What if government shut its doors and no one really cared?
Maybe it's me, but that's what I'm pretty much gathering so far from this historic government shutdown.
Sure, the news media cares. It's a big story. Politicos care. It's recrimination heaven.
But the average person -- the private sector employee or retiree? Not so much. At least for now. As long as the mail keeps showing up, Medicare and Social Security checks are clearing and soldiers are standing on that wall that Jack Nicholson talked about in "A Few Good Men," all of which are happening, most people will probably notice very little difference in their lives from this shutdown, even as federal employees are being hurt.
The Washington Post released a scare list on Tuesday -- "10 ways the government shutdown will impact your daily life" -- that drove home the lethargy for me. My takeaway? I may have to cancel a trip to that federal park I never planned to visit -- although, who will catch me if I trespass? -- and I'll have to blame Libby foods instead of the FDA if I swallow a poison lima bean. That, and I probably won't get audited by the IRS this week.
I've been toggling between three thoughts since 12:01 Tuesday morning, when the lights went out in Washington. The first is about the nature of the federal government today. Just before the sequester -- that story was a real bust -- President Barack Obama said he'd be asking all "non-essential federal employees" not to report to work. My quick-minded conservative brother, Gerry, emailed me the quote suggesting an edit. Why not add the word "forever" to the end of that sentence and be done with it? If the president has a list of "nonessential federal employees," he wondered, can't we just snip there? Or is the federal government more of a jobs program today?
The second thought is a rough math equation. If the total federal revenue this year is $2.7 trillion and we owe $17 trillion, plus interest, we would need about seven years of this government shutdown to get whole again. Pay soldiers and entitlements along the way and we're probably looking at at least twice that amount of time. Can we make it that long without really feeling it? We could even pay out "non essential" employees $250,000 each in severance without so much as a flinch in the larger scheme of things.
The third thought is about the millennial generation. Most millennials don't read newspapers or watch TV news. They don't listen to the radio in any numbers. And except for the guarantees they get on student loan debt, they don't particularly care about government at all, according to a recent study.
Ron Fournier, the former Associated Press Washington bureau chief, wrote a super interesting piece in The Atlantic last month on the millennials, citing (among other things) the extraordinary mistrust young Americans have about government. According to research from the Democratic think-tank Third Way mentioned in Fournier's article, "51 percent of Millennials believe that when government runs something it is usually wasteful and inefficient, up from 31 percent in 2003 and 42 percent in 2009." And "86 percent of Millennials support private Social Security accounts and 74 percent would change Medicare so people can buy private insurance."
It's not quite anarchy, but it sure isn't a Great Society mindset.
Fournier wrote a followup piece for National Journal Tuesday titled "The Beginning of the End for Washington." In it he argued that the federal shutdown may be the last straw for millennials. Their "revolutionary view of government and politics points toward two possible outcomes," he writes. "One is that they might opt out of Washington. . . . The second and more likely outcome is they will blow up Washington ("disruption" is the tech-inspired term they use), and build something better outside the current two-party dysfunction."
If the millennials do "blow up" Washington, they'll have to rebuild it starting from $17 trillion in the hole. Maybe those nonessential employees can lend a hand.
The federal shutdown is a serious thing, and I know I shouldn't make light of it. But why do I feel strangely safer this week knowing that much of Washington has gone dark?
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.