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Shutting Down the Government—A Very Bad Idea

By Dean Henry E. Brady

Photo of US Capitol with caution tape in foreground

It’s been more than a month (Tuesday, January 22, is day 32) since the partial government shutdown with 800,000 federal workers not getting paid. Economists predict that the closure will shave as much as one-tenth off economic growth for every week that it lasts. Airports are becoming clogged with travelers as TSA workers call in sick. Food stamp funding may run out in the next month. The IRS is recalling workers (without pay) to start processing tax returns. Small business owners can’t get the loans they need, and other business owners can’t get the permits they need to sell alcohol and other commodities. And so forth. 

This seems an apt time to talk about the work of the faculty at the Goldman School of Public Policy who are doing path-breaking research on the role and purpose of government. Among other things, this article contains a list of books that might be useful for those who want to deepen their understanding of government’s successes and its failures. It also argues what should be obvious: Government matters!  

Government matters, but too many Americans don’t realize how much, partly because government has become demonized. GSPP faculty member Amy Lerman’s new book, Good Enough for Government Work, explains how the title phrase of her book was once a compliment on the high quality of some product or action, but it has now become a derisive put-down of government performance. Tragically, even though government unravels and resolves many difficult problems, we now have a “government performance crisis” in America stemming partly from years of ideologically motivated criticisms that have ignored government’s conspicuous successes. For example, as a result of concerted government actions, the air in Los Angeles, where I went to college in the last four years of the 1960s, is no longer dangerously polluted. As a result of Supreme Court decisions, Howard County High in Maryland which I attended as a junior in high school is no longer segregated, and many more of its graduates go on to college than the less than 10% when I attended in the mid-1960s. And, despite claims to the contrary, government social programs, when they have been adequately funded, have ameliorated poverty in America. And so forth.

Government not only solves problems, it also creates a framework within which problems can be solved. In Saving Capitalism—For the Many, Not the Few, Robert Reich punctures the idea that there can be free markets without government rules about property, contracts, competition, natural resources, money and banking, and many other matters. Reich shows how government can make “free markets” work for all of us or for just a few depending upon how they are constructed. In his new book, Children of the Dream, Rucker Johnson shows how past government actions have made the lives of African Americans and others better by promoting integration in the Supreme Court Decision Brown v. Board of Education, by improving equity in school funding in response to Serrano v. Priest, which called for equalization of funding across school districts, and by supporting Head Start for preschool education. Johnson’s book shows how government programs ameliorated problems in the 1960s through 1980s, how local governments drew back from those solutions in the past thirty years, and how we can solve them again with the proper commitment. 

To be sure, government also suffers from failures that can exacerbate problems. It sometimes passes ill-conceived laws, and it makes mistakes. But that's why public policy schools are so important. Our job is to develop better policies and to learn from our mistakes.  

Government must also cope with a dysfunctional political system.  In Unequal and Unrepresented:  Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age, my co-authors and I show that the disparities in wealth and income partly created by government policies (well documented by Robert Reich and others) have interacted with Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United and the operations of the Washington lobbying system to swamp politics with money that favors those who are better off at the expense of the poor and middle class. The result was neatly summarized by Representative Chris Collins (R-New York) who said outside a Republican meeting in November 2017 when the tax reform bill was inching through Congress that “My donors are basically saying, ‘get it done or don’t ever call me again.’” Collins didn’t refer to his “constituents” in this comment. He was talking about his “donors.” Unfortunately, politics is increasingly about donors and not about constituents.     

The evidence is overwhelming that government matters. A recent book, The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis (who doesn’t teach at UC Berkeley but who lives in Berkeley) nails down the case in a series of thoughtful essays about three major risks managed by government:  the risks of energy grid failures and of footloose nuclear material dealt with by the US Department of Energy, the risks of hunger dealt with by the Food Stamps program in the US Department of Agriculture, and the risks of climate change and weather predicted and tracked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US Department of Commerce. Lewis is the bestselling author of many books that describe the operations of American institutions from baseball to capitalism, including Moneyball, Liar’s Poker, and The Big Short. In The Fifth Risk, he builds the case for government.

He also makes the case for government workers. Dealing with mind-boggling, profound, and risky problems, government workers receive much less pay than their highly touted counterparts in private industry, but they make the world safe for all of us. I am reminded of GSPP’s Alumnus of the Year from last fall’s alumni dinner, Tim Uyeki, who is Chief Medical Officer of the Influenza Division at the Centers for Disease Control. Tim literally protects us all from the ravages of flu which could, if we are not careful, result in the 50 to 100 million deaths (3% to 5% of the world's population) of the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920.

Government isn't perfect, but it sure does a lot of important things. Far from being unproductive, when it is doing its job right, it makes it possible for a society to be healthy, wealthy, and wise.   

Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash