Don’t worry about the government

I have not written much here lately. The end of the fall semester and beginning of the winter semester have, in short, been kicking my ass. This is fine, I think; I have been busy but productive and, unlike those people I know who work in the US federal government, I have still been getting paid to work. As I write this though, the US government shutdown seems to be ending, at least temporarily, but in this border town its effects could be seen quite clearly. From the middle of the university campus where I work, which is directly next to the Ambassador Bridge crossing the Detroit River to the US, trucks crossing the span have backed up every day as far back as the Canadian side of the river, and sometimes much further back beyond the bridge entrance ramp and along Windsor’s Huron Church Road, due to slowdowns with inspections. Another friend works in DC, and while they were being paid for the first few weeks of the shutdown because they worked for a contractor rather than the government directly, the contractor recently furloughed them for the remainder of the shutdown. Trump’s rather surprising climb down today followed the failure of two different Senate bills to end the impasse on January 24, but comes immediately after air traffic controllers at airports along the east coast began calling in sick in huge numbers, roiling air traffic and threatening a much wider economic impact and transportation chaos. A path out is more apparent than it was before as three weeks of funding for government operations comes through, though the only two potential ends of this political game remain capitulation by House Democrats to the president’s demand for money earmarked for a border barrier, or the final opening of irreparable cracks in the Republican Party as GOP representatives abandon Trump’s pet project of a 1700-mile border wall and pass a longer-term and veto-proof funding package that addresses the vaguely identified ‘border security’ but promises no wall. Anything short of that following this three weeks of funding and what promises to be absolutely brutal and inane arguments in Congress from wall proponents of why such a barrier is needed and preferable probably will only exacerbate and quicken the route to these other two more far-reaching political endpoints. It all seems an utter mess but with very high stakes, not just for the president and the two major political parties, but for 800,000 federal workers and all the people who depend on the public service.

Amid all this, I have been listening to Talking Heads’ brilliant 1977 song “Don’t Worry About the Government” on repeat most days. There’s also a live version recorded in May 1977 at CBGB’s in New York’s East Village that can be listened to here.

The song is slightly twee with simple lyrics, but these are also all the more odd and disturbing because of their simplicity, ringing out with banal declarative statements that suggest the speaker doesn’t necessarily believe what he’s saying, and is perhaps going through the motions of daily life. In the song’s middle, David Byrne sings:

I see the states, across this big nation
I see the laws made in Washington, DC
I think of the ones I consider my favorites
I think of the people that are working for me

Some civil servants are just like my loved ones
They work so hard and they try to be strong
I’m a lucky guy to live in my building
They all need buildings to help them along

While Byrne meant this somewhat ironically in the late 1970s, when Americans’ trust in government was extremely low following the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and years of economic stagnation, it also could be taken quite literally. It must have occurred to at least a few of Byrne’s friends and neighbors (and perhaps to himself) growing up in suburban Maryland outside of DC to reflect on the hard work of the many thousands of civil servants who worked in the government and lived all around the region. And this brings me to my point here, which is the geographic patterns and impacts of the government shutdown. I have a bit of link salad in what follows because my time is short and the shutdown’s end is imminent. In any case, I want simply to highlight the scalar, place-based, and embodied aspects of the shutdown as three ways of looking at its impacts geographically. These are localized in some ways (for example, in cities where the federal government is a major employer, including but not only the Washington DC metro area), but also much wider in scale (the previously mentioned disruptions to air travel across the US), and even personal and institutional, emphasizing the embodied character of government work and expertise, and of institutional memory.

This is perhaps an overly fancy way of saying civil servants and bureaucrats, long envisioned through Ronald Reagan’s famous quip that the ‘nine most terrifying words’ are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” are in fact, people working at what are often rather mundane jobs that nonetheless provide vital public services that many just take for granted. The lengthy shutdown in which many federal workers have gone two pay cycles without a check means that the acute crisis of not getting paid coupled with the chronic condition of being undervalued and often pilloried in the public eye, threatens long-term erosion of workforce morale and individual career trajectories among federal workers, as well as the potential gutting of institutional memory in federal departments. This might be most obvious and dangerous in those federal departments where expertise, creativity, and some level of autonomy are most important, such as with foreign service officers in the State Department. Here, the Trump administration has handled the relationship with a key component of the federal workforce disastrously. The shutdown has stretched what were already depleted diplomatic resources around the world almost to a breaking point, but this has followed what can only be considered hostile relations between the White House and the department and a crisis of institutional reproduction via hiring, promotion, and the preservation of intergenerational training and memory in the department. This is not to let an institution such as the State Department off the hook for particular policies that we may label unjust or inconsistent or undemocratic, but rather to point out that the shutdown should remind us that the state must be understood as a workplace within a larger capitalist division of labor, and that longstanding stereotypes about the nature of government work can prevent us from seeing this clearly.