Uncle John's Answer:
The recent Budget debacle caused that question to surface from the undereducated ooze, and bubble up to appear on the editorial page of the local newsrag. It is an interesting question, one which will haunt the federal employee for a long time to come. The answer lies deeper than it would seem. True, the US Government does have some employees that even their co-workers consider "non-essential". And that fact begs the question of why they are allowed to remain. Beavis and Butthead present the Zen-like "In order for something to be Cool, something else has to Suck" answer. But I'm not sure that is a sufficient response. The Federal Government, in it's unrelenting quest to be fair to all has brought that reality on itself. People who do not perform are given another chance, and another, etc. because the bureaucratic machine must be e bureaucratic machine must be fed a tremendous snack of forms in triplicate and justification letters out the wazoo in order to issue walking papers. All to document to infinite detail, reasons for termination which are completely free of apparent bias or predjudice on the part of the supervisor. So in most cases, it is simply more productive to "work around" the errant employee, and let the co-workers pick up the slack until the person retires, dies, or gets a transfer to the procurement department where he can have a more potent, albeit more widely distributed, "control rod" effect on the reactor of fiscal progress. Now let's get down to the meat of the question.
When the government defines a position (never an individual) as "non-essential", there is a specific set of parameters implied. The easiest thing to do here is define the essential positions and, using set theory, allow us to form an implicit definition of Non-essential. We could all agree that the national defense is a service that we cannot in all good conscience suspend. (I'm not willing to climb out on the limb of declaring the entire staff of the DoD to be essential, having worked for that organization, I could name a few that fit into the category at the top of the page.) But let's keep the troops at the ready. Next, of course is the Federal Reserve. The entire economy would collapse without it. Banks all use the Fed to transfer moFed to transfer money back and forth, so if it were shut down, we would need some time to devise a system of private construction which would take it's place. But that would take a long time. Ok, how about law enforcement? Keep the FBI going? Yeah, at least a good part of it. Somebody's got to investigate and process federal crimes, and if there is a lapse in investigation, many criminals would just slip away, the trail would get cold. As for the Secret Service, CIA, NSA, NRO, etc., there is probably a lot that they do that we as a free people would be happy to see curtailed. But not being able to peer under the curtain of secrecy limits our ability to define their essential services. Assume they're in. We could go on here, but the rest is left as an excercise for the reader. So when we have decided who will stay, we are left with the 800,000 Non-essential Federal workers who had the week off.
The National Park Service are the curators of our natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park, etc. and our man made wonders such as the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian, the Statue of Liberty, and other "tourist" attractions. No, they are not essential, the government will go on without them. But according to news reports, people were really upset that these sites were closed to the public. Not only that, but there were ripple effects in private commerce operating in the shadows of these places. Tourhese places. Tour bus operators and souvenier vendors in D.C. closed down. Their employees were not labled as such, but in truth they were non-essential. Would these people agree? Well, if asked if they were essential, the tour bus drivers would probably respond with "Sure, They need us to drive the busses." They would be right, of course. But they don't fit the definition of essential to the functioning of the country that we cobbled up out of inferences in the previous paragraph. That brings us to the real question.
How many people outside of the government are filling positions which are "non-essential"? How many fast-food cooks does it take to keep the country running? How many supermarket check-out operators? (Couldn't we pass our groceries accross the scanner ourselves?) How many bank tellers? (We have the ATM!) How many construction workers? (Seems like a lot of houses sitting empty.) Keep going. Find your job on the list, and apply the logic. In truth, there are very few jobs anywhere that can pass the muster and avoid being labled non-essential. But there is obviously someone who wants those jobs done, and is willing to pay for it. Therein lies the nugget we have been digging for.
