The Herald Bulletin

October 14, 2013

Emmett Dulaney: To feds, business seemingly 'nonessential'

The Herald Bulletin

---- — Several days ago, the federal government implemented a partial shutdown, and all “nonessential” services were suspended. In my vernacular, nonessential and unnecessary mean the same thing.

I don’t work in government, and have no interest in doing so. But I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some lack of pride associated with being labeled as a “nonessential employee” and told not to report to work, as opposed to being told that the country can’t do without me and there will be a pool of money set aside to get us through this.

By no means am I trying to start a political discourse about the shutdown, but I find it very interesting what is considered nonessential and forced to shut down.

The first agency that caught me off guard was the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Since its founding in 1953, the SBA has focused on helping small business owners by reducing some of the reluctance of lenders to provide them with funding.

While there are a variety of programs and divisions, the majority of the SBA’s operations can be simplified as follows: after businesses have been denied loans by traditional lenders, the SBA can step in and insure the loan so the business can still get it (paying a few more points) and the lender can be comfortable with it (knowing that it is insured).

I find it hard to believe that small business lending is considered nonessential.

I also find it hard to believe that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is similarly labeled. This agency is the main one charged with “measuring labor market activity, working conditions and price changes to the economy.”

This is the organization that releases unemployment numbers, keeps track of the cost-of-living index and has a mission to “collect, analyze and disseminate essential economic information to support public and private decision-making.”

Surprisingly, the word “essential” is prominently featured in their mission statement, and yet — according to the website — during the shutdown, the “BLS will not collect data, issue reports or respond to public inquiries.”

At least the BLS left the historical data up. In contrast to this, the United States Census Bureau, which has the mission “To serve as the leading source of quality data about the nation’s people and economy,” took everything offline.

The data collected by this agency is regularly used in economic decision making. This is akin to putting a large piece of duct tape over the instrument panel of your car before heading out on a road trip; you are traveling blind in terms of how well or poorly your vehicle is doing.

After looking at these three agencies, I started to wonder if there was a trend, or it was just a fluke, that “nonessential” and “business” were emerging as synonyms.

I looked into it a bit further and came to the realization that my instinct was correct: While some agencies have stayed open during the shutdown, none of those appear associated with business.

That is disturbing, for I often associate the words “fundamental,” “vital” and “necessary” with business and can’t imagine where we would be if it were the private sector that shut down instead of the essential parts of government.

Emmett Dulaney is an Anderson resident and the author of several books on technology. His column appears Tuesdays.