10/21/2013 10:50 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Shutdown and the Damage Done

A long time ago Neil Young wrote a song about addiction to heroin and its impact on the music scene and for some reason those lyrics stayed with me throughout the absurdity of the latest dysfunctional display in the District of Columbia:

"I've seen the needle and the damage done, a little part of it in everyone, but every junkie's like a setting sun...."

Now that we've managed to reopen the federal government, and have somehow wrested control away from the media attention junkies that kept it closed, it is time to assess the damage done. Since modern economic life is built on confidence and faith that invested capital will be returned with interest, the threatened default's effect will be slow and corrosive. While I do not believe that President Obama would have permitted a default, and I do believe he would have used executive authority to avert it, my view is irrelevant. The view of investors is what counts. We came way too close to the edge of the ledge, and the view over the side was pretty scary.

Beyond the financial impact of default, there is the effect of this shutdown on today's public servants and the public servants of tomorrow. The anti-government, anti-tax selfishness of the Tea Party and its supporters are a long way from John F. Kennedy's call to public service in his inaugural address over one half century ago. A decorated veteran of the "greatest generation," JFK challenged us to "ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country." He called on us to dedicate our lives to the greater good of the American community and many of us responded by going to work for government.

After the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s Ronald Reagan declared government to be the problem and since then government service has been under constant attack. In 1981, I began teaching graduate courses in public service and management, and for the past three decades I have seen the growing impact of Reagan's negative message. In many respects it culminated with this shut down. It is very difficult to recommend that our best and brightest students pursue a career in federal service. I often suggest that they look at local and state governments instead. Coincidentally, at the same time the government was closed, I was in Washington, D.C. at the annual meeting of NASPAA, the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration. At the end of that meeting, with the government still shutdown, the organization approved this statement, by acclamation:

The more than 280 schools of public policy and administration represented by NASPAA, the global standard in public service education, share a concern about the impact that the October 2013 U.S. Federal Government shutdown may have on the future of public service, and on wider confidence in public governance.

The reputation of public service is at stake for an entire generation of potential public servants. For over 10,000 students who receive master's degrees in public policy, affairs, and administration each year, public service is the highest calling. The U.S. is at risk of losing them as well as prospective future students. Hiring the best-qualified, most publicly committed graduates is vital to the nation's future.

The U.S. is a global model of democratic governance. NASPAA believes it is critical for the nation, that trust in the system of governance is restored. Therefore, NASPAA calls upon the leadership of all branches of the U.S. Federal Government to:

  • Acknowledge the importance of public service and public servants, and the essential role they play in the country and society.
  • Demonstrate a commitment to public service by working together to restore the functioning of democratic governance in the United States.

The debate in Washington has degenerated into a very destructive political game that is a greater danger to America than any foreign enemy could possibly be. It strikes at the legitimacy of government itself and its role in modern life. The media frenzy about the start-up problems with the Affordable Care Act are a good example. Many new product rollouts in the private sector are characterized by operational problems. It's one reason many of us wait a few months before buying the next generation of iPhone or Office software. But let the website crash for the new health exchange and the attention junkies on the Hill are calling for hearings about the "failed design of Obamacare." It is true that the Affordable Care Act is badly designed. It represents a series of compromises. Like any new law it will have to be modified as it is implemented. But the overheated rhetoric around this law is beyond belief. It is an expression of a dangerous ideology that seeks to delegitimize government and by implication, public servants and public service.

While government, especially our federal government, is far from perfect, it is necessary and important. In a complex, interconnected global economy, we need a government that is efficient and effective and knows how to partner with the private sector to achieve economic aims. In a dangerous world we need a federal government that is skilled at protecting us from those who would harm us. A government that shuts down for no reason and threatens to default and not pay its debt, is a danger to the American community and to the world economy it continues to lead. It is also not an attractive place to work. If our most talented young people shun the federal government and direct their passion for public service elsewhere, federal agency performance will suffer. This is a descending spiral we can ill afford.

It is time to stop this dangerous nonsense. We can have a real discussion about the legitimate role of government in our society and work to bring federal government management into the 21st century. But we can't do that if the strategy is to "starve the beast." The federal government is not a beast. It is the expression of our national community. It is time to stop disinvesting in that community. We need infrastructure, research, health care, education, as well as physical and social security. Those things cost money and require an effective and efficient federal government. We do not need government to play the role of surrogate parent, but of partner and sometime referee.

To play that role, the federal government could do no better than reiterate John F. Kennedy's call to public service and shared sacrifice. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" is a more inspiring lyric than "I watched the needle take another man... Gone, gone, the damage done." It's time to clear the path of Congressional-media attention junkies and get on with the work of building the American dream. Let's remember JFK's message and learn the hard lesson that Neil Young tried to teach us. It is time to replace the self-indulgent, narcissistic, attention-addicted politics of the government shut down with a more mature dialogue about the proper role of government. It is time to find a way to inspire young people to come to Washington to serve and build a 21st century American community.