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October 02, 2013

Dispatches from a Shutdown (Dave at Garfield Ridge)

[BUMPED 10/2 -- GM.]

Allow me to introduce myself: I’m a federal civilian employed by the Department of Defense here in Washington, D.C. In my personal life, I consider myself a small-government conservative with a strong libertarian streak—essentially, your stereotypical Tea Partier.

And I’ve just been furloughed, thanks to the shutdown.

(Long post to follow... yes, longer even than Ace's movie reviews...)

After a long shutdown-enabled day of Grand Theft Auto V, beer, and scratching myself-- I had to pass on the ping pong balls, ever since that "incident" in Thailand-- Ace has graciously allowed me to post my thoughts on the shutdown, given my fairly atypical perspective: a big government employee who happily hates big government.

Before I begin, there are a few items that I’d like to get out of the way, in order to establish some “ground rules.”

First, I’m writing in a personal capacity, i.e. all statements to follow are either facts as I understand them, or my personal opinions, but nothing represents the official views of the Department of Defense, or any other government agency.

Second, full disclosure: I am a “non-essential” employee.

Now, every time there’s a weather, sequester or shutdown-related furlough, some of my friends on the Right inevitably snark, “If they’re non-essential, why don’t we just fire them all?” Alas, contrary to the (well-intentioned!) snark seen across the blogosphere of the Right, “non-essential” is NOT synonymous with “unnecessary.”

To explain, here’s an analogy: when a naval vessel is in port, there is a skeleton crew that mans the ship. These personnel—let’s call them “essential”—ensure that their ship doesn’t rust, doesn’t sink, and doesn’t get sabotaged. They can’t sail the ship, however, nor can they enter battle. This band of few, of happy few, are far removed from the full complement required to fight the ship.

On paper, that’s the difference between the government’s definition of “essential” versus “non-essential” employees. Essential employees can keep the government running, but they can’t run the government *well*. The non-essential employees are required to run the government at full effectiveness.

Again, on paper.

In practice, of course, I am the first to acknowledge that not all federal employees—or even agencies, for that matter—are required to run the government at full effectiveness. Quite the opposite, in fact—the federal government, in 2013, is a hidebound Gulliver tethered in the bondage of the countless rules and regulations of our Lilliputian bureaucracy.

An axiom I’ve long subscribed to is that a government tasked to do everything is a government that can do nothing well; “big government” is demonstrably incapable of being effective government. Hence, my desire for a smaller government, focused on its core Constitutional duties, that exchanges the gargantuan federal bureaucracy for a more competent and effective limited government. Like many of you, I’m certain that the federal government can get along just fine with far fewer people, essential or otherwise. That’s a fight and a blog post, however, for another day.

For the purposes of this post, let’s accept that at least some percentage of “non-essential” employees are indeed still required to run the government at the level of effectiveness desired by the overwhelming majority of Americans, regardless of ideology.

My Perspective

That out of the way, why am *I* considered non-essential?

I work in a pretty small office, only six people. As recently as two years ago, there were *ten* people working in my office, but through attrition and re-assignment, it’s been reduced to five, without replacement, all thanks to Sequestration.

To be honest, ten people to do our work was too many, and I can’t say I miss them all. Especially that one guy who smelled like ham.

Six people, however, makes things pretty tight. One person goes TDY, one person gets sick, heck one person goes on leave, and things start to slip, and slip hard. I work (unpaid) overtime and (unpaid) weekends, I routinely cancel leave, I do what needs to be done in order to get the mission accomplished.

I’m not stating this for sympathy, just sharing for understanding.

Thanks to the shutdown, my office of six people is down to two-- two people to do the work of six, work that just recently was done by ten. As a result of the shutdown, things just aren’t going to get done, or if done, done poorly.

Why aren’t things going to get done? Well, because the "non-essential" people sent home today still have unique skills. For instance, I am literally the single point of failure within the entire Department for a number of issues. Serious issues, stuff you would all assume our government should be paying attention to, 24/7/365. Out of hundreds of thousands of people, I am literally the only person who knows what I know, and who does what I do.

As a small-government conservative, and a humble (HA!) realist, I know the world will go on just fine without me for several days, perhaps even weeks. However, even as a small-government conservative, I can’t argue in good faith that what I do *shouldn’t* be done, ever.

Again, for a short period of time, the people remaining in my office can keep doing the work. The world will still turn, the Republic will survive, and babies will still sleep soundly in their cribs. But in time, atrophy and entropy will set in, and the government Americans, both Right and Left, demand will inevitably begin to fail to accomplish even the minimal goals we set for it.

That’s bad.

We should all agree that shutdowns, whatever their reason, whatever their politics, are a bad way to run our government.

What To Do About It?

Why is the shutdown bad? Let me talk instead about the Sequester for a moment.

The federal government is too large. It does too much that shouldn’t be done by the federal government—or, any government, at any level. And it does much of what it does poorly. Oh, and yeah, we can’t afford it, not at the price of more ruinous debt. For these reasons I strongly believe the federal government should be reduced in size and scope. I'm sure that here at the HQ, most of you accept these contentions at face value.

That all said, the Sequester remains one of the dumbest ways yet invented by man of achieving these ends.

For one, it’s not big enough-- the Sequester cuts are too small. But even for being too small, they’re too clumsy—across-the-board cuts each fiscal year, do not pass go, do not allow for wise decision-making; not in your household, not in the government.

After a decade of ginormous wartime growth, our defense budget can be cut. Oh, how can it ever! But it was always dumb, and remains dumb, to do it the way Sequester does it.

What would I suggest instead?

First, if you gave me ten minutes and the authority to fire federal civilians, I’d find you all the money you need, with five minutes to spare. ;-)

Unfortunately, firing a federal civilian is, for all intents and purposes, an impossible task, in large part because it’s prevented by the unions (of which I am NOT a member, nor are many federal civilians, contrary to the stereotype).

Boy, sure would be nice to get Congress to reform civilian performance, eh? Oh, wait, we tried that, and we were told we couldn’t do that.

Likewise, give me the authority to eliminate certain programs, and I’ll find you money.

In this case, however, Congress routinely prevents this. Every program has a constituency, after all, and some members won’t rest until there’s a C-130J in every schoolyard in America, or an M-1 Abrams in every garage. No, far better to cut everything equally—and thus, ruin everything, equally—than enable agencies to make their own strategic choices. In this way, Congress abdicates the responsibility to cut programs-- and thus, jobs-- in their districts, preferring instead to let Sequester do their dirty work.

Lastly, give me the authority to reform our entitlement systems, and I’ll find you money. Who's up for grabbing THAT third rail with me?

A popular, and astute, observation on the Right is that the United States of America in 2013 is a pension plan with an Army.

The sad corollary to that joke is that the *Army itself* is now a pension plan with an Army—military personnel costs and benefits increasingly eat away at DoD discretionary spending with each passing year.

Now, I support the troops. YOU support the troops. We’re all agreed: we support the troops.

That out of the way, here’s the harsh truth: we can’t afford to keep giving the troops, let alone civilians, the benefits we’ve given them. The same promises Detroit gave its firefighters, the same promises California gives its teachers, these same promises were made to uniformed military and federal civilians alike. And they all share one thing in common: they're unsustainable, because we are out of money.

For my entire career, I’ve watched Congress after Congress approve pay raises, pension increases, TRICARE subsidies, and retention bonuses, all without question. It made obvious political sense; heck, it even made practical sense. Back when the economy was good—remember those days?—giving good perks ensured that the enlistments would follow. During wartime, of course, additional costs were incurred: hazard pay, re-enlistment bonuses, etc.

