Yet Another Reason to End the Shutdown

At a bakery in Washington D.C. today, a deal for furloughed government workers. Offers like this, becoming widespread across the area, obviously help. Just as obviously, they're no substitute for regular pay. (Deborah Fallows)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Monday I mentioned what the prolonged government shutdown is doing to the nation’s air-travel system: namely, slowing it down.

The whole system is based on built-in safety buffers. Everyone within it knows that air traffic controllers and TSA screeners, whose jobs are stressful enough at best, have new personal worries. Therefore controllers, dispatchers, TSA supervisors, and others who keep the traffic moving are building in extra protection, mainly by giving themselves more time.

This means more separation for aircraft in what William Langewiesche called the “slam and jam” approach patterns to airports; more time for a screener to take another look at a bag; more caution about everything, since—shutdown or no—the consequences of a hasty mistake could be so grave. People running the system would be irresponsible to do anything else. (Yes, before you point it out: I realize how odd it sounds even to discuss “responsibility” in current circumstances.)

Now Jirs Meuris, of the University of Wisconsin Business School, explains why this cautious approach is even more important than it may seem. In a research paper last fall, he discussed studies showing that the more worried employees were about their personal finances, the more accident- and error-prone they were in their work.

For instance:

[We collaborated] with a national transportation company to collect survey data from over 1,000 short-haul truck drivers and track their accident rates for the subsequent eight months.

Analysis of this data revealed that financial worry was associated with a higher probability of a preventable accident by decreasing drivers’ available cognitive capacity at work….

Based upon the average cost of a commercial truck accident, we estimated that financial worry was associated with $1.3 million per year in company costs due to the higher rates of preventable accidents.


To replicate our findings, we subsequently moved to a laboratory setting. As part of these lab sessions, participants imagined that their car had a break down with an attached price tag of $150 or $1,500 and were asked to write about how this expense would affect their life. Afterward, they completed two cognitive tests and a driving simulation.

After being asked to imagine the consequences of a minor repair bill, or a major one, the subjects took cognitive tests and did a driving simulation. Randomly chosen subjects who were thinking about a $1,500 bill did worse than those thinking they’d have to cover $150.

How would this apply in current shutdown circumstances? Through the university, Jirs Meuris (more of his research here) put out this statement today:

Based on my research, we should be worried about the impact of the current shutdown on our national security and health as thousands of government workers including those at the FBI, DEA, FDA, Border Patrol, and TSA work to protect us from threats while going without a paycheck and living in a state of financial uncertainty.

As their financial insecurity grows, we can be sure that our own security falters along with it. We need to recognize that a shutdown over border security may actually do more harm to it than what there may be to gain from it.

Mitch McConnell could end this insanity tomorrow, by scheduling another vote on the “clean resolution” that passed the Senate on unanimous voice vote three weeks ago, and would clearly pass again now. (The nitty-gritty is discussed at the end of this post.) Donald Trump could end it by returning to his position as of December 19, which was after he’d signaled to the Congress that he would sign that resolution—but before he was scared off by mockery for this “cave in” from Ann Coulter, Steve Doocy, and Rush Limbaugh. And of course, if it really had been of such existential importance, he could worked toward it over the past two years, when his party controlled the Senate and the House.

Meanwhile, we rely on the willingness of hundreds of thousands of public employees to keep showing up for work, keep figuring out how they’ll pay their bills, and meanwhile try to give full mind-share to the next airplane on final approach, and the next bag through the X-ray machine.