David R. Henderson  

Washington Monument Strategy on Steroids

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Morbid Thinking... Keep Calm and Read Bastiat...
A perennial case in point is the "Washington Monument strategy" of the National Park Service. At budget time, the service frequently threatens to curtail visiting hours at its most popular attractions, such as the Washington Monument, if its budget request is not met, and it threatens to blame Congress and the budget process when tourists complain. Other agencies use this and similar tactics to seek more support for their narrow programs. In doing so, too often they impose enormous costs on society. It is hard to imagine a private firm--even a large, bureaucratic one--responding to hard budget times by curtailing its most popular product or service. The private firm would lose too much business to the competition.
This is from Richard L. Stroup, "Political Behavior," in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

I notice that this Washington Monument strategy is referred to, on Wikipedia, as the Washington Monument Syndrome. I think that's a mistaken terminology because it's not a syndrome as I understand the term "syndrome." It really is a strategy.

But on to the main point of this post. It's true, as some defenders of President Obama have pointed out, that if you are to cut "non-essential" government services, cutting the hours of U.S. Park Service employees seems a reasonable thing to do. In that sense, what Obama has done is not a clearcut instance of the Washington Monument Strategy.

It would be understandable if the government did not provide Park Service employees. But that's not what the Obama administration did. Instead, it did provide employees to prevent people from getting to the World War II Memorial. In other words, instead of just not providing employees, the U.S. Park Service spent real resources to prevent people from getting access, even though the Memorial is outdoors and, during normal times, has unlimited access.

So what should we call this new U.S. Park Service strategy? How about the "Washington Monument Strategy on Steroids?"


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory



COMMENTS (23 to date)
Jody Neel writes:

Even worse - privately administered parks on federal land are being forced to shut down.

See http://www.coyoteblog.com/coyote_blog/2013/10/first-explanation-in-writing-as-to-why-usfs-is-closing-privately-funded-parks.html

Dan W writes:

I would call this the Cognitive Dissonance strategy. The same politicians and bureaucrats that boast of a government that is more kind, just and merciful than the private sector are demonstrating a willingness to be more hurtful, spiteful and vindictive than any private firm could ever hope to be.

It is as if the government is telling its citizens that it loves us so much it has to hurt us to prove it.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jody Neel,
Good point. See this.

Phil writes:

I doubt much of this is deliberate strategy as opposed to blunders by lower level bureaucrats who were given vague or no guidance.

I work for the federal government and despite mandates from the department secretary to plan for an orderly shutdown, exactly nothing definitive was distributed regarding the mission of my organization, and every employee did what he or she individually thought best.

Lex Spoon writes:

The same thing is happening with federal web sites. They are spending resources to design and install banners on all the sites, rather than just going down to a skeleton crew.

I can't help but notice that none of the banners is a simple text file. They are taking up the time to code up some nice-looking HTML.

Hana writes:

Dead on. It's all optics. The early rounds, with an assist by Harry Reid, have gone to the Republicans. Not broadcasting football to military bases around the world, will be another win for Republicans. Expect the later rounds, Social Security, welfare and foodstamp recipients to go to the Democrats. The stock footage of struggling single moms, grandmas eating cat food, and seniors missing their trip of a lifetime is already queued up.

Interestingly only 800k employees have been furloughed. Apparently 70%+ of all Federal employees are essential. But on the flip side, it is that 800k that are mandatory to provide services to the public. Perhaps if the 2.1 million other employees were furloughed, the 800k remaining would keep the parks open.

Glen Smith writes:

I have seen that strategy employed by businesses. Usually, though, by just strictly adhering to a policy not really enforced much before.

brandi writes:

I really can't believe you guys.

What do you think the park staff do? They maintain facilities, keep it clean and safe.

If someone goes into a federal facility while it's closed and does damage or injures themselves, who fixes it? Trash bins fill up with no where to go. It is just as much work to close an open space as it is to keep it open. Grounds maintenance will stop, while grounds continue to deteriorate as people use them making them unsafe. Parks are already on a skeleton crew. There is no one to cut. As far as webpages, one graphic does not an entire team make.

Ted Levy writes:

brandi is absolutely right! We need the government to do these ESSENTIAL things, like pick up trash at national monuments and parks.

Why, to take another example, once I was driving downtown in a storm and the electricity went out, so all the traffic lights went dark. Of course, without traffic lights, cars just slammed into one another willy nilly! It was horrific!! Sometimes foolish efforts were made to treat them like 4 way stops, but it became an absurd charade as orthogonal cars would both stop, and then jerk forward a foot or two, and then both stop again, completely unable to individually coordinate this deeply collective social process, an essential government service.

Occasionally brave souls tried to act like police officers, directing the traffic of other motorists from the center of the intersection. Of course, without police training, such people were quickly run over and perished. It was terribly sad. Eventually, we realized the only solution was to NOT MOVE AT ALL until the traffic lights came back on, allowing us to know what to do. I must admit, it was a trying three days...

So, as I say, brandi is absolutely correct that with the government shut down trash wouldn't be picked up and federal monuments would soon be reeking smelly eye-sores. This is why, in the famous second paragraph of the Declaration, listing all the colonist complaints about King George III, "wouldn't pick up national park trash" is one of the first things mentioned.

