Saturday, October 05, 2013

Reflections on a Week of Furloughs

“I should weep for a workforce of 2.7 million that is overpaid and underworked, does things I do not like or need, and gets laid off for a week or two every 17 years?  I’ll save my tears for the 7.8 million people Obama has squeezed out of the national workforce – permanently.”

“My heart bleeds for these overpaid under worked Gov.t  [sic] workers.  We could probably lt [sic] half of them go.”

            Anonymous comments to an October 2, 2013 article on

            I went to synagogue last night with one primary purpose in mind: to remember and celebrate the life of my father.  As this Shabbat marks the anniversary of his death, I had been looking forward to that magical moment in the Jewish service right before the prayer of mourning where the rabbi announces the names of the individuals whom the congregation is asked to mourn.  The rabbi began reading out the names, but he never did say “Julius Spiro.”   I had to do that myself.    

            This being the week of a Government shutdown, last night was a fitting non-tribute to a man whose occupation could aptly be called “faceless bureaucrat.”  My mother practiced the same occupation.   Between the two of them, they put in roughly 77 years working for the United States Government.   Julius was an economist for the Department of Labor, where he researched such issues as minimum wage laws and handicapped-access provisions.  Evelyn was an economist and statistician for the National Institutes of Mental Health and, later, the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  Neither spoke much to me about their jobs.   Nor do I recall them bringing colleagues into the home to boast about the vital nature of their work.    All that I know is that they made a decent, but not especially large, amount of money, working on projects that they considered to be in the public interest.  In that regard, they were much like the parents of many of my friends growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. – highly educated, but relatively anonymous professionals who seemed content with their work, despite the lack of fanfare.  Theirs weren’t the jobs that kids aspire to do when they grow up, but I was proud of my mom and dad just the same.

            The last time I heard the term “faceless bureaucrat” was a few days ago. MSNBC commentator Richard Wolffe was talking about an incident when GOP Rep. Randy Neugebauer berated a federal employee for keeping the public out of a national monument. (Here’s a video of Neugebauer’s antics:  Wolffe was appropriately indignant about the Congressman’s behavior, and I was taken by the words he used to express this indignation.  To the best of my recollection, he suggested that the target of the Congressman’s wrath “wasn’t just some faceless bureaucrat but a park ranger” -- in other words, a woman who is obviously doing a job that the nation needs her to do.  

            I forget how old I was when I learned that neither of my parents had one of those jobs.  Garbage collectors, waitresses, and flight attendants may not be especially well compensated, but at least it is generally recognized throughout the society that they perform useful functions.  By contrast, Julius and Evelyn Spiro received taxpayer dollars doing work that many taxpayers resent having to pay for.  And my parents are not alone.  Littered throughout the Washington, D.C. suburbs is a huge workforce that, according to the commenter quoted above, “is overpaid and underworked, [and] does things I do not like or need.”  

            If you watch MSNBC, you will think that what is going on these days is a “Government Shutdown.”  If you watch Fox News, however, you might think that what is going on is a “Government Slimdown.”  Those words were actually used on that network.  They are a reminder of the fact that the federal government has hardly shut all its doors.  Soldiers, border patrol officers, and prison guards are still working to keep our nation safe.  Air traffic controllers are also on the job, providing key assistance to the ongoing health of the economy.  According to the message that underlies most of the coverage on Fox News and right-wing radio, most of the folks who have been sent home – most of the so-called “800,000 non-essential employees” – are the faceless bureaucrats whom we shouldn’t be paying for anyway.

            In the minds of many Americans, this so-called “Slimdown” is providing a long-overdue opportunity to put folks like my parents on trial.   The ideologues who are behind the refusal to fund the Government can surely sense a holy mission: to showcase to the nation just how worthless much of the federal workforce is.   This is why their mouthpieces in the media keep talking about how all the furloughs are no big deal – how with the exception of a few national parks shutting down, nobody has missed out on anything they need.