But I ask, why is the natural order of things to always increase these benefits, no questions asked? We didn’t respect our military any less in the 1980s, before the 1990s benefits growth. Nor did we respect our military any less in the 1990s, before the 2000s benefits growth. America has had an all-volunteer military since before I was born. Why must our volunteer military be more expensive, adjusted for inflation, to operate it today, in 2013, than it was in 1973?

Arguing against this, however, is political suicide. It’s like Social Security: if you don’t give out the COLA every year, you want to shove seniors over a cliffside. Conservatives won’t accept this false argument when applied to seniors; we shouldn’t accept this argument when it’s applied to government employees, i.e. our military.

Of course, I'm a realist: I accept that dismantling these entitlements will take time, perhaps even cost money in the short-run, and potentially be politically toxic. I accept that the price of reforming these entitlements-- just like reforms to the national entitlement system, such as those proposed by Paul Ryan-- will probably require liberal “grandfathering” of currently serving men and women, with adjustments coming to new officers and enlisted entering service. We should keep our promises, as many as possible, starting with our bravest men and women first in line. I get all that.

But this isn’t sustainable. And worse, it isn’t wise. Just as the nation as a whole is harmed when the overwhelming share of the federal budget is taken up by welfare state entitlements and debt payments, so is the capability of the United States armed forces when the defense budget is consumed by its own entitlement spending.

Now, that’s the men and women in uniform; what about federal civilians like me?

First, we should have Reductions in Force (RIFs). We've grown since 9/11, and fought two wars. Now, it's time to downsize. Early retirements and attrition will take care of some folks, but not enough. I bet these are coming, and the fight for and against them will be politically charged.

Now, if my job is eventually RIF’ed out of existence, oh well, I’ll just go do honest work somewhere else. But the cuts will need to come.

Second, more BRAC rounds are probably in order. Congress will bray like angry goats at the thought, but why spend money for things we don’t need? (Oh, right, I forgot: because that’s what government does best).

Third, we must charge civilians more for their benefits.

Health care, obviously; I hate the “Affordable” Care Act like the rest of you, but I agree with the argument that if it’s good enough for America, it should be good enough for us. Once it’s obvious that it ISN’T good enough for us, then maybe we’ll be able to convince our political superiors the bad news, that ACA isn’t working. Few politicians listen to the American people; maybe they'll listen to the people fetching their coffee. Put me, and my co-workers, on the ACA, and make us suffer this law with the rest of the people we serve.

Pension reforms, definitely. Federal civilians get three retirement benefits under the Federal Employee Retirement System: Social Security, the Thrift Savings Plan, and the defined-benefit pension.

Social Security must be fixed nationally. Like many, I’ll be shocked if it’s there when I retire, *if* I ever retire, but that’s another fight.

The Thrift Savings Plan is a 401(k)-like plan that works very well, and appears to be self-sustainable from what I’ve read. I’m certain that, like far too many private sector 401(k) investors, not enough federal employees contribute enough to their TSP accounts; whatever can be done to increase incentives to invest there is obviously wise.

As for the defined-benefit pension, like many Americans, I don’t expect to have a pension when I retire. Oh sure, Uncle Sam says I’ll get it, but c’mon: this can’t possibly survive the next thirty years.

But I think it *could* survive, IF reforms were undertaken now. Namely, force federal civilians to contribute more to their pensions, as certain politicians are proposing Right now, many civilians contribute a measly one percent of our salary to a very generous pension system. If they changed the rules today to a more substantial three or even five percent of our salaries, the federal pension system could, perhaps, be made robust enough to weather the storm that is foundering so many state and local governments.

Much like Representative Ryan’s proposals for national entitlements, fixing most of these problems early is far less painful than waiting until later. And, in fact, fixing them early may be the ONLY way to fix them... if we can fix them at all. (I'll defer to Monty for the Vegas betting lines on that).

Instead, I fear we’re going to do what we’ve always done: ignore the problem until it’s too late to affordably fix the problem. Which means that a sizable portion of my retirement portfolio will likely just disappear into the ether, poof, as if it never existed at all, because the leaders I serve failed to make the tough choices today. America will go the way of Detroit, all because people failed to listen, and failed to act.

