Today's Shutdown Bonus: Why It's Harder for the Coast Guard to Find People Lost at Sea

Studies in the self-lobotomization of a modern system
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Three points from readers:

1) Forget about the discharge petition. As a reminder, a budget resolution to end the shutdown would pass in the House, if Speaker John Boehner would allow it to come to a vote.

Yesterday I quoted a reader's suggestion that Democrats in the House should ally with a handful of Republican to force Boehner's hand, via the technique of a "discharge petition." Overnight many readers pointed to this article, by Sarah Binder on the poli-sci-oriented The Monkey Cage site, about why in reality that is not likely to work, at least in the short term.

2) Non-essential vs. non-excepted. Yesterday I also quoted a business person who dealt often with federal agencies, on the annoying implications of the term "non-essential employee." A reader in the West says that a different term is now in use:

One of your readers wrote, "Can we use some other word [for federal employees] other than "non-essential"? I don't think any employee is non essential and it demeans the works they are doing with dedication."

Actually, the language *has* been changed: Federal employees who are "excepted" are not on furlough and must report to work (and work on "excepted" tasks or projects); "non-excepted" employees are furloughed. I've seen at least 1 news article that noted the language change but said they wouldn't follow along in order to "keep things simple". Another had the word right once and wrong once, but opted to use essential/non-essential most of the time.

As background, I'm employed by a state university but my office is
located at a federal research lab. (I write this only to establish credibility. I'm not allowed in my office during the shutdown and I can't access the federal computers and datasets, but I'm expected to work as best as I can and I will continue to be paid. I know I am fortunate compared to my federal colleagues!) The language "excepted" and "non-excepted" was used in all the materials sent out to us by [the federal agencies the writer's organization works with].

3) Now, from a "non-essential"/"non-excepted" reader. The detail below is the real payoff of this reader's account, but the practical implication is this: With every hour that the shutdown goes on, the Coast Guard's understanding of currents, winds, weather fronts, and other trends in the ocean, and therefore it is less and less likely to be able to find people lost at sea

Thank you for your columns on the shut-down. I'm a non-essential civil servant at NOAA so I am home without pay.

The public is being told that the government is operating in a limited way to do what is necessary to protect life and property. I am writing to tell you an example of how the shut-down affects that behind the scenes.

If a plane has to ditch, a boat is swamped, or someone falls overboard at sea, Coast Guard will do the search and rescue. No doubt the folks at CG who do that are essential and not furloughed. When they get a report of a man overboard the first thing they will do is put a marker at the last known location into two ocean models. These models mean to predict where the people and things on the surface will drift as time goes on, pushed by winds and currents.

There are two models, a Navy model and the NOAA RTOFS [Real Time Ocean Forecast System] model, and they'll give slightly different answers, which is good, so CG will get a sense of the uncertainties in the model forecasts. (The models have essentially the same physics embodied in their computer code but they have slightly different ways of assimilating wind data.)

I suppose the people at Coast Guard believe the models are reliable, and probably no one has told them that the models can get less reliable every day that the government is shut down. But the ocean circulation part of the model relies on assimilating data from active radar satellites that measure ocean surface wind speed, wave height, and "dynamic topography", which is the ocean equivalent of what high and low pressure systems are in the atmosphere. If the ocean model doesn't get these data, its prediction of currents gradually 'relaxes' (decays, more or less exponentially) away from a good approximation of the truth and toward an overall background state that is a climatological average.

An analogous situation in weather forecasting would be if you stopped giving the computer models any info about barometric pressure, clouds, winds, and humidity, and then watched what happened to the accuracy of the daily forecast. Before long the forecast would have no fronts, shears, weather, etc. and would just look the same over hundreds of miles, just the background climate.

NOAA operates only one of these active radar satellites for making these essential ocean measurements. .. To make a decent ocean forecast you need at least three of these satellites. There are three, but NOAA treats the other two as 'research', done on a 'best-effort' basis, and the scientists who built that research capacity are all out on furlough. If their computers go down, they aren't allowed back into their building to reboot, and the ocean forecast will quickly become useless for search and rescue.

(Incidentally, the big international, once-a-year science conference on this kind of satellite oceanography is scheduled for next week but unless the government reopens, the NOAA scientists can't go.)

So why aren't all three satellite data streams deemed essential? Basically, it is money. The US isn't investing in satellite technology as it should....

So 'best effort basis' is how we do things, because it gives us flexibility and it is so much cheaper. But it means that (probably not just n Coast Guard search and rescue but in all kinds of stuff throughout the intelligence, defense, and civilian safety sectors) there are downstream things that are 'essential' that depend on (in ways the decision makers may not even be aware of) upstream stuff that is shut-down.

So with each passing day, we're learning more about the surprising connection of public and private functions, national and international, military and civilian, and so on. That teaches us something, but the discoveries are not worth the cost. Especially considering that this is all at the behest of 40-some people who have determined that if the government isn't operating the way they like, they're happy for it to stop operating at all.  [Coast Guard photo]. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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