What if the government held a shutdown and no one noticed? Those of us in the nation’s heartland will be forgiven, I trust, for not discerning any noticeable difference in our lives as our nation’s capitol continues its imbroglio. The New York Times reports that the effects of the shutdown are felt most keenly in the D.C. area, “a region that boasts one of the country’s richest, strongest economies, powered by government spending and a large, stable federal work force.”
The emergence of strong capitol cities in large-scale democracies signal the triumph of “court” politics over “country” politics, as patronage, rent-seeking, cronyism, and other pathologies are funded by the expropriation and relocation of wealth from the hinterlands. Foresaw at our Constitutional founding by that document’s critics, this transfer of wealth and power reflect and speed the demise of Republican government.
Such centralization of power carries with it ever-diminishing levels of government transparency and an ever-confusing array of government services. Taxpayers notice no difference in the level of service, while those who “provide” the services, or derive their livelihood from such provision, have their lives significantly altered. The catastrophic consequences of the shutdown for the DC area, balanced against the utter absence of them in the areas that ultimately provide the capitol with its capital, suggests some sort of serious inversion in our politics, not the least of which is the idea that we are paying a lot of money from which we receive no discernible benefits.
A good deal of this is due to the increased size and complexity of government. Government growth cannot be charted on the wall like a toddler’s. It is more incremental, and this incrementalism explains in part how taxpayers never get too worked up about how their money is spent. I was reminded of this recently when I looked upon this chart, which outlines the $10m+ payroll budget for diversity employees at the University of Michigan:
I remind the reader that this is one policy area in one university in one state. Granted this is a small part of the University of Michigan’s $9 billion budget, and to be fair is only a couple million more total than what the school pays its underperforming football coach, but it suggests a disconnect between the mechanisms of funding and the mechanisms of spending.
A good portion of the taxpayers can probably think of a hundred things they’d rather see the University spend money on than its massive diversity-industrial complex — if the taxpayers even knew that this much money was being spent on these kinds of activities.
The fact that the shutdown has gone by without any significant public outrage is an indication of how remote government has become from the lives of most Americans. And that, in turn, is an indication of how bloated government has become, and how it has been engaged in a kind of growth that is more self-serving than it is public serving.
How much of an actual difference would it make, for example, if the University of Michigan cut its diversity staff by half? Certainly for those who would lose their jobs, but my guess is it would have no effect on the life of the university and might well have a salutary effect on the quality of education. A quick perusal of job descriptions indicates that most officers hold positions that have no intrinsic relationship to the enterprise of education itself.
This most interesting government shutdown we’ve had recently resulted in the “sequester” of 2013. The sequester affected the kinds of across-the-board spending cuts that are the only way to effect serious budgetary restraint. Over a ten-year period it saved the taxpayers “only” $1 trillion. Again, very few people noticed any difference in the level of government service as a result of such saving.
In any complex bureaucracy, individual departments are always motivated to do two things: 1) spend every dollar they are allocated; and, 2) ask for more next year.
Targeted cuts don’t work in part because policy-makers have a difficult time deciding who is worthy and who isn’t, particularly if they have a vested interest in particular policies or offices, such interests being widely represented. If the University of Michigan wants a storm of controversy, it can announce that it is going to scale back its diversity initiatives as a money-saving device, even if such scaling back results in no discernible change in outcomes.
These lessons are true for any larger scale bureaucracy, be it public or private. Most colleges across the country are having to engage in serious belt-tightening, and across-the-board cuts are the surest means to achieve that. Most academic departments can cut 5% off their budget with no trouble whatsoever (I know this for a fact because I did it repeatedly when I was Chair of the Political Science department at Hope College). These measures are necessary as a way to keep departments lean, and to stem the incrementalism that makes governance fatter and less responsive. To use current argot: growth is the enemy of nimbleness.
A government shutdown is an opportunity for all organizations to ask themselves some basic questions: are we actually performing the tasks that funders expect us to? Are the right people being provided with appropriate services? Are we (rather than the public) the primary beneficiaries of the largesse? How can we cut our budgets rather than grow them? How can we control our costs with an eye toward being responsible to those who fund us? (How often do college bureaucrats, for example, give thought to tuition-payers?)
Feasts need to be followed by fasting. The government shutdown is a good opportunity for taxpayers to think carefully about what they are getting for their money. Likewise, it’s a good opportunity for those invested in nonprofits such as colleges to think about the relationship between their funding and the services they provide. If you held a shutdown, who would notice?