Shutting it Down

English: President Barack Obama's signature on...

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Once again, the United States government has been shut down. As is to be expected, the politicians and pundits are engaging in the blame game. A key Republican talking point is that Obama and the Democrats are to blame because they would not compromise on the matter of Obamacare. If, say the Tea Party Republicans, Obama had been willing to defund or delay Obamacare, then they would not have been forced to do what they did.

The obvious counter to this is that Obamacare became a law via the proper constitutional process and hence this is no longer a compromise situation. It should also be noted that the proposed compromise is a rather odd one. It is as if the Republicans in question are saying: “here is our compromise: we get our way on Obamacare and, in return, we will not shut down the government.” That hardly seems like a reasonable compromise. To use an analogy, it would be like being in a bus heading to an event that was voted on by the people on the bus. Then some folks say that they do not like where the bus is going and one of them grabs the wheel. He then says “here is my compromise: we go where I want to go, or I’ll drive us into a tree.” That is hardly a compromise. Or even sane.

It could be argued that Obama and the Democrats should have done a better job in the past in terms of getting Republican buy-in on Obamacare. Or that the fact that the Republicans are a majority in the house shows that Americans want to be rid of Obamacare. These are not unreasonable points. However, they do not justify shutting down the government.

While I believe that Obamacare is chock full of problems and will have a variety of unpleasant consequences, I also believe in the importance of following the constitution. That is, I believe in the process of law. Obamacare went through that process and properly became a law. As such, there do not seem to be any grounds for claiming that it should be stopped because it is somehow an improperly passed law.

There have been claims that Obamacare is unconstitutional. There are some merits to these claims, but the matter was properly settled by the Supreme Court. Presumably the matter could be reconsidered at a later date, but the constitutional process has been properly followed. As such, the rhetorical points that Obamacare is unconstitutional lack merit. However, even if there was new and most excellent legal argument for this claim, this would not warrant shutting down the government to block the law. It would warrant having the Supreme Court consider the argument. That is proper procedure—that is how a system of government should operate. Using the threat of a shutdown against a law is certainly not how things should be done. That is essentially attempting to “govern” by threats, coercion and blackmail.

To use an analogy, imagine a night baseball game in which one side is losing. That side has argued every call repeatedly and used all the rules of the game to try to not lose. But it is still losing. So the coach of the losing team says that his team will turn out the lights, take all the balls, rip up the bases, and throw away the bats unless the other team “compromises” and gives them all the points they want. That would obviously be absurd. Likewise for the Tea Party Republican shut down.

A possible approach to warranting the shutdown is based on the idea of popular democracy. Some have argued that Obamacare is unpopular with most Americans. While this seems true, it also is true that most Americans do not seem to have enough of an understanding of Obamacare to have a rational opinion and much of the alleged dislike seems to stem from how the questions are asked. Interestingly, many people seem to really like things like the fact that people cannot be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions and that children can stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26.

Since this is supposed to be something of a democracy, considering the will of the people (however confused and ill-informed the people might be) seems reasonable. However, this would need to be a consistent principle. That is, if the Tea Party Republicans say that they are warranted in shutting down the government because a majority of Americans are opposed to Obamacare, then they would need to accept that the same principle applies in the case of other laws as well. So, if most Americans believe that X should be a law or that X should not be a law, then that is what must be done—and if it is not done, the government must be shut down. Given the overwhelming support for certain gun control laws that congress refused to pass, if this principle is accepted then these laws must pass—or the government must be shut down.

However, the Tea Party Republicans are clearly not operating on a principle here, unless it is the principle of “we’ll shut down the government if we don’t get what we want”—but that is hardly a reasonable or democratic principle.

Another plausible approach to countering this is to argue that a shutdown can be justified on the grounds that a legitimately passed, Supreme Court tested law is so bad that action must be taken. While this could not be warranted on constitutional grounds, it could be justified on moral grounds, most likely utilitarian grounds. The idea would be that the consequences of allowing the law to go into effect would be so dire that the consequences of shutting down the government are offset by the achievement of a greater good. Or, rather, the prevention of a greater bad.

Interestingly, this could be seen as a variation on civil disobedience. But, rather than have citizens breaking an unjust law to get arrested, there are lawmakers breaking the government—or at least the parts that don’t pay their salary.

Since I find Thoreau’s arguments in favor of such civil disobedience appealing, I have considerable sympathy for lawmakers deciding to serve the state with their consciences. However, what needs to be shown is that the law is so unjust that it warrants such a serious act of civil disobedience.

Ted Cruz and other Tea Party Republicans have made various dire claims about Obamacare—it will result in people being fired, it will cause employers to cut hours so that workers become part-time workers, and so on. Cruz even brought out a comparison to the Nazis, which did not go over well with the Republican senator John McCain. Interestingly, Cruz and others have attributed backwards causation powers to Obamacare: the stock talking points well before Obamacare went into effect included claims that Americans were already suffering under Obamacare—despite the fact that it was not in effect.

When pressed on the damage that Obamacare will do, the Tea Party Republicans tend to be rather vague—they throw out claims about how it will come between a patient and her doctor and so on. However, they never got around to presenting an obective coherent, supported case regarding the likely harms of Obamacare. This is hardly surprising. As a general rule, if someone busts out a Nazi analogy, then this is a fairly reliable sign that they have nothing substantial to say. This is, I think, unfortunate and unnecessary: Obamacare no doubt has plenty of problems and if it is as bad as the Tea Party Republicans claim, they should have been able to present a clear list without having to resort to rhetoric, scare tactic, hyperbole and Nazi analogies. So, I ask for such a clear case for the harms of Obamacare.

