The Upside of the Government Shutdown

The shut-down elements that are attracting much of the news attention turn out to be fairly easily replaceable.


The government "shutdown" is starting to feel a lot like the sequester — a lot of alarmist warnings that the sky is going to fall, followed by business pretty much as usual.

That's not to minimize the genuine inconvenience or worse for those government employees who have been furloughed, or for cancer patients involved in clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health, an institution that House Republicans voted to fund but that Senate Democrats are holding hostage.

But for most of the rest of us, it turns out that the government can "shut down" and life goes on pretty much the same as it did before. Now there's a valuable insight that it's almost worth having the government shut down to discover.

As the Washington Examiner's Byron York has reported, only about 17 percent of the government is actually shut down, as measured by expenditures. So it's not a full shutdown as much as a slimdown or a partial shutdown.

But even so, the shut-down elements that are attracting much of the news attention turn out to be fairly easily replaceable.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics failed to issue its employment report for the month of September. But NPR managed to come up with five alternative measures, including the ADP payroll report, state data on unemployment claims, the PNC Financial Services Group's Autumn Outlook Survey, and a report by an outplacement company about planned layoffs.

The New York Times had an article about how tourists in Boston were upset that Faneuil Hall, which is run by the National Park Service, was closed. The Times did not mention that a short walk away, other sites on the Freedom Trail of historic Revolution-era Boston, like the Old State House (run by the private Bostonian Society) and the Old South Meeting House (run by the private Old South Association) remained open. No wonder the president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist tweeted, "It may be time to discuss how many federal gov parks could be handed over to states that are more competent to run them. Or privatized."

"Government Shutdown Negatively Impacts Students' Ability to Conduct Research," was the headline over a news article in the Harvard Crimson. One student complained that "The panda cam at the D.C. Zoo is shut down, and watching the panda cam is a good study break." Word apparently had not reached Cambridge about the panda cams still up and running at the zoos in Atlanta, San Diego, and Memphis.

Another Harvard student complained, "The Library of Congress website has been down, and that has impacted my research for my thesis…It's stalling my project." In fact the Library of Congress Web site appears to be up, but if it isn't, the web sites of the New York Public Library and Harvard's own Widener library, both with collections nearly as vast, remain online.

If there's an upside to this shutdown, it is the opportunity it provides to take federal government services that are assumed to be necessary and put them under new scrutiny. Can we do without them? Are these things that can be done better, or as well, by state or local government or by the private sector, either for-profit or not-for-profit?

These are questions that are asked too little in Washington and in the rest of the country in normal times. Part of the eagerness in Washington for a swift end to the shutdown stems from the fear that Americans might conclude that they can get along okay without the 17 percent of government that is closed.