January 16, 2019


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.

Coal miners lose their jobs for good and it’s “you’re obsolete, learn to code!” Federal workers have a few paychecks delayed and the press is in heartstring-tugging mode.

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