On Oct 1, Google put out a Doodle commemorating the 123rd anniversary of Yosemite National Park (at least in the US), a somewhat ironic gesture considering as of that morning, all national parks were closed and would remain so for a subsequent 16 days. Putting aside for the moment any conspiracy-minded theories that Google did so in cahoots with the government (these Doodles are created weeks, if not months, in advance, not to mention the 123rd anniversary of something doesn’t exactly pick and choose when it happens), it was still a rather timely event.
I received an email from someone who had a decidedly strong opinion on the matter and decided a whole bunch of us needed to know about it. On the issue of the government shutdown, it went something like this (emphasis mine):
Most people won’t notice. After all, has not it been pounded into our heads that we need that government? That we can not get along without them? I fully expect that we will be reminded of this today, more than ever.
The real irony is that I woke of this morning and the sun still shined and the birds still sung. I did not notice the “absence” of the federal government until someone told me. Perhaps the government today is pared down nearer to the level they should be.
I didn’t respond, partly because I have a philosophical issue with people who make use of “Reply All” just to disseminate their unsolicited political opinion, but also because I was busy reading about the fallout of the shutdown and those it affected directly.
And the stories poured in.
1. No boots on the ground. Slate posted an article detailing the government agencies that experienced the most furloughs. The graph is illuminating.
Obviously folks with different priorities will interpret this a little differently, but the way I interpreted it: the agencies who do the most direct work for our country–work directly with Americans, advance our scientific and healthy well-being, and so forth–are the ones that took the brunt of the furlough. Our Curiosity rover and Voyager satellites continued silently with no direction or feedback; had something gone wrong in either case, we would’ve stood to lose billions of dollars in research investment, to say nothing of the scientific opportunities we’d lose out on as a result.
Housing and Urban development, Labor, Education, the NIH, Small Business Administration, the FDA…all vital agencies with very important roles to play. I could spend pages discussing how each has uniquely contributed to where the US is today, but their interplay results in more than just the sum of their parts. The shutdown caused loss of productivity at best for each, but with so many time-critical moving parts, damage was done that will take years to repair.
But the sun still shined and the birds still sung.
2. Speaking of setting our scientific research back by years…Politico and Nature had good articles respectively on how a basic research infrastructure that has already been suffering under the budget cutbacks of the last decade was dealt a major blow as a result of the shutdown.
CDC can’t monitor the progress of this year’s influenza, whose season started right about the time the shutdown began. The start of the season is a critical stage in tracking and predicting the spread and virulence of the bug; that process was disrupted. The NOAA was unable to continue monitoring weather patterns, ruining time-sensitive experiments designed to give scientists a better idea of short and long term weather patterns. The NIH was caught in the middle of vital drug trials, testing promising new drugs in the field with Americans who could sorely use potentially powerful new therapies. But these untested therapies come with an inherent danger that requires constant NIH supervision; the shutdown put thousands of patients at an unacceptably high risk.
The world is conducting many joint scientific ventures, but the United States was absent for several this year. The worldwide leader in scientific research and advancement failed to appear; that doesn’t bode well for future cooperation. Along those lines, October is a very busy month for grant applications. With the sequester already constricting scientific research to its lowest levels of funding in decades, this series of deadlines was the lifeblood for most struggling research labs; my own advisor was waiting to hear of his grant application’s status. Now he and countless others are stuck in limbo. Even with the government resuming operations, nobody knows when or if grants will be awarded.
But the sun still shined and the birds still sung!
3. Basic services are disrupted. These are services people rely on day-to-day. Of course, there’s a debate raging right now about how much these services should be funded, and in theory it’s a good debate to have: are we encouraging dependency, or are giving people a leg to stand on until they find both feet again?
However, I fail to see how governmental incompetence can ever be cast as a good thing, especially when it results in the bottom falling out of many individuals’ last recourse to food, shelter, and the acquisition of basic necessities. Tell me how it helps the country at large when there aren’t enough FDA inspectors to track a salmonella outbreak. Tell me how it helps everyone when 9 million of the nation’s poorest women can’t care for their babies. Tell me how it helps our international prestige when we not only furlough our NASA interns, but also toss them out on the streets.
Smaller government is not better. Better government is better, and part of that means a more strategic–and above all, compassionate–approach to revamping our social safety nets. I doubt you’ll find anyone who disagrees that we spend too much in those areas and could stand to streamline them, but simply withholding funds because the Congresscritters couldn’t function at a basic human level is not the answer.
BUT THE SUN STILL SHINED AND THE BIRDS STILL SUNG!!!11one
This was in just a few minutes of Googling; deeper, more insidious consequences for the shutdown are coming in all the time. Speaking selfishly, I’m grateful the the Marine Corps Marathon wasn’t canceled, but even if it had been, it would have been a minor inconvenience. I consider myself extremely lucky in that regard.
News flash: I’m pretty sure the sun will still shine and the birds will still sing if humanity spontaneously combusted. The very first sentence of this article pretty much sums up the callous insensitivity so many have demonstrated during and in the wake of the shutdown:
One of the strange things about politics is that it is considered “smart” to make every conceivable argument against your foes, even when your arguments are contradictory or reveal you to be indifferent to people leading desperate lives.
Protip: it’s not cool to denigrate the people in the trenches when you’re situated comfortably removed from the front lines. If you didn’t notice the government shutdown, congratulations. If you want fewer people to notice it too, fine: let’s have that debate without putting the health and welfare of countless millions at risk.