There was a time when even the highest government officials lived simpler lives.
President George Washington made do with Tobias Lear, who not only served as his secretary, but also doubled as a diplomat and even measured his body for burial. President Thomas Jefferson made do with Meriwether Lewis as his personal secretary and Lewis also doubled as Jefferson’s explorer in the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Washington worked on an expense account instead of a salary. He began his presidency working out of a rented three story house that was later demolished as a slum clearance project to make way for the Brooklyn Bridge on a spot only a few minutes away from what is now Ground Zero.
Washington once said that government is “a troublesome servant and a fearful master.” Government has long ceased being a troublesome servant and has become our fearful master instead. Today the servants of the people have more servants of their own than many kings and queens.
The government shutdown has forced Obama to make do with only a quarter of his 1,701 person staff. That would leave 436 “vital” employees. The 90 people who look after his living quarters would be slashed to 15 to “provide minimum maintenance and support”.
Buckingham Palace, which is twelve times the size of the White House and has its own clockmaker, only has an 800 person staff. King Harald V of Norway and his court make do with 152 staffers. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden gets by with 203.
On Twitter, Michelle Obama announced that she is unable to Tweet on her own without the aid of all of her sixteen assistants; many of whom take home six figure salaries. There are more directors, associate directors and deputy associate directors on Michelle Obama’s staff than there were in George Washington’s entire administration.
Presidents have fought wars and made peace, explored and annexed vast territories and built a nation out of a handful of colonies with fewer senior staffers than are needed to handle Michelle Obama’s Twitter account.
In 2009, Oprah’s Harpo Productions released a video of celebrities pledging “to be a servant to our president.” The idea that presidents were to be the servants of the people rather than their masters had become outmoded.
There is a word for men who surround themselves with czars, who expand their staffs, who fly their dogs out on separate planes, who amuse themselves at the expense of the people at lavish parties, concerts and vacations.
And it isn’t public servant.
The government shutdown with its furloughing of 800,000 Federal workers isn’t the apocalypse that the political establishment claims it is. The apocalypse is the very existence of 800,000 Federal workers who can be sent home without any apocalypse until some deal is hammered out and they return to their jobs within the bowels of a massive bureaucracy that extends its reach and influence into every household.
Servants don’t tell masters what to do. And that is the real function of much of the Federal workforce. The theatrics over national park closings and empty museums are window dressing meant to leave the false impression that the function of Federal workers is to open velvet ropes and point out the place where Dolly Madison once slept.
And that’s a dangerous lie.
The truth comes out in the more tangible concerns over permits. In a country where a permit is required to do nearly anything, the Federal government more closely resembles a permit processing system than anything else. The shutdown hurts businesses, not because they need the massive bureaucracy, but because it slows down the already onerous bureaucracy that makes it so hard to do business.
The Federal government employs nearly 3 million civilian workers. One for every 100 Americans. The only time we had more civilian workers than that was during the last days of World War II.
In 1944, the Department of Defense had 2.2 million civilian employees and civilian agencies like Justice, Treasury and Education had 683,000. By 2011, the situation was reversed. Despite fighting several wars, there were now 773,000 civilians in the Department of Defense and 1.3 million in the civilian agencies; a legacy of all our new lost social wars on poverty, marriage, literacy, morality and poor self-esteem.
In 1970, the Department of Defense drew the lion’s share of Federal spending. By 2010, it wasn’t even drawing 20% while the Department of Health and Human Service was accounting for nearly 25%. The cause of our current war, Obamacare, is the natural growth of that shift from fighting external enemies to fighting social problems while trying to manage the cost of the welfare state.
That same shrinkage turned the United Kingdom into a ghost of what it had once been. It is now doing it works to usher in a Post-American order.
In 1940, the Code of Federal Regulations was a mere 5,307 pages. Still more than any sane person could read through and a legacy of the New Deal. But it was only a foreshadowing of what was to come. By 2010, it was up to 81,405 pages.
We were now firmly in the land of thousand page omnibus bills that had to be passed to be fully known. We were living under a government whose top officials no longer knew what they were doing. They had passed on that responsibility to the vast bureaucracy of Federal employees who had become the true masters of the system.
There were still elections, but those 3 million Federal employees had come to matter more than the 100 senators and 435 representatives.
The government shutdown is a rebellion by the latter against the former. It is as if the Queen of England had attempted to displace the Prime Minister, as may be her legal right but is no longer considered her appropriate function. The monarchy had been replaced by a more republican form of government in all but form.
The United States government was similarly replaced by another form of government; an unelected bureaucracy whose officials, judges and permit-givers wield real power while the congressmen carry on with the forms of power, parading around and arguing over bills that they haven’t read. It’s every bit as much empty ceremony as the Queen of England’s clockmaker or the Yeomen Warders.
That is why the government shutdown and debates over the Debt Ceiling has outraged so much of the political elite. It’s as if the Queen had walked into No. 10 Downing Street accompanied by her favorite corgis, told Prime Minister Cameron to leave and attempted to actually govern the United Kingdom. It’s an offense against the forms of modernity which disposed of the monarchy and democracy replacing them with an ever-expanding bureaucracy, a mob of unelected officials and a web of regulations.
The media skulks around Washington D.C. filling pages with mournful prose more appropriate to Stalingrad or Homs than to Oakland-on-the-Potomac with a Versailles of government buildings. We learn that the barbershop in the Russell Senate Office Building is closed, the shoeshine stand stands empty and five of the six eateries are shuttered. Even the Senate gift shop has been shut down.
The underground subway system between the capitol buildings is running behind schedule and Senate aides have been ordered to turn off their government BlackBerry phones.
It’s all very sad for those people who have built their lives around working for the government, but it’s also a breath of reality entering a stale room whose occupants are completely out of touch with the economic situation in the rest of the country.
Government employees have a 4.2% unemployment rate compared to 8.6% for private sector workers and a union membership rate of 35.9% compared to 6.6% for private sector workers. The very people who made ObamaCare and will oversee ObamaCare have been immunized against its toxic effects.
There are indeed two Americas. There is the America of the worker and the America of his master; the public servant. There is the America of the small businessman and the America of the crony capitalist. There is the unreal America of the Obamas and their retinue of assistants, czars and chefs and the real America where fathers hunt through the job ads wondering how they will feed their families next week.
The government shutdown is bringing the real America into the unreal America. The parties are still going on and most Federal workers are staying on the job. Overtime is still being paid to government workers and the only thing that will really happen is that some of the paychecks will be a bit late.
It’s not the reality that most of the country is living with, but finally the Government Class is feeling a touch of the pain of the Working Class; that sense of helplessness and insecurity that has been alien to the masters living at the expense of the servants.
The sun has set over Versailles. And the sun isn’t supposed to set.
A million businesses may close. A million Americans may lose their homes. A million fathers may wonder how they will feed their children. But Government America was still supposed to grind on, growing fat on their toil, spending billions on a whim around the world and then sending in SWAT teams at the merest regulatory infraction.
“I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world,” George Washington said. Now the city named after him has become the home of a new Sun King and his empire of government workers. The farms have closed. The factories have been shut down. But the government buildings continue to rise.
Yesterday the sun set on Washington D.C. May it rise one day on a new nation whose leaders would rather be farmers than emperors.