Since 2016, an ongoing Spoiler Alerts has been whether one can ethically serve in the Trump administration. Last year, many of us argued that below the political appointee level, it was actually a great time to enter the State Department as a Foreign Service officer. As I noted last March:
It is precisely when conditions seem inhospitable that a young person can make a difference. American 20-somethings interested in international affairs have often advanced their careers by volunteering to live in the less charming parts of the globe. Because of the hardship, they are given greater responsibilities than they otherwise would get. My early career was helped immensely by my willingness to live in Donetsk, Ukraine, during a year of mild hyperinflation.
Aspiring young people interested in international affairs should think of Foggy Bottom right now as one of those inhospitable locales (the White House is another, far more ethically compromised story). No one wants to be there right now. The current administration will not last forever, however. A State Department under competent management will have a lot of interesting and challenging work to do. Best to swim against the tide and build up seniority now. Think of it as buying a stock that is fundamentally sound even as the market is panicking. You will not profit in the short run, but if you have the patience to buy and hold, you will prosper in the long run.
It’s a bearish market for American foreign policy, but the fundamentals are decent. Buy low. Go and serve.
Soon after that essay ran, current and former FSOs emailed me to say that this was exactly the way to think about the conundrum. Which was reassuring. Tufts liked the argument so much that it recently published an updated version in its alumni magazine.
Ten months later, does this advice still hold? I am no longer sure. And if I am unsure about this, it’s bad news for the federal government.
The most obvious difference between now and then is the longest government shutdown in history and its effect on the civil service. The affected government employees have missed two paychecks, and many of them are now showing up at food banks to feed themselves. This problem is compounded for those workers deemed “critical,” as they are required to show up and work long hours with no pay and no time to work for pay anywhere else.
The effect on the bureaucracy has been, how you say, not good. This month, Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer filed a story on how the State Department is coping with the shutdown. It’s a sad story:
Some bureaus are setting up rotations for employees on and off furlough to spread the money from their dwindling coffers. A group of current and former officials has started pooling money together to buy groceries for their colleagues who are running out of money. Others have started fundraisers for janitors and other lower-paid contractors who staff the department’s Washington headquarters; as contractors, they won’t receive any back pay that federal employees might receive at the end of the shutdown. Still other employees are sharing information on how to talk to credit card companies as bank accounts dwindle and bills go unpaid or on résumé-building tips for contractors who have lost their jobs in the shutdown. ...
U.S. diplomats overseas describe embassies whose day-to-day functions and public engagement have largely ground to a halt. ...
At one major U.S. consulate in Northern Europe, employees were told that the consulate has only nine days of toilet paper left, according to one U.S. diplomatic source.
Gramer filed that report 10 days ago.
The Trump administration has responded to the shutdown with a mixture of confusion, indifference and malevolence. Trump himself epitomizes the confusion. He has been all over the map about the effects on affected government workers, tweeting that it didn’t matter because “most of the people not getting paid are Democrats” (they’re not) but also saying repeatedly that most of them support building a wall (they don’t).
Kevin Hassett, Trump’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, highlights the indifference in this snippet:
To be fair to Hassett, he might be correct if we all lived in Rationalia, a land in which access to capital is not restricted by net worth and there was no risk aversion. Here in America, however, many, many people, including federal employees, have little net worth and are constrained in their ability to borrow. And, of course, his argument does not apply to contractors, who will receive no back pay. Hassett subsequently admitted that he underestimated the growth effects of the shutdown, so perhaps it would be best for all concerned if he shut the hell up for a spell.
As for malevolence, there is the Trump appointee who last week penned an anonymous op-ed in the Daily Caller titled, “I’m a Senior Trump Official, and I Hope a Long Shutdown Smokes Out the Resistance.” Some highlights:
On an average day, roughly 15 percent of the employees around me are exceptional patriots serving their country. I wish I could give competitive salaries to them and no one else. But 80 percent feel no pressure to produce results. If they don’t feel like doing what they are told, they don’t. ...
Saboteurs peddling opinion as research, tasking their staff on pet projects or pitching wasteful grants to their friends. Most of my career colleagues actively work against the president’s agenda. This means I typically spend about 15 percent of my time on the president’s agenda and 85 percent of my time trying to stop sabotage, and we have no power to get rid of them. Until the shutdown. ...
Senior officials can reprioritize during an extended shutdown, focus on valuable results and weed out the saboteurs. We do not want most employees to return, because we are working better without them. Sure, we empathize with families making tough financial decisions, like mine, and just like private citizens who have to find other work and bring competitive value every day, while paying more than a third of their salary in federal taxes.
There are so many things wrong with the op-ed that it is difficult to know where to start. The first and simplest is the writer’s perception of the federal workforce. I only spent a year working in the federal government, but based on my experience those ratios should be reversed. Eighty-five percent of my colleagues at Treasury, Justice, State and the White House were smart, dedicated and competent at their jobs. I was there during a transfer in the party in power from Democrat to Republican, and there was no sabotage of political appointees. There was occasional pushback, mostly when it was thought that the political appointee did not understand the particular policy initiative he was dismissing. Like when some new appointees wanted to scuttle the global anti-money-laundering regime right before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Second, the claim that the government is working more effectively is a baldfaced lie. We know it’s a lie because in the days after this op-ed ran, the administration began recalling massive numbers of furloughed workers, including the entire State Department, in many cases to implement the administration’s signature policies. And despite this, the stresses are showing in complex systems such as air travel.
Third, and perhaps most obvious, the system does not work like the anonymous op-ed writer seems to think. Talented employees choose to work for the federal government because of a sense of duty, or from a preference for job security over maximizing their income. In either case, a shutdown is guaranteed to force these people to look for the exits. It is precisely the most talented bureaucrats who will best be able to find private-sector alternatives. This means that, after the shutdown, the federal bureaucracy will have hemorrhaged its best staff, not its worst. Whomever wrote this op-ed never had to manage a nonprofit or for-profit entity in his or her life.
If and when the national security bureaucracy starts hiring again, I would still recommend signing on if one feels the call of public service. The shutdown will mean that you’re buying even lower than you would have last year. What has changed is that the risks are now higher. The chances are excellent that there will be more shutdowns in the future. The risks to government service are now approximating those of the private sector, with worse pay. This is not a recipe for attracting the best and brightest.