Government Shutdown Theater

“Government shutdown.” For sheer beauty, I can’t think of another two-word phrase in the English language that even comes close.

And, as American media breathlessly relate, that’s what we’re going to get come March 4th unless Congress and the Obama administration manage a meeting of the minds on spending.

Well, no, not really. But kind of. Sort of. In a way.

When the organs of of American government come to loggerheads on the federal budget, a temporary shutdown of “non-essential services” ensues until one side caves.

Oh, no, Br’er Bear! Please don’t throw me in the briar patch!

Unfortunately, the compromises usually come fairly quickly. Government shutdowns generally go a few days. The record is three weeks. We’ve seen 15 of these shutdowns since the Carter administration, which should tell us something about how non-traumatic they really are.

If they lasted a bit longer, perhaps more people would think to ask why “non-essential” services are operated by government and financed through coercive taxation in the first place.

If “essential” services were shut down, perhaps more people would re-evaluate just how essential those services are — or at least whether or not political government is the best institution to trust with their operation and maintenance.

So what, pray tell, is the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential?” Here’s an easy way to tell:

If the shutdown of a service irritates and inconveniences ordinary people, but doesn’t really reduce the power of politicians, that service is “non-essential.”

If shutting down a service would actually reduce government’s control over your life, it’s “essential.”

During a shutdown you can’t get a passport from the government. Your ability to travel is “non-essential.” If you show up at the border, though, there will still be a customs official waiting there, demanding to see said passport. The government’s ability to control your travel is “essential.”

The dividing line between “essential” and “non-essential” is fuzzy and only begins to resolve as the length of the shutdown increases.

Early in a shutdown, Social Security and tax refund checks continue to be issued. If the shutdown drags on a bit, the politicians begin to make noises to the effect that these two activities may grind to a halt unless they get their way — and that it will be the other side’s fault, of course. At no point in a shutdown, however, will Social Security or federal income taxes cease to be collected.

Your needs are at least potentially “non-essential.” Their revenues are not just “essential,” but sacrosanct.

It’s all just bad dinner theater … but I’m not sure we’ll get to see the whole play this time, more’s the pity.

The very real “government shutdowns” taking place in the Middle East are making even American politicians nervous. They seem to suspect that you may not be that interested in reprising the role of damsel in distress, awaiting rescue by congressmen in shining armor, yet another time.

What if they held a government shutdown and the public response was a collective yawn? “Yeah, whatever. Take a long lunch. And, you know, really, don’t bother coming back.”

Or perhaps a Bangles combeback: “Walk Like An Egyptian,” anyone?

The whole point of the play is to convince you that you need them. You don’t. Keep that in mind as this “shutdown” kabuki plays out.

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