Government Shutdown and Laws of Unintended Consequences

The government shutdown will lead to unintended consequences... and hurt families. How's it affecting your department?

The government shutdown will lead to unintended consequences … and hurt families. How’s it affecting your department?

I don’t see how I could write a Week-Ender on any subject except how the first government shutdown in 17 years is affecting parks and rec professionals; after all, it is the most prevalent issue we Americans currently face.

I hope that by the time this missive gets published online, the shutdown will be history shortly thereafter, elected leaders will have come to their senses and we can get back to some level of business as usual; but I don’t hear or see anything that promises such an outbreak of common sense.

Instead, like all Americans, I read the papers, scroll online news and watch TV and see national parks closing; all “non-essential” federal personnel being furloughed; barricades going up at the steps of national monuments; and the Smithsonian Museum with “Closed” signs on its doors–unthinkable.

At first glance, it may seem like “only” the 800,000 or so federal employees are being impacted, but I think there are unintended consequences, sort of a trickle-down effect, that will occur fairly quickly.

According to one report, a partial federal shutdown would cost us at least $300 million a day in lost economic output at the start; if the shutdown persists the effects would intensify as consumers and businesses defer purchases.

Take Yosemite National Park, which turned 123 years old on Oct. 2, for example; when I tried to get on the website, it was shut down too! As I understand, only law enforcement and utility crews will be on duty.

So this means that maintenance crews are not working, bathrooms are not being cleaned, leaking pipes aren’t being repaired, rock slides aren’t being removed from roadways, fallen trees aren’t being removed from the trail systems and a host of other related items I don’t even know about aren’t being taken care of.

So, when the bathrooms aren’t being cleaned, the cleaning products aren’t being used, and the product distribution vendors will have to cancel purchase orders. Thus, the people who make the product will not need to ship as much out so they’ll cut production or risk backlogging their on-hand inventory.

Carrying this further, the people who make the labels that go on the product bottles won’t sell as many labels; in fact, the bottle-making people won’t need to make as many bottles … and of course the people who make the plastic that makes the bottles … well, you see where I’m going with this.

The fact is that the Law of Unintended Consequences is directly related to this situation. This social sciences law was actually documented in 1936 by sociologist Robert K. Merton in terms too lengthy for this blog. Generally, it has become an adage to say that when humans try to intervene in a complex system, they often create unanticipated and undesirable outcomes.

Taking the Yosemite example a bit further, many people were already in the park, camping, sightseeing and hiking, when this came about, so their vacations were ruined and they’ll head home early; unintended consequence. Most are Americans, but there are many foreign visitors as well. What kind of impression does this leave with them? Another unintended consequence.

Or, how about the people who were planning to go there in the next couple days or weeks? They will have to cancel. This means that gas stations, restaurants, convenience stores, hotels and other businesses along the routes these people would have taken will not get their business.

Airlines won’t get the airfares from foreign visitors who would have come to Yosemite. Souvenir shops won’t get the business from foreign visitors – or American visitors for that matter.

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