I was in Beijing about a week ago and a Chinese colleague prodded me: “Your government is shutdown.”
Half-embarrassed, I replied: “Yes, we always shut down the government for the New Year.” The Chinese New Year would start in a few weeks and already people were talking about how Beijing would shut down, as many people leave to go visit their family elsewhere in the country.
After laughing, he added that the Chinese could not imagine their government shutting down. He even wondered if it would be a good thing to happen in China, simply because it was so unimaginable.
Later with a group over lunch, the discussion was about how the Chinese judged the work of their government. “There’s a billion people,” said a woman. “The government is responsible for so many people, which is hard, but they do their job.” They agreed that the government was mostly competent and they expressed pride in the work it did.
Last week, I received an email message from a woman who works at NASA Ames and like other NASA employees who not working because of the government shutdown. She wondered if anything could be done to help the NASA workers because morale was so low. She said that many of them come to Maker Faire and wondered if some hands-on projects would help them.
In her email, she wrote: “I am afraid my colleagues will leave and go to better paying private sector jobs because they have to know that they can support their families. I guess I just thought maybe… just maybe if somebody like you could offer a little bit of what they really need… their work. Then maybe they could hold on a little bit longer before thinking about going to The Private Sector.”
I didn’t realize that NASA was closed. The blog for The Planetary Society published a story on December 22, 2018 titled “Happy Holidays. NASA is Shutdown” and described that “roughly 14,500 hardworking men and women of NASA will be sent home without pay.” About 3,000 who filled so-called essential jobs were required to work without pay.
I wasn’t sure what I could do but I wanted to talk to the woman who wrote me. However, by the time we actually talked last Friday, the announcement had come that the shutdown was ending, for at least 3 weeks. Nonetheless, she shared how hard it was for the NASA workers to not be working. Scientists. Engineers. They missed their work. She described a social event that was held just to allow people to see each other, and it was very sad, she said. “These people work for NASA because of the mission, because they love science and they want to give something back to the world,” she told me. “They just want to do their work.”
Ronald Reagan famously said that “In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; the government is the problem.” When you make government the problem, you really don’t really care about the problem and you don’t have a working solution. The longest shutdown in US government history was not just pointless; it was careless.