Missing the Forest for the Trees: Corporate America’s Miscalculation

On a recent trip back home to California, I spent three days hiking the idyllic mountains of Yosemite National Park. The traditional beauty of the park was dulled, when, among the ancient sequoias, I saw an unwelcome sight: piles of coffee cups and fast-food wrappers in overflowing trash bins, alongside suspect-looking brown bags that other campers had warned me to stay away from. That’s right: in the richest state, in the richest country, in a park that John Muir once called “the very birthplace of heavenly harmonies,” our government has run out of money to provide for the cleanup of human feces.

On a recent trip back home to California, I spent three days hiking the idyllic mountains of Yosemite National Park. The traditional beauty of the park was dulled, when, among the ancient sequoias, I saw an unwelcome sight: piles of coffee cups and fast-food wrappers in overflowing trash bins, alongside suspect-looking brown bags that other campers had warned me to stay away from. That’s right: in the richest state, in the richest country, in a park that John Muir once called “the very birthplace of heavenly harmonies,” our government has run out of money to provide for the cleanup of human feces.

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On a recent trip back home to California, I spent three days hiking the idyllic mountains of Yosemite National Park. The traditional beauty of the park was dulled, when, among the ancient sequoias, I saw an unwelcome sight: piles of coffee cups and fast-food wrappers in overflowing trash bins, alongside suspect-looking brown bags that other campers had warned me to stay away from. That’s right: in the richest state, in the richest country, in a park that John Muir once called “the very birthplace of heavenly harmonies,” our government has run out of money to provide for the cleanup of human feces.
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How did we get here? In short: through a stubborn President, a neutered Republican party, and a unified opposition.

On December 19th, 2018, the United States Senate passed a funding bill that would fully fund the government at current funding levels on a 100-0 vote. The next day, the President indicated that he would not sign such a bill, and the House of Representatives, then led by former Speaker Paul Ryan, allowed that bill to languish. The sticking point in the negotiations was over the fate of the President’s wall, which he demanded $5.7 billion to fund. Congress, though controlled by the President’s own party, could not agree to this demand, and on December 22nd, nine federal departments – roughly a quarter of the U.S. government – closed their doors.

In the ensuing 35 days, in what has become the longest shutdown in United States history, 800,000 federal workers have been caught in the crosshairs of this dispute, as they have been unable to go to work or are required to work without pay. “I will be the one to shut it down. I will take the mantle of shutting it down … I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck,” the President said to his Democratic Senate negotiator in the days leading up to the shutdown. The American people have remembered the President’s words: according to recent polls, 56% of Americans blame the President and the Republican party for this shutdown, while 36% say that Democrats are responsible. An overwhelming 71% of Americans believe that the wall is not worth the cost of the shutdown. And perhaps most worrying for the President: the minority of voters that agree with him on the wall is shrinking ever further, as his approval rating drops by another seven points this month.

The reason is for this is because, despite the President’s false claim that most people hurt by the shutdown are Democrats, the shutdown’s effects are not partisan: they harm us all, regardless of political affiliation. When the Transportation Security Administration’s 51,000 agents receive a pay stub of $0.00 despite having to work, and when 10% of these TSA agents have to call in sick, we are all harmed by the longer lines at the airport. When 7,000 employees at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are furloughed, we are all harmed by the prospect of salmonella in our lettuce or listeria in our ice cream going undetected. When hundreds of the 4,000 workers in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are forced to skip work due to financial hardship, we are all harmed by the delayed tax refunds – an effect that spills over onto our communities, where we would likely have spent portions of that refund.

There’s something matter-of-fact about laying out the statistics in this way. It feels detached, almost, from the pain and suffering that this shutdown has caused to our fellow Americans.

The shutdown is the proud son, a TSA agent by day and a caregiver to his sick mother by night, who has to swallow his pride and ask his friends for loans to buy food. The shutdown is the husband with the heart ailment, who was first inspired into government service by JFK’s inaugural speech, and answered the call for “what you can do for your country” by becoming a  FDA food inspector for the past 46 years. The shutdown is the college freshman who, fresh off a semester of studying government and politics, wonders if she will be able to return to college next semester if the IRS doesn’t send her tax transcript in time for her to receive her financial aid. That’s really who is hurt, and the situation is worsening by the day.

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As the shutdown’s effects have worsened, we’ve seen various parties speak up about the damage caused, and correctly identify the President’s obstinate position as the barrier to a solution. Labor unions such as the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have sued the Trump Administration for forcing federal workers into work without pay. The former director of the President’s National Economic Council called the shutdown “completely wrong” and urged his former boss to “get the government open.” Even some Republican senators, while too few to change the outcome, voted yesterday to reopen the government without funding the wall, providing an implicit rebuke to the President’s position. Yet even in light of the serious suffering that we’ve seen, one group has remained conspicuously silent in the national debate: corporate America.

This silence is uncharacteristic, because in the Trump era, we have seen an increased trend of corporate action. CEOs have spoken out on matters ranging from immigration (such as when 400 leaders signed onto a letter urging the Administration and Congress to protect DREAMers) to climate change (when 1,600 business leaders pledged to uphold the Paris Climate Accords after the US’ departure). To be sure, there are likely genuine moral considerations involved in this decision: their companies’ mission and values likely align with their support for DREAMers or for action on climate change. However, there’s also undoubtedly a financial calculation: Silicon Valley benefits from having DREAMers work in their companies, and the world will have no use for Google if we’re all underwater.

Which makes the silence coming from corporate America all the more deafening: they have so much to lose from this shutdown in terms of their bottom line. According to the White House Council of Economic Advisors, each week of the shutdown reduces quarterly economic growth by 0.13%, and we may see zero growth for all of Q1. Companies like Boeing, General Dynamics, and Leidos Holdings, all of which contract heavily with the federal government, are losing millions of dollars daily. Tech companies that are expected to IPO in the coming months, such as Uber, Lyft, and Pinterest, will not be able to do so if the SEC remains closed for much longer. Meanwhile, companies on Wall Street, such JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, continue to “urge leaders to strike a collaborative tone” and “come together” — as if both sides are operating in similarly good faith.

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What if corporate America spoke out?

Our politics are currently governed by the President’s far right base — our businesses don’t have to be. By speaking out against the President’s shutdown, corporate America can put pressure on him to end the suffering. At a moment when consumer confidence is plummeting and uncertainty is rising, doing so would be both good business and the right thing to do. As news grows of a White House pondering the spillover effects of a shutdown that continues until March or April, there are exponentially worse outcomes than what we’ve already seen. What happens during the next natural disaster? A disease outbreak? A terrorist attack? Each of these calamities have the potential to both cause tremendous human harm, and pose an extreme threat to the well-being of corporate America’s balance sheet. They have a responsibility to speak out, or risk prolonging a crisis that is growing worse by the day.

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As I wrapped up my weekend in Yosemite, and headed through the same trails I had encountered bags of trash on just days earlier, I noticed something new: crews of volunteers, young and old, driving from waste site to waste site, coming forward on their own volition to minimize the harm to the park. Much of the damage inflicted couldn’t be reversed, I realized, but we could do better going forward if we truly respect the gifts we’ve been given — if only we stop missing the forest for the trees.