The Status Quo Prevails

Why do we accept middling mediocrity?

By way of introduction, I’m still relatively new to this area and its customs, having only moved up here in September 2009. I say that not because it has any importance in and of itself—other than, perhaps, to beg your pardon for any naivete that may appear on this blog as a result of my lack of institutional knowledge—but to explore a larger point that a local politico mentioned in a conversation yesterday (since this conversation was informal, I’ll omit his name): One of the largest political divides in this city, the politico said, isn’t black/white, young/old or even rich/poor, but rather, between Philly’s lifers (like him) and newbies (like me).

The newbies, he said, look askance at some of the goings-on in City Hall—the dominance of the Democratic party machine and the corresponding lack of intellectual competition among our elites, the suffocating power of the city’s municipal unions, the favors and backroom deals, the entitlement complexes are some of our elected and appointed officials, the intrinsic dearth of transparency, the seemingly unstoppable inertia of the status quo and institutional resistance to big change—that the lifers have accepted as part of the city’s fabric, the way things are, the way they’ve always been, the way they always will be.

Maybe you can fight City Hall, this thinking goes, but your victories will be incremental at best—and usually microscopic. So why bother?

There’s a bit of truth in that formulation, at least from what I’ve seen. I came here by way of Central Florida, which, for all of its many and sundry faults—not for nothing, I had an ongoing series calledOur Dumb State,” chronicling the epic idiocy Florida produces (I blame the humidity)—benefited from one of the strongest open-government laws in the nation. City records were yours for the taking. Meetings between elected officials had to be advertised and open to the public—even, for instance, a dinner meeting to discuss, say, a zoning measure. This law was by no means perfect or free from abuse, but in hindsight, it opened up government not just to reporters but to gadflies and curious onlookers alike, and in the process kept the elites a bit more accountable.

So I bristle at news that, for instance, Mayor Nutter is sorting out the duck boat mess behind closed doors, or that Arlene Ackerman issued a “snitches get stitches” memo to school officials after embarrassing info (which, in my view, should have been public anyway) leaked to the press. I look with some measure of amazement at the patronage systems inside row offices and the PPA, and wonder why and how the hell this is tolerated instead of being done away with as a 19th century anachronism (and also, if there’s some benefit to it that I’m not seeing). I wonder how it is that a mayor with no tangible accomplishments to his name is getting a free pass for reelection—for the record, I like Nutter, and I think he’s largely acquitted himself well in challenging times; still, a free pass?—and a City Council that has punted on even the lowest hanging populist fruit—abolishing the city’s DROP program—is unlikely to see any incumbent defeated in May.

This city—its people, its customs, its post-industrial charms—is easy to get enamored with. It is a place unlike any other I’ve lived or visited, for better or worse. And yet, its government is stuck in the mud, unwilling to embrace and adapt to the changing world, propped up by nonprofits and its universities and medical facilities, but almost congenitally unable to become something better. We’re instead burdened with a pension program that is busted six ways to Sunday and a government unwilling to do anything to fix it, because fixing it is hard, and we don’t do hard. We have an asinine tax structure that discourages innovation, and a school district that, especially in poorer areas, is an unmitigated, undeniable mess. We have abject poverty and more than our share of corruption.

And yet, there are no pitchforks in the streets, no calls for radical reform, no throw-the-bums-out insurgency, even in these trying economic times. There’s rather an inexplicable (to me) complacency, a quiescent acceptance. The status quo prevails.

I don’t mean to be overly cynical, although cynicism is, to some degree, fused into my DNA (if you’d ever met my grandfather, you’d understand). I’m instead just thinking aloud—and maybe fishing for insight (comment away, please)—wondering why this city’s body politic accepts from its government a sort of middling mediocrity instead of vision and greatness. And if my assessment of this city is correct—a big if, of course—what can we do to make it better?