Human puff-adder Bill Kristol drolly noted on Morning Joe this week that the shutdown is not "the end of the world". The Huffington Post's Sam Stein snapped back, "For these people affected by these cuts, it is sort of comparable to the end of the world."
I have one quibble with Stein's otherwise satisfying smackdown: "For the people affected by these cuts" implies that there are people who are not affected by these cuts. Stein was talking specifically about the families and children across the country most likely to suffer when the government stops paying for Head Start programs and nutritional aid, but they are only the most sympathetic victims of the shutdown.
And there are a lot of them: Almost 9m mothers and children rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (Wic). Most states will be able to operate for about a week on the money they have, but in the words of one administrator in Cook County, "We have no cushion. If our funding stream stops we will temporarily suspend service."
The US Department of Agriculture is attempting to prop up the program in the states hardest hit – they announced this week a $2.5m grant to Utah. But the $125m they have on reserve is laughably small for a program that costs $7b a year – it's less than 2% of the total budget. If $125m was all the money the program had, it would operate for six days.
But that's just women and children. The poorest of the poor, right? We're a civilized country; we won't let them starve. As Kristol told Stein, "Localities can help out. Churches can help out." Because obviously, up until now, localities and churches were just standing around twiddling their thumbs as lounged on divans and wondered if it was time to pick out new wallpaper or maybe treat themselves to a day at the spa.
If you actually attend a church or do service work, I hope you've picked up the laptop from when you hurled it across the room just now. Already a huge patch in the patchwork of federal social services across the country, churches and private food banks have stretched themselves thin to cover the drop in federal aid that accompanied the sequester cuts last spring (Remember that? The last time we had a budget showdown?).
The ripple effects of a Wic crash spread outward quickly. Food stamp and Wic programs pump about $23m a year into retail grocery stores – indeed, a quarter of all meals for recipients of nutritional aid come from a supermarket. The Wic buys 60% of all the baby formula produced in the country. For every dollar spent on Wic, states save about $3.5 in Medicaid spending – but that's just a quantitative way of saying that Wic produces healthier babies.
But maybe you're still thinking of this as a sad story, not that has anything to do with you or anyone you know. You don't go to national parks, or live near one. (Communities that depend on national park tourism stand to lose $30m a day.) You're not a veteran. (At the VA, money allocated for disability payments and students studying under the GI bill will run out in a few weeks.)
You don't take commercial airplane flights. (About 34% of the Federal Aviation Administraion workforce is now on leave, including almost 3,000 safety inspectors.) You eat only meat and vegetables grown by your own hand and don't take any medications. (The Food and Drug Administration will cease all food and drug safety inspections, except for meat. They usually monitor about 80% of the nation's food supply; in the interm, state agencies will try to pick up the slack.) You're not in college and no one you know is one of the approximately 14 million students working their way through college or paying for it with a subsidized loan. (There will be no payments made via the Federal Work-Study or Perkins Loan Programs, or Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants.)
Basically, you are a very rich, very healthy person that lives in a cave. If you are not, then the shutdown affects you.
And this produces the one aspect of the shutdown I'm almost cynical enough to enjoy myself: far from producing proof dispositive that government is a burdensome hindrance to personal freedom, they've simply proven how little personal freedom we can enjoy if government breaks down. If this sounds familiar, it's because that reasoning has been the cornerstone of modern civilization. Or you watched "Lost".
It's not that Americans don't want government in their lives, it's that they'd like it to be an unobtrusive part of their lives. The National Security Agency might be just a little too unobtrusive, it's true. If capitalism is governed by an invisible hand, then a well-functioning government is an invisible safety net – not just for those getting obviously slapped around by capitalism, but also for anyone whose well-being depends on the free market not taking too many whiplash turns. We want the government to help the least of us, we also want it to keep planes from falling out of the sky and our food from making us sick.
This goes on long enough, and a lot that we take for granted will go away – and the thing about an invisible safety net is that you only notice it's gone once you fall.