Were he writing op-eds today, Tolstoy might point out that all shutdowns are dumb, but that this one is the dumbest.
What makes it so dumb? Do I really need to answer that? Suffice it to say that this Congress, which can’t agree on anything, agreed to appropriate the money needed to avoid a shutdown, until President Trump swooped in at the last minute and blocked the deal, based on pressure from his base to “build the wall.” No one, including Trump, knows what “the wall” is, beyond a campaign slogan.
True, spineless Senate Republicans won’t stand up to Trump on this, but the fact remains: If one stubborn, ill-informed person can shut down the government of the world’s largest economy and keep it that way for more than a month, something very important is very broken. And it’s going to take a lot more than ending the shutdown to fix it.
For now, 800,000 furloughed or unpaid government workers are feeling the direct brunt of this idiocy, but consider that Trump’s chief economist, Kevin Hassett, warned that the shutdown is doing so much damage to the economy that it could mean that the real gross domestic product growth rate this quarter will be zero. As I’ll explain in a moment, I suspect he’s wrong, although quarterly numbers are volatile, so you never know.
But what is Hassett saying here? Is he trying to send his boss a message? Trump explicitly owns the shutdown, so I can’t be the only one having trouble wrapping the aging noggin around his administration complaining about its effect. They could stop it by the time I finish writing this missive! Hassett warning about the shutdown’s effect is like a mugger warning you that if he doesn’t cease and desist, you might get hurt.
Ironically, if the government remains partly shut down through March — an unprecedented disaster — we won’t learn the GDP growth rate for the current quarter because the Commerce Department won’t release it. But let’s think about the macroeconomics of this a bit.
Last seen, real GDP growth was trending at a 3 percent rate, goosed by a tight labor market generating moderate real wage gains, which in turn support solid consumer spending. Because such spending is 68 percent of our GDP, that’s a decent tail wind. True, a variety of head winds, including higher interest rates, weaker home sales, slower global growth and, yes, team Trump repeatedly kicking the ball in our own goal — trade war, shutdown — are expected to shave maybe one-half a percentage point off the trend (more if the shutdown persists). That gets us into the 2 percent range, although technical factors could slice a bit more off the rate (in recent years, first quarter GDP has been over-adjusted down for seasonal effects).
That’s not zero, but again, these numbers — if they come out! — are noisy, so who knows? Also, as Hassett noted, some of this lost growth comes back when the shutdown ends and government spending ramps up more than it would have otherwise.
Is there any way out of this seemingly never-ending dumbness?
I’m not just talking about ending the shutdown, although that’s the first imperative. Perhaps the Senate votes that are scheduled for Thursday, although not expected to pass, will be the beginning of the end. If not, and I don’t say this lightly, I’d urge Transportation Security Agency workers to engage in either a massive sickout or a strike, the latter of which would be illegal and is thus not without risk (although working without pay shouldn’t be legal either). Shut down air travel and you un-shutdown the government in about an hour, I’d bet. I acknowledge that it’s easy to tell other people to engage in civil disobedience, although I guarantee you, I wouldn’t be the only progressive to join that picket line.
But what I’m talking about — and what so many of us are longing for — is to get away from arguments about “the wall” and whether and where Trump will give his State of the Union address (because of the expected content of that speech, I can think of no less pressing question), to the policy debates we’re not having. We’re existentially threatened by climate change. That’s partly a function of inadequately regulated capitalism that’s also delivering monopolistic dominance in key industries (tech, health, retail) and oligarchic levels of income and especially wealth inequality. Our pay-to-play political system maps such wealth concentration onto the least representative politics and policies that many of us have seen in our lifetimes.
Trump and Brexit and authoritarian leaders worldwide offer easy answers to these challenges: It’s the elites, it’s the immigrants, it’s people who don’t look like you. More often than not, they do so while appropriating even more wealth for themselves, their families and their donors.
Let’s be very clear about this: Such leadership loves the fight between “Nancy and Don” about the State of the Union. This is the only type of fight Trump’s knows. Beyond serving up tax cuts and deregulation to their donor base, and the “wall-that-Mexico-will-fund” to their political base, they got nothing.
Again, ending the shutdown is the first order of business. But at the same time, progressives must cordon off the crazy and start intensely facilitating and planning for the essential shift in political power. I’ve been trying to help on the policy front and will continue to do so.
But we all need to row in the same direction on this one, by which I decidedly don’t mean we have to agree on the way forward. Let’s argue about Medicare for More vs. Medicare-for-all, and job subsidies vs. job guarantees, and where to set the top marginal rate. But every minute spent fighting on Trump’s turf is a minute wasted in the greatest cause of this moment: the one to revitalize representative democracy.