Monday, April 22, 2013

Making Do With Less. Loss Of The American Work Ethic

The federal budget sequestration cuts are finally kicking in. And as expected, things are starting to look ugly. When Congress sliced $85 billion off the $3.5 trillion budget, there were dire warnings about the consequences for government services.

President Obama took the first step by announcing the cancellation of White House tours. This is a huge problem for tourists who typically have to wait months and go through extensive security screenings before receiving a ticket. Here in L.A., the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the agency that sends those fantastic spacecrafts throughout the solar system, has cancelled their extremely popular annual Open House. If you've never been there, you should definitely go. It is a hoot walking past all the scientific exhibits and models that you normally only see on TV. Just not this year.

Now the government is furloughing air traffic controllers. They are pulling these critical people out of the airport control towers, inconveniencing thousands of travelers and adding significant costs to businesses. All of these hassles for a mere 2% decrease in the budget.

I fail to understand how such a tiny difference in spending money can wreak such havoc. Whatever happened to working with less? In economic terms it is called increasing your productivity. Normally that is a good thing. But when it comes to government priorities, productivity seems to be something that should be avoided at all costs, even if it means angering the people who are paying the bills.

By contrast, New York Times columnist Pauline Chen, M.D. recently wrote about her experience as a surgical resident when there was a sudden shortage in staff coverage. She and her fellow residents, after losing one third of their colleagues, worked out a plan where each of them would work sixty straight hours one weekend a month to make sure all the patients were seen, the work got done, and each would have one weekend off. Sure the plan failed because that was an impossible schedule for any mortal to complete, and it would be totally illegal today. But at least they tried. And it shows what responsible people do when confronted with fewer resources but no less work.

Let's not forget that as part of the sequester, Medicare has sliced reimbursements to physicians by two percent. Have doctors gone to cable news shows to complain bitterly about the unfair cuts? Have we decided that patients can just sit outside the emergency room doors and wait for a few hours because there are not enough doctors working due to furloughs? Of course not. Important, life saving work still must continue. We increased our productivity by digging a little deeper, sacrificing our personal lives to make sure the necessary tasks were completed as before.

The only federal agency that has acted like grownups has been the military. Despite the fact that half the sequester comes out of the defense budget, we have not heard too much grumbling from the Department of Defense. Sure some projects may get stretched out longer to work within the new budget guidelines. But in general I feel confident the military is ready and able to defend us anywhere in the world. That's called acting responsibly and maturely.

Of course all this turmoil may just be political theater. It's just a game for these people we have elected to run our country. But it's depressing to think how much uproar can been caused by taking only two percent out of a multi trillion dollar budget. Is it any wonder that countries like Greece and Cyprus, where real painful budget cuts have to be enacted, are on the verge of collapse? I guess we'll know when we get there.

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