The Federal Government Shutdown: A Marriage Of Bad Policy And Toxic Economics

I do not want to be writing this column about the likely shutdown of the federal government. The shutdown will create costly inefficiencies, distract our leaders from more important tasks, and reduce our influence in a dangerous world by making us look incompetent and divided. It’s not even good politics for the Republican party that is forcing the issue and will be blamed by most Americans for the result, even if it serves the ideology and the political agenda of a minority within that party.

I want to be writing about the crucial German elections and their impact on the Euro Crisis. There are also fascinating and potentially quite important new reforms in China that establish a free trade zone in Shanghai with much less regulation. It may signal nationwide reforms transforming the size and shape of the Chinese economy and affecting all of us. I am sure my foreign policy colleagues would rather be writing about the potential for a deal with Iran and other issues of life and death. The list of real issues goes on and on.

Instead, we have to take a few days or weeks to endure a shutdown that is likely to last only until the damage is great enough that the leaders of the Republican party who are in touch with reality have the evidence of political damage to allow them to push through a sane deal. This is not a good use of national resources or legislative time. It is not the right way to reach the hard compromises that will need to be made to put us on the right track for the long term. Neither party has a monopoly on virtue or common sense; in fact these sometimes seem singularly lacking in politicians on both sides. But, forcing a shutdown over the health care bill is the wrong way to resolve that policy dispute.

There are only two pieces of good news here. First, Republicans are unlikely to be stupid enough to try this again anytime soon, unless the polls are very mistaken about the public’s reactions. Maybe we just have to get this out of our collective system every decade or two. Second, having this fight now may allow the debt ceiling debate to be handled more sanely after the inevitable public backlash against the shutdown. I would be much more worried about the long-term consequences of defaulting on our public obligations than I am about the short-term distraction of a government shutdown. This does not justify the shutdown, but is more like choosing between a hernia and a heart attack.

Our nation is better than this. I only hope that our politicians will eventually find a way to overcome the toxic political environment. Of course, we as voters must share a lot of the blame. We keep electing leaders who support or accept polarization rather than moderation and compromise.

It has been said that America always does the right thing… after trying everything else. I hope that we finish our destructive search soon and move on to building a better country.