Sunday, January 28, 2018

"I Love Deadlines...

Image from: here.
...and the whooshing sound they make as they go by."
                - Douglas Adams

As I write this, our Congress and President are staring down yet another shutdown deadline. As you read this, they've either solved this current mess, or you're standing in a pit of ash and wondering how everything went wrong. Either way, it's time to talk about budget by Continuing Resolution (a real thing), and the Perpetual Crisis of Governance and the Leadership Vacuum (something I just made up).

The two deadlines in play right now--CHIP and DACA--are artificial in nature. That's not entirely fair; all deadlines are artificial in nature. Unless a meteor is about to hit the earth and you're trying to build a giant shield to make sure we get to keep our atmosphere, your deadline is probably an arbitrary date and time that someone selected. It's possible that your deadline was set to make it possible for someone to do the step after yours, but their deadline is likely artificial as well and may be based on someone else's arbitrary deadline.

The deadlines I'm talking about, however, are a bit more sinister in nature, and shed some light on the the worst kind of manufactured deadlines. DACA was fine, until Trump set a sunset date of March 5 for these protections. CHIP was fine until the Republican-led Congress let it expire with little notice and no fanfare. The Federal Government could pass an annual budget, like your local school board does, but they don't. Instead, at the Federal level, we lurch from one short-term spending plan to the next, meanwhile sometimes needing to deal with the debt ceiling.

By the way, if you're in favor of a debt ceiling as a sensible tool to keep the government from spending too much, you should know it doesn't do that at all. The Federal Debt ceiling doesn't affect spending, just bill paying. That money's already been spent, they're just deciding whether or not to screw their creditors (and their own credit worthiness).

In a related stroke of genius, some years ago our same Congress came up with the idea of Sequestration. The idea here was Republicans and Democrats would put a (figurative) gun to their own heads to get sensible budgeting to take place by agreeing to separate but similarly disagreeable outcomes if they didn't--military spending on the Republicans' side and domestic spending for Democrats. It didn't work. Cooler heads did not prevail and the (figurative) gun went off.

Republicans learned a lesson from this and will henceforth make sure not to put anything they actually care about at risk. Now they put a (figurative) gun to the heads of sick poor kids and a category of immigrants that everyone seems to agree should be called Dreamers--a rare branding win for people who let "tax relief," "socialized medicine," and "death tax" get a foothold. Republicans did sweeten this last round with additional military spending, but nothing was threatened to be taken away.

As mentioned before (see: here) I actually like deadlines. If it weren't for actual hard deadlines, I wouldn't get anything done at all--note how the loose goal of posting every two weeks to your Slacker's Guide has worked out.

To differentiate between good deadlines and bad, I offer this handy guide to deadline design:
  1. Padding, but not too much - All deadlines include a little wiggle room. If you really need it by Thursday, better make it due Wednesday. The problem occurs when there is a series of deadlines based on later steps in the process and everyone adds their own padding. The real deadline for the DACA thing is (was?--I don't actually know, I'm living in your past) March 5. Part of the brief nature of the January shutdown was that it was triggered too early. No one takes a March 5 deadline very seriously in late January. 
  2. Reasonable, but substantial, consequences - You would think that shutting down the government would be its own disincentive to shutting down the government. It's not, because these shutdowns are mostly pretend. If everything the Federal Government did (air traffic control, Medicare and Medicaid benefits, Social Security checks, boarder security, NOAH, ...) was actually cut off the minute we didn't officially have any money to spend, this would all be taken more seriously. This time we didn't even close National Parks because last time that pissed people off too much when Obama did it in 2013. People don't think the Federal Government does very much because we never shut down anything deemed "essential"--which should be all of it, if you stop to think.
  3. Consequences for the right people - Those affected by Federal shutdowns are not those who are making decisions. They're parents who have to come to work, but who have no daycare available. They're low-wage folks who suffer real consequences if they miss a paycheck--even if it doesn't result in a net reduction in pay (maybe because their checking account goes too low and they have to pay fees). Congress just doesn't have skin in the game. They continue to get paid, and even use their gym (maybe with fewer towels). It's possible Trump couldn't fly to go to his party and play golf--which may be part of why it ended so quickly. 
  4. Memorable dates - This seems stupid, but think about it. When are your Christmas gifts due? What about the ones for folks you won't see on December 25--mail carriers, piano teachers, nieces and nephews who live out of state? Do you do better with the deadlines when you can keep the date in mind? That's why lots of stuff is due at the end of the month, and why it's so hard to remember your credit card bills. 
  5. Proper distribution - Making large things happen all at once is difficult. It is helpful to split big projects into smaller manageable benchmarks and set deadlines for each. By the way, I am generally terrible at this. Despite personal goals to do otherwise, I always have way too much stuff due right at the end of the grading period. As a result, my stuff competes with lots of other teachers' stuff, and I'm left with way too much student work to sift through all at once. I plan to improve this. I haven't yet.
You'll notice that the budget impasse we're talking about fails on all five categories. Some of that was just bad luck, some wasn't. Number five, for example, was entirely intentional. Republicans saved important and necessary work to use as a lever against Democrats. Look for more of this in the future, for a very simple reason: it worked. 

Every Senator and Representative I've heard interviewed lately has decried this as a terrible way to govern. It is bad for people doing the actual work--including those in the military--who can only plan three to six weeks out. It's bad for the Legislature, who are always in crisis mode and never get to properly deliberate on anything. It's bad for the electorate who come away with a those-guys-can't-do-anything-right impression and are further disinclined to vote for anyone at all. And it's bad for the country, as it becomes clear that we don't fundamentally believe in anything. Other than tax cuts for wealthy people, which will need to be another post. 

I don't know how and when we'll be able to fix any of this. Someone should set a deadline. 


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