Gee, thanks guys, way to have our backs.

The Politics of the Shutdown

I’m not going to re-hash the fights here at the HQ. Between my friends Gabe and Drew, they’ve covered the bases well when it comes to political strategies and popular (or unpopular) choices.

Yet, given how the shutdown directly affects *me*, I will say this: if the shutdown doesn’t accomplish anything enduring, then it was stupid to shut down the government. Just as Sequestration was stupid.

NONE of these actions alone save us enough money. NONE of these actions alone force the sound structural changes required to save us enough money. And lastly, at least by my lights, none of these actions alone posture the Right effectively for winning the long-term victories required to force those changes.

Make no mistake: conservatives are fighting a campaign, not a battle. We will lose battles. We will also have to choose to not fight certain battles in order to be better posture to win future ones.

I hate how we’ve lost so much so far. I hate how we haven’t had more success. I hate how we have plenty of tacticians on our side, but too few strategists. I hate how some Republicans—both in the RINO camp as well as the “true conservative” side—relish fighting each other more than they do the other side.

Now, the latter is to be expected, it’s human nature. As Ace has written here many times, fights among friends are often the worst. Civil wars, etc. Ask any old Bolshevik whether he hated the Mensheviks more than running-dog capitalists and they’ll tell you the same old story: our friends suck.

But here’s the thing: I personally was ordered gave up my salary for a Sequestration that doesn't save enough money. And today, I was ordered home, ordered not to the job I've done for well over a decade, for a shutdown that almost certainly won’t stop the ACA.

I may be out of work a day, or a week, or a month—like everyone sent home today, I have no clue. Now, I’m not looking for sympathy; I make great money, I responsibly saved enough money to survive rainy days, and I recognize how fortunate I am that I *have* a job in this awful economy. But like all of you, I still have bills to pay, obligations to meet, and plans to accomplish.

Many people in the rest of the country, even my friends on the Right, don’t truly appreciate how ridiculously expensive it has become to live in this area. I make well over six figures, but far too much of it is eaten up paying for 2-bedroom duplex, utilities, student loans (still!), groceries and keeping a car. Thanks a lot, Big Government, for making it so damn expensive to live here, with all your rent-seeking lobbyists, Beltway Bandits, and parasitic class.

But... I asked for this. Ever since I was a young boy, I wanted to work in national security. A dorky South Side Chicago kid weaned on Tom Clancy novels, Harpoon on his PC, and Advanced Third Reich laid out on a basement card table who knew at an early age that he wanted to work to keep his nation safe. And I knew that the only way to do that was to work for the federal government.

I chose to become a public servant, recognizing that while I may argue against Big Government, against the welfare state, against the Department of Education, national security is and always will be a core function of our nation's federal government. Meaning, even as a conservative champion of limited-government, I wanted a career where I could still sleep at night, still look at myself in the mirror in the morning.

And now, today, I’m out of that job. All because politicians are making a gamble that may not even pay off.

I would be THRILLED to lose paychecks in return for delaying the ACA. I’ll gladly pay that price, for I know it would save millions of my fellow citizens the money and headache of complying with a disastrous law. Take my job, please, and get rid of this abomination.

But who genuinely believes this will work? I fear that it won't. I fear that I, and many others, will have sacrificed pay—and not performed our jobs as public servants, serving each of you—in sacrifice for nothing much gained at all.

So, GOP? Conservatives? Sequester, shutdown, now that we're finally here, I’ll support anything the team does, I’ll pay any price… just win something already, okay?

Just frakkin’ win, and make my sacrifice, and those of thousands of others, worthwhile.


Thank you again to Ace for allowing me to post my personal thoughts. Now, back to running over hobos in Los Santos... (Is that Trevor dude awesome, or what? He's totally an honorary moron...)

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