I’ve heard ‘three billion dollars’ as the ‘permanent’ cost of giving 700,000 US government workers an unexpected 35-day vacation. There were also thousands of consultants furloughed because of the federal shutdown. According to economists, who mostly look at lost income plus wage-earners’ reduced spending, $3 billion left the economy forever, causing a drop in the US GDP. Three billion is a lot of coins and that’s just the hit to direct wages plus the domino effect – for example, laid-off folks might not eat out, which causes a drop in restaurateurs’ income, which leads to reduced hours for chefs and servers, who won’t be buying gas to get to work, and on and on. However, we’ve heard reports of people in the US Coast Guard selling clothes and toys at yard sales to make ends meet, so some money was coming back into the economy. (Read that last bit with as much sarcasm as you can muster.)
The unrecorded costs of the shutdown could also end up in the billions. Research that helps everyone from farmers to physicians was stalled for over a month. In some cases, it can’t be restarted. Shutting down experimental medical cultures, cell lines, and on-going agricultural tests destroy information vital to disease control. The longest-running predator-prey study in the world (observing, tracking and counting moose and wolves in Michigan) went on for 40 years. Until this January. Scientists couldn’t enter federal lands to gather year 41’s data.
According to Dr Rush Holt, a former congressman and physicist, “Any shutdown of the federal government can disrupt or delay research projects, lead to uncertainty over new research, and reduce researcher access to agency data and infrastructure.” The unpaid scientists weren’t even able to enter closed federal lands where observations and experiments were taking place. Locked labs and buildings turned some science experiments into mould- and fungi- growing exercises.
Drippy dead bees
Three days ago, the science journal Nature reported on the shutdown, “Dead bees, dusty offices: US scientists face post-shutdown malaise”. The dead bees were stacking up at the renowned USDA bee disease research lab in Beltsville, Maryland. Here’s the way that Nature described the scene:
A refrigerator overflowing with dead honey bees and larvae greeted Jay Evans when he returned to his lab at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Beltsville, Maryland, on 28 January.
Evans, an entomologist, is one of the thousands of federal scientists who were locked out of their labs during the longest US government shutdown in history. “We are very backed up,” he says of the USDA lab, which monitors bee pathogens and parasites. “And some samples were sitting at the local post office, and they are a little degraded. They’ve been sitting for a month and a half.”
The journal Science reported on a bumble bee rescue project:
The shutdown has also stung entomologist Rufus Isaacs of Michigan State University in East Lansing. Some endangered bumble bees he has collected are now “sitting in a fridge in my lab” and can’t be shipped to USDA laboratories until they reopen. He notes that a few months’ delay in agricultural research “can mean a whole year of progress is lost, because if we don’t have the answers from the recent experiments, we don’t know how to prepare for the coming growing season.”
Scientists, farmers, and physicians will carry on. But if we think the economic costs are limited to $3 billion dollars, and if we thing that the shutdown didn’t hurt people outside the federal payroll, we are likely mistaken.