BC writes:

This is not that surprising. If one examines the situation carefully, it becomes clear that Democrats, but not Republicans, need the shutdown. Only the House has the authority to initiate spending legislation. Thus, the House can refrain from funding Obamacare without the Democrats' cooperation and, thus, do not need the leverage of a shutdown. Democrats, in contrast, cannot fund Obamacare without the House Republicans' cooperation. Both parties need the other's cooperation to fund the rest of government. Thus, the Democrats need to withhold their cooperation in funding the government to gain leverage to entice the Republicans to fund Obamacare. It makes sense, then, that Democrats would try to make the shutdown as visibly undesirable as possible.

The strategy could backfire though, if House Republicans keep passing legislation to fund the most visible and popular government services and Democrats keep blocking that legislation. How long do you think Democrats can answer questions like this one: [http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2013/10/02/reid-gets-fiery-over-question-about-shutdowns-effect-on-clinical-trials-for-kids/] before starting to suffer politically?

Brad D writes:

This brings up another point: non-essential services.

"That the government could even have services it considers non-essential is ludicrous. It is a blatant display of an oversized government, with excessive programs." ~ Competitive Enterprise Institute.

This so-called shutdown is the perfect opportunity for everyone to observe America's burgeoning administrative state. Any feelings of dismay over a federal shutdown should be dwarfed by feelings of contempt and disgust for an abominable federal bureaucracy.

MingoV writes:

The headline I'd like to see:

Obama Gets in Hot Water When He Orders the Shutdown of Old Faithful

Brett Gaspers writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for crude language. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to discuss editing your comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

eric falkenstein writes:

the bea.gov website was shut down on day one. Shutting them down took action, not insufficient funding. And those were economists.

MikeDC writes:

Sabotage? Civil Disobedience? Strike? Lockout?

It's really most akin to a strike or a lock out. Except here the workers and management are united against the owners and customers. It's a bizarre principal-agent problem.

John B writes:

In this instance, the Washington Monument Strategy for Obama would mean furloughing all urban police and fire workers and leaving major cities completely unattended until the Republicans agree to end the shutdown. I make this analogy because police and fire is probably the most popular service the government provides and would be the most missed.

On a side note, I think they are calling this a shutdown because if you had told people the truth, that it means temporarily cutting the size of the government by 20%, a lot of people might want to make the "shutdown" permanent. In any case, it is a very Orwellian use of language.

Ted Levy writes:

brandi is absolutely right! We need the government to do these ESSENTIAL things, like pick up trash at national monuments and parks.

Why, to take another example, once I was driving downtown in a storm and the electricity went out, so all the traffic lights went dark. Of course, without traffic lights, cars just slammed into one another willy nilly! It was horrific!! Sometimes foolish efforts were made to treat them like 4 way stops, but it became an absurd charade as orthogonal cars would both stop, and then jerk forward a foot or two, and then both stop again, completely unable to individually coordinate this deeply collective social process, an essential government service.

Occasionally brave souls tried to act like police officers, directing the traffic of other motorists from the center of the intersection. Of course, without police training, such people were quickly run over and perished. It was terribly sad. Eventually, we realized the only solution was to NOT MOVE AT ALL until the traffic lights came back on, allowing us to know what to do. I must admit, it was a trying three days...

So, as I say, brandi is absolutely correct that with the government shut down trash wouldn't be picked up and federal monuments would soon be wreaking smelly eye-sores. This is why, in the famous second paragraph of the Declaration, listing all the colonist complaints about King George III, "wouldn't pick up national park trash" is one of the first things mentioned.

Himanshu Sanguri writes:

To deploy skeleton crew at parks or web sites owned by government to stop access is no wrong. However, if the government is pushing any privately owned entity to follow shut down guidelines, then there should definitely be an eye brow raised.

Infopractical writes:

On steroids?! Steroids?!

I can't believe this got botched so badly...

VIAGRA!

How about...the "Washington Monument Strategy on VIAGRA?"

To the Barackades!

Chris Koresko writes:

BC: ... Democrats, but not Republicans, need the shutdown. Only the House has the authority to initiate spending legislation. Thus, the House can refrain from funding Obamacare without the Democrats' cooperation and, thus, do not need the leverage of a shutdown. Democrats, in contrast, cannot fund Obamacare without the House Republicans' cooperation.

This is the best comment I've read on this issue. It seems to cut right to the heart of the matter.

Kevin Smith writes:

We are like the frogs boiling who if done slowly do not resist. We are becoming desensitized to the depravity of our leaders - but this type of behavior should alert us that Obama is something new and horrible for American politics. And if it is not him, but the individual agencies taking these steps then we may have something worse, a public sector that actively subverts civil society. Both are awful for a civil democracy.

Phil writes:
BC: ... Democrats, but not Republicans, need the shutdown. Only the House has the authority to initiate spending legislation. Thus, the House can refrain from funding Obamacare without the Democrats' cooperation and, thus, do not need the leverage of a shutdown. Democrats, in contrast, cannot fund Obamacare without the House Republicans' cooperation.

But the key word here is "initiate." The House can send a spending bill to the Senate that omits funds for the ACA, but all the Senate needs to do is amend the bill and put it back in. In the end, both houses have to vote on identical language. Yes, the Senate needs the House to fund it, but the House needs the Senate to unfund it.

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