Ever since I began studying economics in college, I have been reading about the “bloated” federal government.  Shortly thereafter, Ronald Reagan rode that theme into the Presidency, and even when a Democrat (Bill Clinton) finally returned to the White House, he spoke about how “The era of Big Government is over.”  But here’s my question: while everyone and her brother has been taking pot shots at “Club Fed,” who has been singing the praises of the federal workforce?  The local DC-area Congresspeople?  Don’t make me laugh – they, too, realize that faceless bureaucrats are about as popular as hemorrhoids.    Truly, Americans might romanticize our school teachers, doctors, lawyers, ball players, rock stars … you name it, we have TV shows and movies celebrating what they do.  But nobody romanticizes analysts at the Department of Commerce or Agriculture.  Now, finally, conservatives see an opportunity to shine a light on these people and ask the nation:  do we really need them, or would we rather save our tax dollars and decide for ourselves what to do with the money?
            I have focused so much on the “faceless bureaucrats” because, despite the central impact of this week’s events on their lives, they are largely being neglected by the media.  Instead, most of the coverage I’ve seen has concentrated on the horse race: which political party is “winning.”   Since the polls favor the Democrats, most journalists have turned their slings and arrows on the GOP.   We’ve heard a lot about GOP infighting, how Ted Cruz is happy to refer to himself as a “looney bird,” and how the GOP is allowing the Tea Party to lead them off the cliff despite not having any leverage.   With respect to the GOP-bashing, perhaps my favorite quotation comes from Congressman Marlin Stutzman, who represents the rural Indiana district where my wife grew up.   He is the Einstein who told a reporter: “We’re not going to be disrespected.   We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”  Funny, I thought respect is something one earned.

            There’s no doubt about it -- it’s fun to bash politicians, isn’t it?  But regardless of what you think of those “statesmen,” let us not miss the deeper point here.  This is not a time to dump all over government.  This is a time to celebrate government.  

To be sure, I make no apologies for being a believer in capitalism.  I deeply appreciate the private sector for all the high-quality, low-cost goods and services that people in America and much of the world take for granted.  No doubt, this robust economy is the product of competition among profit-seeking firms, which is precisely what would be absent if the government controlled all of the means of production.   But Marx wasn’t completely wrong.  Just as socialism is no picnic (or at least not an efficient one), neither is unbridled capitalism.  Take it from a guy who has been investigating and litigating fraud cases for nearly a quarter of a century -- there are plenty of folks in the private sector who don’t exactly have the public interest in mind.  And frankly, even if the private sector was staffed entirely with saints and prophets, there would still be plenty of crucial tasks left unperformed, because there are certain vital jobs that simply don’t generate a profit.  That’s just basic economics.

Can the Government be more efficient?  Absolutely.  Then again, that could be said about any big company as well.  Are there folks in the Government who should be let go because they are unproductive?  Again – same answers.  But that doesn’t mean we should take a meat cleaver to the federal budget and hack away, which appears to be the position of the Conservative Crusaders.  I recognize that that last term sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, but here’s the thing: if you are a moderate Republican of the type who thrived 40 years ago and you somehow got elected to the House, you still would have cast your vote for John Boehner, and he is now a full participant in this “Shutdown,” or “Slimdown,” or whatever you want to call it.

Personally, I call it a slap in the face of the legacy of Julius and Evelyn Spiro and all the other fine men and women who have dedicated their lives to working for the public interest, despite receiving zero gratitude in return.  It is not enough that those who have been furloughed  these past few days ultimately receive their back pay when they return to the office.   Let us not forget the many federal employees who were furloughed last year, during “Sequestration,” and the many more who will be furloughed this year if and when a budget is passed.  They are every bit as deserving as the 800,000 who have been told this week how un-essential their work is.  

By the way, lest this sound like a self-interested appeal, I have not yet had the displeasure of being furloughed at the Department of Justice, either during this past week or the previous year.  But I have done my job with a heavy heart.  For I don’t doubt that if my parents were still working, they would have been furloughed.  And even though I am but a short timer with a mere 28 years of federal service under my belt (29 if you include the year I spent, well after I graduated from Harvard Law School, as a poorly-paid contractor for the Department of Education), I can still dedicate my service to the examples of my parents.  

Those who think of Julius and Evelyn Spiro as faceless bureaucrats likely will forget the true tragedy of this week.  It is not that federal employees are getting disrespected.  It’s that they aren’t being allowed to serve.

Your loss, more than ours.

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