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Shutdown Notebook
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Reports about the effects of the 2018-2019 government shutdown.

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Shutdown Notebook: Decline and Fall

From the late 1800s, the library at the State Department, during the era when the United States was building up the capacity of its diplomatic corps. That human and institutional capital is now being run down, a furloughed Foreign Service officer argues. Library of Congress

A current member of the U.S. Foreign Service, originally from a non-coastal ag-economy town like those that my wife, Deb, and I have been writing about, describes how the abstraction of “the shutdown” feels to him and his colleagues.

I could set it up further or highlight its implications, but instead I’ll just say, Please read and think about his account:

For the first time in my 20+ years as a federal employee, I won’t get paid this week.  That hurts, but fortunately my wife—also a federal employee—gets paid out a different account, one that still has a “residual balance.”

But probably not for much longer.  At that point, we’ll live off our savings while Congress and the White House continue to beat their chests and scream at one another, oblivious to the long-term damage they’re doing to our national interests.  

My wife and I have savings to cover the gap, but many of our colleagues aren’t so lucky.  The State Department stopped paying salaries this week for nearly half the members of the Foreign Service, many of whom struggle to get by given the high costs of housing and child care in the Washington, DC area.  I don’t know how many civil servants also won’t get paid, but I assume it’s a lot.  Many of them work in low-paid clerical jobs in the DC area, and they can scarcely afford missing a single paycheck.

The so-called Locally Employed Staff, aka the non-Americans who work at U.S. Embassies around the world, are still getting paid, but no one knows for how much longer.  Many of these local staff endure harassment and worse because they work for the U.S. government.  [JF note: Yes, I have seen this around the world, and know how heavily U.S. embassies and U.S. interests rely on these local workers.] Many of them live paycheck to paycheck, and should we stop paying their salaries, it really will hurt.  I suspect many will quit and never come back.

For me, the worst part of this whole thing has been the confirmation—and I say confirmation rather than realization—that few in Washington in either party care about our federal institutions, much less the people who work in them.

My colleagues and I could go bankrupt, and the institutions where we work—the very institutions that made the U.S. the greatest power in the history of the world—could wither and collapse, and almost no one in Washington would care, except to the extent that they could use the personal suffering and institutional failure to bludgeon and blame the other side.  


One month ago, on December 11, Donald Trump telling Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi that he will be "proud" to take responsibility and blame for a shutdown. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

In response to these past few items — “Let Them Eat Vacation Days,” “3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown,” and “Yet Another Reason to End the Shutdown” — furloughed federal workers write in about their experiences.

Vacation days aren’t the bonanza that they may seem. Last night the head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett, said in apparent seriousness that furloughed federal workers were “in a sense better off,” since they were in effect on “vacation” now and would eventually get back pay.

One veteran federal worker, who is also a military veteran, disagrees:

It's worth noting that even by Mr. Hassett's logic there's going to be workers that are considerably worse off, because an awful lot of federal workers carry "use-or-lose" vacation (I always did).

One of our friends did, in fact, have a lot of vacation scheduled for January that she was forced to take.  Now she's furloughed instead -- and if the furlough ends in the next month, has to take that vacation right away.  Which means she'll probably just go to work "on vacation" to clear out a backlog -- she's not getting "free" vacation days, she's getting screwed out of them.  


Yes, it’s complicated. Another worker to similar effect:

Because the leave year ended January 5, and there is a maximum number of annual leave hours that can be carried forward, some of those furloughed employees were probably using "use or lose" leave.  I am unsure whether the furlough would justify restoration of that leave for all those employees.

(My particular agency is permitting restoration, but that appears to be a agency decision, rather than a broadly-applicable OPM or OMB decision.)

George Frey / Reuters
From the PBS account on Twitter.

This evening on the PBS Newshour, the chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, Kevin Hassett, said this about workers who are going without pay as the government shutdown nears its fourth week:

Right now about 25% of government workers are furloughed. Which means that they are not allowed to go to work.

But then when the shutdown ends, they go back to work, and they get their back pay.

A huge share of government workers were going to take vacation days, say between Christmas and New Year’s.

And then we have a shutdown, and so they can’t go to work. So then they have the vacation, but they don’t have to use their vacation days. And then they come back, and they get their back pay.

Then in some sense they’re better off.

You can see it for yourself, in Hassett’s talk with PBS’s Paul Solman, starting at time 4:20 of this clip.  

I spent enough time in grad-school economics courses to understand the utility-maximization “logic” Hassett is applying. (“Let’s see, the workers are getting all that free time over the holidays, and they still have vacation days in the bank, so overall they come out ahead!”) And in fairness to Hassett, he was talking about the roughly half of furloughed federal workers who are instructed to stay home and not work — rather than the air traffic controllers, TSA screeners, etc, who are told to show up and worry about their pay some other time.

But I have spent enough time in the world to imagine how this will sound to people who have no idea when their regular pay will resume, whose lives and plans are being upended for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their own performance and competence, and who do not consider themselves in any sense “better off.”

Border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, in a photo from early 2008. During a period of increasing gang violence in Mexico, and flows of guns from the U..S. into Mexico, artists had decorated the wall with gun images. For decades, population centers along the border have had sections of fence or wall. Jorge Duenes / Reuters

Today’s life-in-DC gazette: a little while ago I was in a line at a coffee shop with a middle-aged man, who from his accent I guessed (correctly) was from Nigeria. We talked while we were waiting. His was a standard life-in-our times story: He came to the US about 30 years ago. Now a citizen and small-business owner. Children all born here and in, or headed to, college. One of his nephews is a TSA screener at a DC-area airport.

“His rent was due on the 5th, man,” he told me,  of his nephew. “He covered that, but then he was counting on his normal paycheck tomorrow. That’s not going to come, and he’s got his credit card payments. And he has to keep showing up at work each day.” The man I was talking to said he assumed he might have to tide his nephew over through the shutdown.

We all “know” this is happening. But it can be easy to lose sight of how extraordinary and unfair it is. Not a single person within TSA—or the National Park Service, or the Food and Drug Administration, or the Census Bureau, or any other agency—has a single thing to do with the showdown over Donald Trump’s “wall.” But hundreds of thousands of them are being penalized and disrupted by what will soon be the longest shutdown in history.

It can also be easy to lose sight of three baseline realities of this abusive situation. Here’s the summary, with a few more details on each, lower down.

  • Reality one: As recently as three weeks ago, Donald Trump was perfectly willing to keep the government open and defer funding for his wall— until a right-wing chorus made fun of him for looking “weak.”
  • Reality two: Trump and his Congressional party never bestirred themselves to fund this wall back when they had unquestioned power to do so, during the era of Republican control of the Congress in 2017 and 2018.
  • Reality three: the U.S.-Mexico border has come under more control in recent years, not less. It’s been controlled by fences and walls in the busiest areas — as has been the practice for decades. The “crisis” is the politics of the issue, not its underlying realities.

Read on, for more details of each of the three. Or if you stop here, please keep those three points in mind.


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

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: