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A superpower shuts down

Updated October 03, 2013

WASHINGTON D.C. is an eerie place these days. The trains are empty and the buses too. The platforms of the underground, normally bustling with commuters and tourists, are practically vacant.

In the office, my inbox is full of emails detailing the impact of the government shutdown.

I learn a few things sifting through these; for instance, the postal service will continue functioning because it is independently funded, but mail sorting rooms will be shut down because they are staffed with federal employees.

So the mail will arrive, for sure, but it’ll be a while before it finds its way to your mailbox.

The shutdown of the federal government here has thrown up its fair share of absurdities. It has sent home a workforce of 800,000 without pay for an indefinite period, but members of Congress, those responsible for the whole mess, are themselves considered ‘essential’ staff and will continue receiving their salaries.

Only a few members of Congress are really responsible for the whole situation, prompting some to wonder aloud whether American democracy isn’t being held hostage by a virulent minority.

Only a few days ago, a big name TV anchor had two of these members of Congress on her show, and asked them whether their own pay cheques ought to be stopped along with the legion of other federal employees.

“Members of Congress should not be treated any different from any other federal employee,” replied one of them.

The anchor repeated the question, asking that since the congressman supported sending other federal employees home without pay, would he consent to having his own name removed from the pool of ‘essential’ services and share the suffering he was agreeing to inflict on others.

Pat came the same reply, “whatever happens to the average federal employee should happen to us”, as he clumsily dodged the question.

The congressman in question was none other than Dana Rohrabacher, Republican, from California, who earned notoriety in Pakistan last year after he held an ill-conceived and foolish hearing on Balochistan with very dubious motivations. Following the hearings, Mr Rohrabacher had gone on to propose legislation that sought to carve up Pakistan.

Today, the US government has been shut down by partisans who hold extreme and ill-conceived views of this sort. These people are reckless and think the world is made of Lego where you can simply dismantle a structure and put it together again in any other shape with the ease that children’s toys allow.

It’s incredible to watch the superpower tying itself into a knot like this. If nothing else, it is a sobering reminder that fiscal adjustment is a torturous process and takes a heavy toll on the normal operations of the state.

This is almost a universal rule; wherever it has been applied, fiscal adjustment has given birth to the most virulently divisive politics and created an opening for the most opportunistic and myopic political actors who eagerly fan emotion and exploit fears to advance their agenda.

It’s also a reminder of how much the American polity is consumed by domestic considerations. The debated strike on Syria is already pushed into the background, and the first arrival in Syria of international experts tasked with dismantling that country’s chemical weapons has barely resulted in a word of comment here.

Even Israel’s attempts to beat the war drums vis-à-vis Iran have been drowned out. After his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the only questions President Obama was asked were about the impending government shutdown.

The Israeli prime minister sat impassively and watched as the Americans largely ignored him and went on about healthcare, appropriations and continuing resolutions and the president talked of America’s leadership role in the global economy and the importance of the dollar and the significance of America meeting its debt obligations.

The dialogue is all local all of a sudden, and it’s about the oldest priority that has dogged rulers big and small down the ages: revenues and expenditures, government finances.

And it’s also a serious reminder of another important fact: we are not the only basket case country in the world when it comes to matters like government finance and economic growth.

Most countries have seen their debt levels soar in the past five years since the great financial crisis of 2008. They’ve seen their growth rates slump and unemployment rise.

Deficits have ballooned everywhere, and Greece and Portugal and Spain and the other countries of the European periphery have faced severe drawdowns of their reserves, requiring bailouts so large you could drive our entire import bill through them!

Today America is reminding us that the facts of fiscal life remain stubborn and resilient to any happy settlement. A brief walk around downtown Washington D.C., the seat of the most powerful empire ever seen in human history, reveals fiscal dysfunction — with libraries and museums and memorials sealed shut.

The debate inside the Capitol shows a democracy coughing on its own fumes. One group of congressmen reminds the other that the law to which they object — Obama’s healthcare legislation — was passed by both houses of the legislature and signed into law by the president.

The Supreme Court struck down a challenge to the constitutional legality of the legislation. The process has been followed, the legislation is now a fact and must be accepted.

But this group finds that this is a bit like trying to teach a cat to walk on its hind legs. No matter how clearly you lay it all out, it’s not happening. And that kind of stubbornness, of differences that cannot be bridged, is the stuff of Third World dysfunctions, which are settling upon the superpower with increasing speed in the opening decades of the 21st century. Not a pretty sight.

The writer is a business journalist and 2013-2014 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington D.C.

Twitter: @khurramhusain