Closing and threatening to close our federal government unnecessarily disrupts our lives and our markets. The recent closure was not because of an immediate need for a wall to keep immigrants out of our country, but because somewhere in our partisan politics our leaders have forgotten the art of trading. Winner-take-all may be acceptable in gambling, but it’s not a good way to test different ideas or run a country.
In the fall of 1981 I relaxed on the patio of a hotel in Bamako, Mali. I was part of an international team sent to evaluate research funded by European and American organizations. We had been in primitive, remote areas for several weeks and were enjoying a city with fine French food and excellent wine.
A street peddler approached us trying to sell local art. I showed interest in a carved camel. We didn't use his native language. In excellent French, he quoted me a price. In English I made an offer less than half of what he was asking. He lowered his price. I lowered my offer. He looked confused, but lowered his price again. I lowered my offer.
The puzzled vendor turned to our interpreter and spoke rapidly, waving his arms and pointing to me. He asked her to tell me how to trade in Mali. When he lowered his price I was supposed to raise my offer. I asked the interpreter to translate my English. I said: “I come from a long line of Texas horse traders. We keep lowering the price until the seller breaks, then pay him just a little more than his lowest price to make the seller think we're helping him.”
The seller looked puzzled. His frown turned into a smile. He laughed, handed me the carving and said to take it as a gift. I gave him a handful of Mali paper currency without knowing its value. I don't know who got the best of the deal, but we shook hands and left smiling.
Judging from the circus in Washington the last few months, it's highly unlikely the people of a given party will work together to heal the wounds caused by our current leadership. Democrats and Republicans must work together to make our nation great.
But even if, by some miracle, we get the government operating smoothly again, the poison has spread. After this government closing mess, it may take generations to reinstall the trust and admiration the United States once had. The government my parents enjoyed was composed of neighbors who sat near us at school plays, checked the brands on cattle at the auction and raised trout at the fish hatchery. The government we knew and loved were civil servants — people who helped us.
It's a disgrace that many civil servants aren't paid in these government shutdowns, even though some continue to do their jobs. When they return to work, they try to put their part of the government back together again and serve us as best they can. But this shut down fiasco has taken its toll. Some people left the service to take other jobs. Others have retired.
It won't be good enough to just fill vacant slots. We must move quickly to replace those lost with our best and brightest young people. This will take active recruitment and creative signing bonuses. Forgiving college loans and low cost housing just might attract recruits already employed in other good jobs.
We must show real appreciation for their service. Closing the government and making public servants work without pay is the old horse trader way. Driving our public servants to the lowest possible level and then giving them a plaque to hang on the wall of a rented town house will not make America great again. Selecting and developing good civil servants and showing we appreciate them might do the job.
Thad Box is professor emeritus in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University, serving as dean of the college from 1970 to 1990.