Government Shutdown and Laws of Unintended Consequences

The government shutdown will lead to unintended consequences ... and hurt families. How's it affecting your department?

I don’t see how I could write a Week-Ender on any subject except how the first government shutdown in 17 years is affecting parks and rec professionals; after all, it is the most prevalent issue we Americans currently face.

I hope that by the time this missive gets published online, the shutdown will be history shortly thereafter, elected leaders will have come to their senses and we can get back to some level of business as usual; but I don’t hear or see anything that promises such an outbreak of common sense.

Instead, like all Americans, I read the papers, scroll online news and watch TV and see national parks closing; all “non-essential” federal personnel being furloughed; barricades going up at the steps of national monuments; and the Smithsonian Museum with “Closed” signs on its doors--unthinkable.

At first glance, it may seem like “only” the 800,000 or so federal employees are being impacted, but I think there are unintended consequences, sort of a trickle-down effect, that will occur fairly quickly.

According to one report, a partial federal shutdown would cost us at least $300 million a day in lost economic output at the start; if the shutdown persists the effects would intensify as consumers and businesses defer purchases.

Take Yosemite National Park, which turned 123 years old on Oct. 2, for example; when I tried to get on the website, it was shut down too! As I understand, only law enforcement and utility crews will be on duty.

So this means that maintenance crews are not working, bathrooms are not being cleaned, leaking pipes aren’t being repaired, rock slides aren’t being removed from roadways, fallen trees aren’t being removed from the trail systems and a host of other related items I don’t even know about aren’t being taken care of.

So, when the bathrooms aren’t being cleaned, the cleaning products aren’t being used, and the product distribution vendors will have to cancel purchase orders. Thus, the people who make the product will not need to ship as much out so they’ll cut production or risk backlogging their on-hand inventory.

Carrying this further, the people who make the labels that go on the product bottles won’t sell as many labels; in fact, the bottle-making people won’t need to make as many bottles … and of course the people who make the plastic that makes the bottles … well, you see where I’m going with this.

The fact is that the Law of Unintended Consequences is directly related to this situation. This social sciences law was actually documented in 1936 by sociologist Robert K. Merton in terms too lengthy for this blog. Generally, it has become an adage to say that when humans try to intervene in a complex system, they often create unanticipated and undesirable outcomes.

Taking the Yosemite example a bit further, many people were already in the park, camping, sightseeing and hiking, when this came about, so their vacations were ruined and they’ll head home early; unintended consequence. Most are Americans, but there are many foreign visitors as well. What kind of impression does this leave with them? Another unintended consequence.

Or, how about the people who were planning to go there in the next couple days or weeks? They will have to cancel. This means that gas stations, restaurants, convenience stores, hotels and other businesses along the routes these people would have taken will not get their business.

Airlines won’t get the airfares from foreign visitors who would have come to Yosemite. Souvenir shops won’t get the business from foreign visitors – or American visitors for that matter.

Many unintended consequences.

The shutdown, though it emanates from Washington, D.C., has far-reaching impact throughout the country.

Federal employees live in communities across the nation; they pay mortgages, buy groceries, shop at local stores, fill their tanks with gas and all the other day-to-day purchases that constitute modern life. When they’re furloughed, they don’t get paid. No pay, no purchase – and that trickle effect kicks in again.

I have a friend who was laid off from his job a year ago after more than 20 years, with no retirement, and he hasn’t found another job; his wife is a federal employee who is now furloughed, uncertain for how long. They live from paycheck to paycheck. They are panicking.

Unintended consequences.

State or local parks and rec professionals may not be directly impacted by the shutdown--yet. But if it goes on long enough, who knows? If anybody has any experience in this, if you’ve experienced anything similar to it, or if you have thoughts on it, chime in here, add a comment. Or if you are being impacted, let people know.

The bottom line is that the shutdown affects us all because it is adversely impacting hundreds of thousands of fellow Americans. I won’t even get into the reasons for the shutdown or how or if it could have been prevented; I’ll leave that for the political pundits. Fact is, it’s here and misery does love company, so if you have a tale to tell, this is the place to do it.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email