From the perspective of many citizens, the prolonged government shutdown has met every technical requirement for classification as a “downer” or “bummer.” While I wish that we could be spared having to deal with this trying episode, I join millions of citizens, holding a wide range of political opinions, in finding the current situation beyond bearing.
For the last quarter century, I have been enchanted by the company of federal bureaucrats. I have many friends in those circles, and I have spent hours and hours listening to their stories (most of which make my own life seem restful). Although I can only operate on a very small scale, I do what I can to help them perform their jobs.
First, as a historian, I know why federal agencies — like the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — came into being in the first place. And so I seize every opportunity to declare this conviction: By and large, the purpose behind the creation of those agencies was to benefit citizens, not to annoy or oppress them. (But do I think that the reasons that brought these agencies into being might benefit from updating for changing times? The answer is a hearty Western “Yep.”)
Second, as a civically engaged academic who has had innumerable encounters with federal employees, I believe that the majority are good souls earnestly trying to serve their nation and their fellow citizens. And yet — before any readers leap to condemn me for naivete — I also believe that 10 percent of federal agency employees display troubling behavior ranging from lethargy to petty tyranny, from inattention to arrogance.
Many of you may be wondering how I determined the number of 10 percent.
That finding emerged from a long-running survey I started in the 1980s. “What percentage of the public,” I have asked waiters, hotel clerks, receptionists, etc., “are jerks?” Thirty years ago, a cab driver won the prize for best response. When I asked him why his estimate had come in so low, he replied, “Really, only 5 percent. But they move around a lot.”
With an occasional exception, the answers converged at 10 percent. And so I am sticking with the assumption that the same proportions prevail in the populations working at governmental agencies.
When I speak or write as the Faculty Director of the Center of the American West, my assertions tend toward a temperate, restrained, and measured tone.
That will not be the case for my next sentence.
There is no rhyme or reason, and nothing that could pass for a justifiable goal or an ounce of sense, in the infliction of misery on the 800,000 federal employees either on furlough or working without pay. And, for those of us who have never held a federal job, the shutdown has heightened our recognition of the degree to which our well-being rests on the effective functioning of federal agencies we have taken for granted.
In the agencies I know best, few of the employees are based in distant offices in the District of Columbia. On the contrary, they live in communities in proximity to the lands and resources that they manage. They are not outside intruders into local affairs; they are fully involved residents of the West. They have earned their paychecks, and they have also earned our empathy and respect.
Patty Limerick is faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.
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