As a final point, Obama has made the reasonable point that he has been asking the Republicans for their input and their alternative plan for health care for quite some time. Some Republicans have advocated the emergency room, which I wrote about earlier, but their main offering seems to be purely negative: get rid of Obamacare. In terms of a positive alternative, they seem to have nothing. But, I am a fair person and merely ask for at least an outline of their alternative plan.


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  1. Well done!

  2. Mike;
    Thank you very much for this piece.

  3. “Obama has made the reasonable point that he has been asking the Republicans for their input and their alternative plan for health care for quite some time”

    Romneycare?………Oh wait…

    Why would the Tea Party be against the shutdown. Isn’t this the small government they been after all these years. It’s personal responsibility time.

  4. I suss that the core of the Republicans are deathly afraid that a ‘public’ healthcare regime will work, and they’ll end up looking like fools.

    But why is it called Obamacare? Is that a slur-in-a-word?

    But this also goes to show that American are radical nitwits. The stupidity and waste of valuable resources, material and human, is unbelievably gross. The fact that Americans can waste so much is strong proof of how wealthy the people and country could have been.

    But don’t get depressed. It’s huntin-season soon. Ya’all get your guns ready for boom-boom-be-happy.

  5. Boreas,

    “I suss that the core of the Republicans are deathly afraid that a ‘public’ healthcare regime will work, and they’ll end up looking like fools.”

    Yes, there are a number of factors. First, the doctors plot. The Republicans are the party of the rich. The wealthiest single group in America are doctors. In the 1950s they earned about two and half times the average wage, now they earn at least ten times the average. They are not interested in seeing “socialised” health care. But this is true of any country that did introduce socialised healthcare – the doctors were opposed to it, as it meant more work for less money.

    The Republicans believe they have to reform the system too, but I think their ultimate plan is to do it very piecemeal. Obamacare is piecemeal too – they won’t have a year zero like they did in Britain and Germany, in the 40s and 30s respectively. Doctors in Europe are by no means poor, but they’re by no means rich as American doctors.

    “But why is it called Obamacare? Is that a slur-in-a-word?”

    Yes, it was a slur, but this has been cleverly detourned (it’s meaning has been turned around). Obama now uses the term to promote the product. And in turn to promote himself.

    A tactic of the Republicans is to play the man, not the ball – because has been successful. In the 90s, Hilary Clinton attempted a health care scheme. It was defeated, to a great extent because the Republicans demonised Hilary, and successfully demonised the health care act by association.

    “But this also goes to show that American are radical nitwits. The stupidity and waste of valuable resources, material and human, is unbelievably gross.”

    But terrible waste goes on in so many countries. Wasting resources and making terrible political decisions in the allocation of resources. America make look terrible in the present, but they introduce things like free primary and secondary education long before many now liberal European countries, whose rich did not want to see their working class being able to read, write, or worse; think.

    And while the Americans are looking to socialise their health care, the British Conservative party are dead set on privatising theirs. Of course, if you had a year zero and introduced the American system into Britain over night, you’d have a revolution. I believe their intention is the frog in slowly warming water approached.

    “The fact that Americans can waste so much is strong proof of how wealthy the people and country could have been.”

    There’s an interesting thing here. If you’ve ever been in a Great Depression era babies house, or one of their children, they often have enough dried and canned food stored to last the best part of a decade. It’s also thought that America’s obesity problem could have been the result of the depression. They eat like that because there is a powerful cultural memory that the food might suddenly vanish. But it’s also the cultural fear of the Depression is used to create political stasis like the stasis blocking health care reform. Obamacare might lead to another Great Depression. So even people who stand the most to benefit from it – the working class Republicans, are against it. The dope in the Tea Party tea, is fear.

    “But don’t get depressed. It’s huntin-season soon. Ya’all get your guns ready for boom-boom-be-happy.”

    Squirrel and raccoon, good eatin’

    But if you don’t have good insurance don’t even think of having a hunting accident.

  6. This reminds me of the “stop or I shoot myself” trope (a la Blazing Saddles).

    Even polls by Fox News find that approval ratings for the Republican Party are steadily dipping in response to the Government shutdown.

  7. JMRC,
    Much thanks for your comments. Since this is a phil blog, may I ask ‘Is ‘thankfulness’ a mass noun?’

    Of course, I agree with most everything you say… almost always… so far. But Amerika is a terrible enigma. It is the hothouse of advanced medical technology; and, yet, millions of Amerika’s own people have healthcare that is lower third world.

    In fact Amerika does not have a healthcare system. It has a disease control claptrap. I suspect you’re wrong about the depression and obesity. I’d say the profit-driven food industry is poisoning people with sugar-laden food. Obesity, as I recall, dates to the 1970s when food ‘manufacturers’ began to use more and different sugars.

    If governments want to reduce healthcare costs across the board, they just need to improve what their citizens eat, and to tax the poop outta sugar.

    Getting back to the shut-down: the problem may be that Amerikans really are different. Public healthcare works in all other industrial societies but won’t work in Amerika. Because Amerikan sh*t don’t stink. Because the Amerikan sense of smell has been desensitized by rotten Republican arguments.

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