It’s surprising what passes for high political drama these days. After a DC dust-up similar to, but neither as exciting as watching paint dry nor as convincing as professional wrestling, the US House of Representatives passed a $1.1 trillion “Cromnibus” bill to fund the federal government through September 2015, passing it on to the US Senate, which most expect it (as I write this) to pass as well.
Why does the whole thing fail as theater? Two reasons:
First, it lacks the true conflict essential to a good yarn. Protagonists and antagonists. Winners and losers. One side wants one thing, the other wants something not just different, but substantially incompatible. “Cromnibus” fails on that level because all sides transparently want the same thing — to keep things going exactly as they’ve always gone.
Secondly, the stakes are too low. “Government shutdown” just isn’t the bogeyman it used to be. Multiple iterations of invoking it and occasionally bringing it on stage for real expose it as, well, not very scary. “Non-essential” government services will temporarily shut down if we don’t settle this, quick! Woooooh, scary. Pass the popcorn, please. And change the channel.
When even “progressive” Democrats like Elizabeth Warren threaten “shutdown” to get their way, it’s just too obvious that there’s no real shutdown in play. Per Chekhov, “[i]f you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” If Warren is willing to pull the trigger, we know that the gun isn’t really loaded.
Inside the Beltway, the big question — passed back and forth between cast, directors, producers, etc. — is never “should we stop doing what we’re doing?” That’s just not on the playbill, folks. The only question of importance to politicians is “how do we keep doing what we’re doing without losing the audience?”
Here are my big questions for the audience:
1) A government “shutdown” applies only to “non-essential services.” If the services aren’t essential, why are they provided by the state in the first place? Or to elaborate a bit, if we’re going to tolerate a coercive monopoly like the state at all, shouldn’t that monopoly at least be limited to things that are absolutely, positively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, essential?
2) If something is absolutely, positively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, essential, why would we trust that thing to a coercive monopoly either? Lacking incentives to deliver the goods — since it forces us to pay for them whether they’re delivered or not and forbids us to seek them elsewhere — such monopolies invariably degenerate into the kinds of amateur theatrical productions we’re talking about here.
Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Elizabeth Warren, John Boehner et. al concern themselves constantly with how to keep the show going. Time for the rest of us to start thinking about lowering the curtain on it.