on the public sector, from the famous, or infamous, notion that government is the problem, not the solution, to the tea party and beyond. Unfortunately, a growing number of Americans have begun to believe the accuracy of these assertions.  Even more unfortunately, they have forgotten, or in some cases have never realized, how profoundly important the actions of their government have been in enabling them to lead the lives that we live every day in this country.
 It is very easy to overlook the reality that almost all of the technological advances that underlie our current quality-of-life originated with the ingenuity of government scientists or the creativity unleashed and supported through the contracts designed and overseen by government administrators. The computer and radar were pioneered by British government engineers and scientists during World War II and further developed by US government efforts; the Internet, geographic information systems, hydraulic fracturing which has made the US an energy independent powerhouse, medicines that have combated many critical health maladies from AIDS to cancer, all have been significantly shaped by, or are the direct result of, important government research initiatives. Indeed, much of the technology that has made Silicon Valley the home of multi-billionaires has its basic roots in the products of US government research.
Equally important as the government’s role in fostering much of the major technological innovation of modern life has been its even more critical role in providing for the general welfare and well-being of our citizens. In an era in which the dominant political themes of the past four decades have been to lower taxes and cut government regulation and then do it again even more vigorously, it is not surprising that government shutdowns can become a regular part of the political scene. Such policies ignore the historical reality that the last four decades have been ones of middle-class stagnation, and even decline, accompanied by dramatically growing inequality. While the four preceding decades—ones characterized by the generally highest tax rates in our history (higher at the top income levels than the 70 percent under somebody current discussion) and the greatest amount of government regulation we have ever known—produced the most extraordinary economic growth in the history of the Country.
All of which is to suggest that the growing frequency of government shutdown is, in many respects, simply one more symptom of the fact that, as some scholars have noted, the American citizenry, and especially its political leadership, have forgotten the extraordinary role that our government played during the twentieth century in the building of American society as we know it today. This clearly needs to be changed. Whether, in the current political climate, that is really possible is not altogether clear. But, certainly, if it is to be done, there is no question that it will take a lot of education and commitment over a long time to do so. 

There is however one way to at least begin to stop the self-inflicted wounds of government shutdowns, which both undermine the credibility of our democratic government and, as most   economists point out, penalizes the national economy, and thus the American public, by one to two billion dollars a day. That is to do what Congress and the President both agreed to do in order to maintain funding of our Armed Forces during the 2013 government shutdown, enact legislation assuring that when Congress fails to pass, or the President refuses to sign, the appropriations bills necessary to keep all government agencies running, they automatically will continue to function under their previous existing budgetary arrangements. This will obviously not resolve the problem of both the citizenry and its political leadership failing to recognize the critical role played by government and the people who make it function, but it least it could eliminate one of the factors that helps undermine this recognition.

 Author: Allan Rosenbaum is a Professor of Public Administration in the Stephen J Green School of Public Affairs at Florida international University and a past national President of both the American Society for Public Administration in Washington DC and the International Association of Schools and Institutes of Public Affairs in Brussels, Belgium. 

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