February 2, 2019
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Ethics of a Government Shutdown (Again)

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The last time government was a volunteer operation was ancient Greece, when independently wealthy slave-owners gathered on the Pnyx hill in Athens to debate next moves. When a decision was made in Pericles' time to pay for service on Athenian juries, it was radically controversial; its critics, including Aristotle, blamed the innovation, which they thought a form of bribery, for a degradation in quality, drawing in the Athenian working poor who otherwise would not have had the leisure to participate. On the other hand, Rome and Byzantium later included huge paid bureaucracies. In the royal palace at Constantinople, "“Some 20,000 retainers are believed to have been employed in the enclosure”, Tamara Rice, Everyday Life in Byzantium (New York: Barnes & Noble Books 1994) p. 42.

Working on my Mad Manuscript on the history of the idea of free speech, now 6,682 pages, I wondered recently, given the lamentable inability of the Athenian and Roman Republics to endure more than a few centuries, what was Byzantium's secret, that it lasted more than a thousand? I concluded that there was less there than met the eye, no special sauce so to speak, but more a form of inertia created by a lack of interest in warlike adventures, the absence for most of that time of an enemy strong enough to create fractures anywhere, bread and circuses, and near to full employment of the lower classes in agriculture, the military and government bureaucracies. As part of this model of tedious, autocratic longevity, I do not remember any scenarios in which emperors stopped paying their bureaucracies, though this likely happened sometimes at the end of things, when the Goths were a hundred miles away and emperors fled with the gold to their summer palaces. The spectacle of a deliberate choice not to pay your people did not occur anywhere I remember. Even during times of maximum instability, under the madness of a Caligula or a Heliogabulus, it can safely be assumed that the hundreds of thousands of workers needed to keep government going continued to draw their paychecks.

Against this background, the modern American "innovation" of intermittent government shutdowns, which we take as "normal" disasters like droughts or brushfires, are actually highly extraordinary in their dysfunction. There is huge learning to be derived from a study of why these happen, what it means for democracy, and how they were normalized.

I never thought of it before, but there is something to be learned by regarding the Mafia as a sort of control group or paradigm for comparison purposes when analyzing group projects. A Mafia family consists of a boss and his lieutenants. As such, it is a somewhat voluntary association; a boss gains status because the lieutenants who swear loyalty to him will make money. He creates environments in which people can "earn"; one of the things he needs to know how to do well is to attract and select lieutenants who are good "earners". Violence, an important tool, is used in service of the objective of earning money, and if it takes priority and starts to interfere, then the Mafia family is dysfunctional and someone is likely to kill the boss before too long. The boss will likely exploit his lieutenants, taking a higher percentage than they wish, or appropriating certain assets or perks entirely for himself, but he does this within parameters, wishing not to be shot down while exiting Spark's steakhouse. If he ever denied all his lieutenants their pay entirely, he would not survive long.

It would be disastrous enough if government shutdowns occurred as a result of near-bankruptcy, an inability to pay, but the fact they occur voluntarily, as part of the endless Prisoner's Dilemma played by the parties against each other, should be so shocking to everyone that they never happen again. A government shutdown is a form of extortion in which the Mafia would be afraid to engage. When I got mugged in New York City twice in the 1970's, the muggers each time, after taking all my money, gave me a subway token to get home. If I had the means to take the subway, I might not call the police; if I didn't, I would have no choice. A government shutdown is a mugging which leaves the victim without a subway token.

Google Dictionary defines "extortion" as "the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats". Government shutdowns are a form of extortion by this definition. President Trump just shut down the government for 35 days in order to extort the approval of a border wall. The morality of this action is indistinguishable from that of any more familiar form: "Nice government you have here. You wouldn't want anything to happen to it, would you?"

In my Mad Manuscript, I describe a certain kind of self-destructive human behavior as caused by a quality I call "Bloodymindedness", which is ultimate deep irrationality caused by the blind acceptance of a series of conflicting nested premises. Journalists, sociologists and historians have been studying this phenomenon for many decades, while it continues to get worse in the world. If you have time for just one book on the topic, read Thomas Frank, What's The Matter With Kansas? (New York: Metropolitan Books 2004). Frank adroitly analyzes how Kansans have been tricked into voting against their own educations, health care, ownership of property, and salaries. “Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse”. p. 251 Think about the fact that Americans who hate government most are almost universally blind to their own dependence on it; red states are those which pay the least taxes and receive the most government subsidies, yet the people there are easily persuaded that government is the enemy, the Other. I do not know whether the protest sign of which a picture turns up from time to time, is real or a parody: "Get your government hands off my Medicare!" The Bloodymindedness of anyone applauding Trump for taking away the paychecks from people just like themselves is self evident. There are many other moving parts involved in Bloodymindedness; another major one is the ability to see other Americans as Tools, not humans, as how else could you approve using them in an extortion scheme?