The parts of the Federal Government which were shut down are normally functions and services that the public is willing to pay for. If they are not, it is up to the public to have the congress (as te the congress (as the representative body of the people as well as the legislative branch) do away with them. Any government offices that you feel are a waste of tax money should be enumerated to your representatives in a letter or a phone call. Likewise, functions of the government which have your support should get the same treatment. If every voter did this, they would actually be voting outside of an election. It would be a de facto referendum on the size and makeup of the federal government. Politicians are driven by polls and voter surveys. They will total the opinions both for and against any particular federal function and introduce or support legislation to comply with the majority of voter opinion. And then they will remind you of it in their next campaign. If you got what you wanted, keep 'em. If you were on the losing side, Vote 'em out! Of course, it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes they promote their own agendas regardless of the public wishes. The result is the same, however. If they pissed off a majority of voters, they will be back in their law practice after the next election, assuming we do our job on voting day. And as for candidates, it is our responsibility to ask hard questions before election day, to find out if there is any chance they agree with us on the issues. We must ignore the negative ads (assuming we can't get campaign reform passed to subdue that crap) and dig into the candidate's positindidate's position, voting record, public statements, etc. which are germane to the office they are targetting. I don't care who they're sleeping with as long as they didn't embezzle funds from their investment company.
The only caveat I will offer is this: Think before you act on an impulse to try and kill off a government service. Ask yourself about the long term effects. Here I jump up on my soapbox and preach a little. One of the greatest assets we have in this country is the collection of Federal Laboratories. They are run by various Agencies and Departments including NASA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and others. The reason they are so valuable is that the only source of funding available for the type of basic research (long term payoff) done by these facilities is provided by the Federal Government. Private companies cannot justify the long term funding for a roll of the scientific dice which may or may not pay off. And typically the results from this type of scientific pursuit do not show profit-making potential within the same decade that the money was provided. By funding these endeavors from the public national coffers, we ensure that the results are available to the taxpayers. NASA has a very large program of technology transfer, where the results from this basic research are passed along to the public, and licensed to private companies to be included in products ranging from fots ranging from food preparation and storage technology to medical devices, to better tennis raquets, to smaller, cheaper electronics, to thermal underwear. It is estimated that NASA returns $10 to the American people for every dollar in funding it gets. Which is a pretty good deal. The catch is that we have to wait a while to get our ten bucks.
NASA and the other federal science organizations are about the future. They are the long term investment needed to allow the US to remain a leader in new technology. They provide benefit (more or less directly, depending) to every individual in this country. And moreover, to their decendants. During the 70's, the big question was "why do we spend millions of dollars to go get a bunch of rocks from the moon?" At the time, the answer was "to study them". We did not know what value they would have, but there was only one way to find out. And after studying them for 25 years, we've got a lot of information about how we can build a permanent base on the moon. Still no payoff, you say? Why is it important to me to have a moonbase? The best answer I can think of is that sooner or later we are going to run out of resources: land area, energy, raw materials, etc. And we had better prepare for that day well ahead of time, because it is no small task to move lots of people to a new place. Besides that, we need to learn all we can about planetary exploration, tary exploration, long term space travel, radiation management, and all the other technology we may need at a distant outpost. Because we are talking about the eventual colonization of other planets, if our race is to survive. If we do not figure out how to make a home on a new planet, the human race will only survive as long as this planet can support it. To paraphrase what I read a while back; (I can't remember the source, but I thank the original author here. Please don't sue me. Write me and I'll give proper credit) We know that our sun will not burn forever. A few million years from now it is going to swell, engulfing this planet and a few others, then collapse and die. And unless we figure out a way to leave this planet, then everything we have ever done, everything we've said, built, fought over, or written will have been for nothing.
Of course, we may not have to wait that long. A Terran impact of a comet similar to Shoemaker-Levy would pretty much put out our lights. Just one of the impact sites on Jupiter was similar in diameter to our little planet. Knock us out of our perfect (at least to support life) orbit just a little, and we would not make it past the next winter, or summer, depending on which way we were bumped. Push the earth further out of orbit, and we may not make it to dawn. So we have a potential short term end. And because of that, if for no other reason, we must make space exploration a natixploration a national priority again, and work with the other nations who have space programs. We can't spend too much money or start too soon. It is our job as a race to survive.
What do we do about "non-essential" Federal workers? The best answer is to get them back to work!
Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 by John M. Meyer. All rights reserved. The Alien Mind is not associated with any earthly company or its products.
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