Firemen First, Monuments Second, Sanity Last

Paul Jacob
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Posted: Oct 06, 2013 12:00 AM

Most Americans are aware, on some level, of the Firemen First Principle.

Politicians face a shortfall in the budget, and wish to raise taxes, or debt, to cover it, but also must face the wrath of the public. So they pretend to bite the bullet, strategically placing onto the chopping block those parts of the government that the people like best.

This “demonstrates” the “need” to raise taxes, increase debt, or otherwise do things voters would rather not do.

Firemen go first onto the list, because everyone likes firemen. They risk their lives and help us when we are truly helpless.

Police often get put on this list, for they, too, seem necessary to most of us.

And schoolteachers sometimes get dragged into this calculus of vindictive prioritization. People don’t like it when their children suffer at school, and fewer teachers seems to translate into increased suffering.

So the tactic often works. That is, revenue gets raised, come hell or high water.

But of course, there’s a lot more to government than just the most necessary, or most desired, services. There are a lot of less essential personnel who could be laid off when budgets go cattywampus.

As we learn every decade or so, when a government shutdown occurs over a budgetary stalemate.

This time, the partial shutdown in government services has been directed by Congress, keeping Social Security checks flowing, doctors paid via Medicare, military on the march, etc. etc., the idea being: not to disturb ordinary Americans very much. Amusingly, putting the bulk of the EPA on furlough turned out not to bother many people at all, and the wry wisdom Americans extract from this — that, well, if we don’t notice government services when they are gone, do we really need them at all? — offends those folks who run the government. So they turn to propaganda by the deed: They kill off parks.

Well, they close them.

As the week began, the news was about the World War II Memorial closure. I wrote about this in “The Mysterious Barricades,” about how the National Park Service put up barricades on the monument, and, before you could say “François Couperin,” how a platoon of geriatric soldiers breached the barricades and paid their respects to their fallen comrades, scores of years dead.

In this case, the tactic misfired, and the government looked petty and manipulative.

And I learned that the Firemen First Principle went by other names, “the Washington Monument Syndrome” and “the Mount Rushmore Syndrome,” described on Wikipedia as “a political tactic used in the United State by government agencies when faced with budget cuts or a government shutdown. The tactic entails cutting the most visible or appreciated service provided by the government, from popular services such as national parks and libraries. . . .”

In the case of big parks, the shutdown makes some sense, so long as the parks are net tax consumers and not (as some are) revenue enhancers. And it’s easy to see why the elevator up the Washington Monument might be closed.

But why pay for barricades around outdoor monuments like the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials? That’s just an extra expense.And the fact that they can’t be patrolled might add a frisson of danger to a visit, but I wonder if the fear isn’t that citizens might dare to dance while attending one of these monuments to freedom. (In the past year, National Park Service police have arrested folk who have dared dance at In the past year, National Park Service police have arrested a number of people for dancing at the Jefferson Memorial, for example, though it’s hard to imagine that old Tom wouldn’t defend their right and second their emotion.)

Many national monuments are stone-and-space constructs that people can, in most cases, navigate without supervision. Surely during a government shutdown these places could descend into a state of nature rather than be cordoned off for our alleged “safety.”

We are a Lockean society, after all, not a Hobbesian one.

And yet, as the week wore on, the tenuousness of the rationales given for Government in Shutdown Mode wore awfully thin.

True to form, not only was Mount Rushmore National Park closed down, but orange cones were placed along the roadside near the monument, preventing people from pulling over and taking photos as they drove by.

One gets the idea that if the government could afford it, they’d drape black cloths over every picturesque item in the National Park Service inventory.

Government spokespeople, on the other hand, say they are just “being responsible,” and insist that government needs funding to continue to keep parks open, and those who don’t like increasing taxes, or who want to defund Obamacare, must simply get real.

But for a stiffer dose of reality, it’s worth noting that parks are economic goods, many pay for themselves, and many, many more could pay for themselves if only the government would get out of the way. The good folks at the Property and Environment Research Center repeatedly make this point — showing that contracting out park services to private enterprise can save taxpayers big bucks, even while preserving attractive natural and artistic monuments — and did so again in late September, contrasting Arizona’s Red Rock State Park’s sorry shortfall in funds to the successful private operation of the U.S. Forest Service’s very similar Crescent Moon Ranch, nearby.

As soon as folks in Congress retract their craniums from their pelvic cavities, they might want to look into this. Contracting out park services to non-bureaucratic entities might save us a lot of problems the next time we get into some weird budget impasse between the House, the Senate, and the White House.

But it wouldn’t necessarily prevent the barricades, for the NPS appears to be as vindictive and irresponsible as one’s worst fears could make out. Take the sad story of the Claude Moore Colonial Farm. It’s privately run. No National Park Service folk are employed there. It provides visitors with a fine grasp on what colonial life was like. I know about it because one of my daughters has volunteered there in times past.

For decades, it’s escaped the heavy hand of bureaucrats afflicted with the Washington Monument Syndrome. But now, writes managing director Anna Eberly, folks in the nation’s capital have gotten a lot more intrusive and lot less reasonable:

In previous budget dramas, the Farm has always been exempted since the NPS provides no staff or resources to operate the Farm. We weren’t even informed of this until mid-day Monday in spite of their managers having our email addresses and cell numbers.
The first casualty of this arbitrary action was the McLean Chamber of Commerce who were having a large annual event at the Pavilions on Tuesday evening. The NPS sent the Park Police over to remove the Pavilions staff and Chamber volunteers from the property while they were trying to set up for their event. Fortunately, the Chamber has friends and they were able to move to another location and salvage what was left of their party. You do have to wonder about the wisdom of an organization that would use staff they don’t have the money to pay to evict visitors from a park site that operates without costing them any money.
Every appeal our Board of Directors made to the NPS administration was denied. They feel that as “landlord” they have absolute control of their property. The NPS is quoted today in the Washington Post saying “The monuments are closed because, during a shutdown, there is no money to pay the rangers who staff them,” said the Park Service spokeswoman, Carol Bradley Johnson.” And the agency is worried about the security of the memorials and the safety of visitors at unstaffed sites. “It is not something we enjoy doing,” Johnson said. “But it’s important that we protect and preserve our monuments for future generations.”
What utter crap. We have operated the Farm successfully for 32 years after the NPS cut the Farm from its budget in 1980 and are fully staffed and prepared to open today. But there are barricades at the Pavilions and entrance to the Farm. And if you were to park on the grass and visit on your own, you run the risk of being arrested. Of course, that will cost the NPS staff salaries to police the Farm against intruders while leaving it open will cost them nothing.

This is obviously not a government out to serve the people. This is people in government out to serve themselves. It is political action, the kind proscribed by our nation’s democratic, republican tradition.

If Congress were interested in preserving the Republic, there would be a major investigation, and every person associated with this policy — approving it or enforcing it — would be sacked.

But we know how this is going to play out.

And why do we know this?

Because we know that it’s been a long time since folks in Washington served us. They serve themselves, first and foremost. The barricading of national parks and monuments, and especially the Claude Moore Colonial Farm, prove it once again: We, the people, are merely excuses for their jobs and their privileges.     [References, complete]