The shutdown has also been a teachable moment, revealing the complete obliviousness of government billionaires to the normal lives of the people who voted for the President. Trump himself has claimed that many of the people he deprived of a paycheck are willingly taking the hit, are happy Tools, in service of the goal of a border wall. One of his cabinet members wonders why everyone without a paycheck doesn't simply take a loan, to be repaid when the first paycheck comes in. He is unaware how many workers have no credit, or cannot afford interest, or are hourly or per diem workers who will never be paid for their downtime during a shutdown.

The shutdown is also a case study in the complacency or passivity of the victims. In the Mad Manuscript, I postulated that our society at this late date finds numerous ways to elide human agency. Power actually wants us to believe we don't have the ability to change things, but often we voluntarily accept these tropes as excuses for our own inaction. I define as "Glitches" events which are caused by humans but interpreted as if they were random weather. Wall Street bubbles and slumps are caused, sometimes intentionally, sometimes as an accidental byproduct of rampant greed, but they are caused. Yet millions of us who lost a significant chunk of our net worth we thought was in safe investments during the 2008 "downturn" still believe that our money was not taken as a tax the billionaires imposed on us, but was lost like crops in a random drought. It is highly ironic that changes in the weather itself are now being caused by the human agency we deny.

An insight I had in my twenties is that all governments depend in some respect on the consent of the governed, even quite autocratic ones. There are almost 1.4 billion Chinese. A billion is one thousand million. If a mere one million Chinese (less than a tenth of one percent of the population, if I am doing the math correctly) walked into Beijing together, the government would fall.

I am not blaming the victim here (that means absolving the aggressor), just identifying the role played by our passivity. If every time there was a government shutdown, all the people not receiving pay camped out in front of the White House or on their Congressman's lawns at home, it would be harder to think of them as abstract nonentities. If shutdowns meant there was no government (no airplanes in the air at all the minute a shutdown began), we wouldn't use people as tools any more. The horrendous immorality of shutdowns radiates from what is just one component, the foreknowledge that the people we are harming will almost all continue working without pay.

A few years ago, in the aftermath of the 2008 raid on all our assets to benefit the billionaire class, I read an article about companies in Spain which had simply stopped paying their workers. People kept showing up because they had a chance of being paid again one day; if they quit, they feared becoming part of an increasing class of able adults who would never be employed again in their lives. I have also, in the Mad Manuscript and here, analyzed a phenomenon I call "Late Capitalism". To give you just one pungent example: a public lauding of "customer service", no matter how hypocritical, was a feature of "middle Capitalism", but video of airline security beating customers is one of the iconic images of Late Capitalism. Middle Capitalism figures out how to get a few hundred people working together to build a steamship. Late Capitalism then chops up the decks and railings to feed the boiler. Soylent Green (1973), directed by Richard Fleischer, is a folk-tale of the end of Capitalism ("Soylent Green is people!").

Here is the punch-line: if we regard a government shutdown not as a Glitch, but as an action, isn't the President committing an appalling breach of duty? A president, a king and an emperor all have in common that each, in order to keep the job, owes us a government. This is one of the propositions I hit on sometimes which seem to be almost incontestable by reasonable people. The only way you could argue that a king, for an example, does not owe us a government is by claiming a form of divine right that was rare even in medieval philosophizing, under which we are all assets of the king, to be disposed of as he sees fit, even if he wishes to kill and eat us. There are few people thinking and writing today who would admit to holding that view.

If the President's failure to provide a government is a breach of his most fundamental duty to his electorate, why would it not constitute a "high crime and misdemeanor" under the Constitution? Again, a Mafia boss who deprived his lieutenants of all revenue would not be long for this world. If we all saw the thing clearly, without regard to any Sophistry eliding human agency and encouraging our passivity, Trump's deliberate, extortionate government shutdown would be an impeachable offense.