Nothing Doing

When inaction becomes an ethos, we all suffer

A few weeks back, one of those snowstorms that sweep through these parts every four or five years hit Portland. The city got about ten inches of snow, along with a half-inch of ice. It was manageable, aside from the 24 hours we spent without power because of the ice felling trees and power lines—but even that was an excuse to test out emergency supplies for when “the big one” hits. 

Because it’s so disruptive, snow is one of the most political forms of precipitation. “How are you going to manage the storm?” is classic politics in places like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City. Just ask Mayor Lindsay, whose failure to keep the streets of Queens plowed after a 1969 snowstorm led to 21 deaths in the borough and was a knock on him for the rest of his political career. He still got reelected, though keeping the streets of Queens clear in a snowstorm has been an ironclad political must in New York ever since. 

Here in Portland, the way that they manage snow is not to manage it at all. Perhaps that’s unfair: the city has upwards of 60 snowplows. But our little side street, like many others in the city, never got plowed. There aren’t resources allocated for it because it only snows like this once every five years. Somewhere in Portland City Hall there’s a spreadsheet that calculates how much five years of snow plow maintenance and salt storage costs versus however much money the city loses when they can’t deal with a big snowstorm.   

[Stephen A. Smith voice] HOWEVER, when constituents see leaders aren’t doing anything, even if we’ve all agreed to this point not doing anything was the best course of action, we get this weird, performative version of constituent services. It’s the Andrew Cuomo PowerPoints, reminding people of the day of the week instead of protecting people in nursing homes. It’s the (most recent) Republican walkout in the Oregon State Senate, demanding that schools reopen and that Kate Brown immediately stop doing the things that the Governor is supposed to do. 

Politicians today think that their job is shitposting, but it’s not—it’s eating shit. Shitposting is being deliberately trolly and off-topic to get a rise out of people. You may know it from almost any political person on social media these days, but it exists offline, too. That Oregon Senate Republican walkout is a form of shitpost. They had a whole agenda they demanded be addressed! Except… they are not in the majority, and there’s a place to address those issues: the legislature, last seen in their rearview mirror as they sped toward Boise. 

Our politicians need to eat a lot more shit. In one of my favorite scenes in the Wire—I know I’ve cited it many times before—Mayor Carcetti learns what being Mayor entails. He’s schooled by a former Mayor, based on the real-life brother of Nancy Pelsoi, Tommy D'Alesandro III:

“You know what, Tommy? That’s what it is. You’re sitting, eating shit all day long. Day after day, year after year.”

Alas, that’s now how our leaders behave anymore. Instead, they decided to ask the question: what if we just… didn’t?

Enforcing mask protocols and social distancing? Not in Florida.

Coming up with a vaccine distribution plan? Not until January 20th. 

Going to work as a duly elected legislator to help people? Let’s walk out instead. 

Making government function is not fun. It’s a lot of eating shit. When a non-trivial amount of people within the government think that government doesn’t work, and that government not working simply proves their point that government doesn’t work, you end up with perverse incentives: too many shitposters, not enough shit eaters. 

When I am hopeful, I imagine that after getting through the crucible of this pandemic year, we’ll take a look at the way we’ve done things and say we have a chance to start fresh. When I am more pessimistic (I’m a Slav, what do you expect) I imagine we’ll snap back to a pre-COVID state in a reactionary way. The wars over political correctness and language and cancellation are byproducts of this, between the people who want to pretend that none of the plague year happened and the people who cannot forget that it did. For both sides, it’s more comfortable to argue about how much or little we should acknowledge what happened instead of the issues that have been there all along. 

While we argue about how to move forward, though, there’s no shortage of shit. The question is: who’s gonna eat it?