Cake and Sympathy

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At one particularly stressful job, a colleague gave me a Marie Antoinette doll. When you press the button on her back, her head flies off with a satisfying thwack. It was very cathartic. Unreasonable deadline? Thwack. Overly demanding boss? Thwack. Thwack. Ranting company owner? Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Marie’s bewigged head would roll around on the desk as we chuckled through our do-it-yourself therapy sessions.

I’ve been thinking about that doll a lot lately as the US government shutdown enters its thirty-fifth day.1 Like Marie before them, certain members of the ruling government can’t seem to help themselves from making tone-deaf statements about the laid-off government workers who have now missed two paychecks.

One White House aide likened it to a “vacation.” The president’s daughter-in-law opined laid-off workers may suffer a “little bit of pain” now, but their grandchildren would thank them later. The Commerce Secretary, a multimillionaire, expressed his inability to understand why unpaid workers needed to use food banks. The president himself suggested that stores would gladly extend credit to furloughed workers, like they all shop at an idyllic 1950s mom-and-pop-style market that keeps a ledger under the counter to track their thirty-cent bread purchases. Newsflash! It doesn’t work that way anymore.

Granted no one close to the president actually uttered the words “Let them eat cake,” but neither did Marie Antoinette, and look where just the rumor of her saying that got her.  Still modern politicians have come perilously close, and they definitely lack empathy for the paycheck-to-paycheck workers. Meanwhile the pictures of government employees lined up around the block to get food handouts are eerily reminiscent of 1930s Depression-era breadline photos.

It should be obvious that it is rude to suggest the peasants eat cake when they don’t even have bread, but I’m not sure everyone got that memo. I see memes from Facebook friends and other internet commentators that suggest these laid-off “nonessential” workers mean that the government is bloated, and the United States should seize the opportunity to “right size” the government.

I try not to reply to these sorts of provocation on social media. Well, to be perfectly honest, I try not to post replies. I confess to angry-typing responses: Click. Click. Clickity click. Click! Of course by the time I’m done with my scathing retort, I usually feel better and cooler heads can prevail. Then it’s Delete. Delete. Backspace, backspace. Delete! After all, it is unlikely we’ll change hearts and minds in as few as 140 characters or a single paragraph, so engaging is usually futile.

Still there are times when I can’t help myself. Recently, one too many people suggested that 800,000 government workers were extraneous, and we were well shot of them. So I did reply to a post; I likened those laid off more to cannon fodder for the whims of erratic politicians, since many of the so-called nonessential workers were actually being called back to work without pay. It’s easy to call a job nonessential if it doesn’t directly affect you personally. But the same could probably be said of my job—or yours—by someone who doesn’t need the goods or services that you or I provide at any particular moment.

Meanwhile, the president and the people in Congress play a game of political chicken with federal workers as the unwilling hostages. Now I do have a side in this fight. For the record, it is this: Never negotiate with terrorists (political or otherwise) because if you do, they are much more willing to try the same tactics in the future. Also for the record, it is obvious—or it should be—that a thirty-foot wall is ineffective, since you can just go down to the nearest hardware store and buy a thirty-two-foot ladder. Assuming of course, you’ve received a paycheck recently.

So to me, this whole shutdown is manufactured pain for political theater, and it’s ridiculous. For two years, there was no crisis on the border that required urgent border funding, but as soon as the US House flipped political sides, it was a calamity of epic proportions.

And as absurd as this “thirty-five days and counting” shutdown is to me, I’m sure to the laid-off federal workers attempting to keep their lives together it is beyond ridiculous and frustrating. And the cost to government workers and their families doesn’t even address the other collateral damage elsewhere: destruction in national parks, FEMA funds withheld in disaster areas, the potential that SNAP benefits won’t be paid, scientific research that is ruined or put on hold, crimes that aren’t being investigated due to lack of funding, and now a major East Coast airport shut down by the FAA due to staff shortages.

This has become a rapidly moving story. I began this opinion piece before any sign of an agreement was on the radar. Then suddenly today, as LaGuardia shut down and I was getting ready to go to press, there were talks underway to reopen the government for three weeks, so a spending deal could be negotiated. An announcement quickly followed to that effect, but with it came the threat that the president could shut down the government again or declare a state of emergency if he didn’t like what Congress came up with.

I’m glad they stopped the pain for furloughed workers in the short term, but now politicians need to get down to the hard work of passing a budget that we can live with, one that keeps the government open on a long-term basis, so that we don’t repeat this game of political brinkmanship and that potentially only postpones the pain of furloughed workers. And while money can certainly be appropriated for better border security, it is my hope that politicians don’t saddle taxpayers with paying for an ineffective wall.

I believe our politicians can do all this, if they can find a modicum of sympathy for those affected by their actions, including both asylum seekers and US government employees. Unlike Marie Antoinette (life size or six-inch versions), we can end the shutdown properly, if we keep our heads. Forget “Let them eat cake.” Get this done, so affected families can just eat.

Text © Rebecca Bigelow
Photo © Ken Hawkins, Wikimedia

1. I began writing this piece on January 23, 2019, with an aim of posting it on Friday, January 25. When I started writing, the stalemate seemed insurmountable, but when the dam broke this morning with the LaGuardia closure, things moved quickly. By the time I was ready to post at lunchtime, rumors were swirling that the president would announce a temporary ceasefire in the shutdown. Given these changes, I spent the evening revising this piece to reflect them.

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