Idled: an (imposed) loss of “agency” hurts our nation and the world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” – the Declaration of Independence (1776)

Speaking of government,

 The current federal shutdown is entering its third excruciatingly painful and costly week. This is a uniquely American dysfunction; the rest of the developed world seems to find no difficulty in maintaining uninterrupted national services. So why are we going through this?

Because we can. Some or many of our elected leaders are either (1) experiencing a memory loss, a kind of forgetting that governments and rule of law are essential to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, or (2) showing deliberate disregardfor the well-being of 320 million others.

Notionally, there’s responsibility to be borne by both sides in the current partisan standoff. However, one side seems to be acting out a national-scale version of the playground’s it’s my ball[1]and I’m going to go home, while the other seems to be saying, let’s get government back on the job while we work on any remaining differences. Any underlying motivation is a matter for each of us to judge – but this assessment matters less than the impacts.

America is the victim. The burden is falling on individuals and communities, and enterprises unequally. As the news media have reminded us for days, any family with the misfortune to have made plans long ago for a visit to a national park (America’s best idea) has been hit hard. Less notoriously, the same holds true for anyone seeking advice from an actual human being at the IRS, or anywhere else. Just try making such a call. And that’s before we add in the cost resulting from our diminished standing in the eyes of the rest of the world, whether friend or foe.

But those most immediately affected, most victimized, are the federal employees, whether furloughed or working without pay. Sure, the money matters. They’re living paycheck to paycheck to the same extent as the rest of us. But, for them, it’s not just about the money. These are civil servants. They thoughtfully opted for a career devoted to public good: the safety, security, economic well-being, equity of opportunity, and quality of life for every American – versus personal gain. Now they’re forcibly restrained from making progress on these urgent and deeply-held values/national aspirations: safety and public health, education, housing, justice, modernization of aging infrastructure, air- and water- quality, and innovation. What’s more, their vital role in providing the regulations and policies that foster private enterprise, whether small businesses or global corporations, has been put on hold.

In a word, federal employees have lost “agency.” That’s not in the narrow sense of the agency they work for: DoC, DoJ, DoL, EPA, NOAA, NSF, etc. It’s a loss of agency in the social-science sense:

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and their decisions. The relative difference in influences from structure and agency is debated—it is unclear to what extent a person’s actions are constrained by social systems.

One’s agency is one’s independent capability or ability to act on one’s will…

Federal employees are thus facing the same loss of agency that’s the chronic nightmare for refugee populations in Syria, the Sudan, and other global trouble spots, as well as those who find themselves confined to emergency shelters following hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, drought, and flood. Their ability to help themselves, regain control over their lives has been compromised. Instead, they can do little more than wait, while accepting whatever help others decide they need, or enduring whatever privation someone else imposes upon them.

Globally, a quarter-billion young people, ages 16-24, are suffering this same loss of agency. They’re the so-called NEETS (Not in Employment, Education, or Training). This, from The Economist (not quite current but gives the flavor):

Official figures assembled by the International Labour Organisation say that 75m young people are unemployed, or 6% of all 15- to 24-year-olds. But going by youth inactivity, which includes all those who are neither in work nor education, things look even worse. The OECD, an intergovernmental think-tank, counts 26m young people in the rich world as “NEETS”: not in employment, education or training. A World Bank database compiled from households shows more than 260m young people in developing economies are similarly “inactive”. The Economist calculates that, all told, almost 290m are neither working nor studying: almost a quarter of the planet’s youth...

This lack of agency among young people of the world is a major cause of social unrest, upheaval, and mass migration. It is contributing to the pressure on U.S. borders from South and Central America, and to European influx from the Middle East and Africa. And it doesn’t just matter today; it holds implications for tomorrow. Those disenfranchised now will find their future opportunities more limited as well.

Loss of agency is a big deal.


The gates of hell are locked on the inside– C.S. Lewis

A final comment, a bit closer to home.

It’s telling that immigration is the trigger. The European and American challenges are to manage flows of people and commerce across borders, not close off such flows entirely. To do the latter is to move one step closer to C.S. Lewis’ hell.

Meteorologists find it natural to recognize this. The atmosphere knows no borders, and so the science and practice of meteorology have had to be similarly global (and open with respect to the virtual boundaries separating public- from private sector and academia) to be effective. Formal international cooperation in meteorology dates back to the mid-nineteenth century.

It’s therefore uniquely painful for National Weather Service employees and government geoscientists to be cut off from communication and collaboration with counterparts both domestically and from around the world. That’s happening with the particular poignancy as these other elements of the American Meteorological Society gather to meet in Phoenix. U.S. government participation will be missed. And progress toward shared goals of global weather readiness, more effective development of food, water, and energy resources, and environmental protection will be correspondingly slowed.


[1]Rhymes with “wall.”

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