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Shovel your own sidewalk, Pomeranz

So.

I was thinking about writing up something about sidewalk-shoveling. It’s very odd, when you think about it, that American cities have a policy that every building is responsible for clearing the sidewalk in front of it. In our inner suburb, where the houses all have driveways, clearing the sidewalk is just an add-on to the task we are already doing, but of course it all gets done haphazardly, some people (after some storms) clearing the full width of the sidewalk down to clean cement and others making a shovel-width passage over an inch of treacherous frozen snow-ice rocks. And of course some people are out of town for some storms and don’t clear at all; some people are just jerks; some houses (or stores) are vacant for some portion of the winter; some portions of some sidewalks don’t seem to be in front of anyone’s house particularly.

And, I mean, I see how we developed this policy, and I see that the obvious alternative—increased taxes to pay for the town to clear all the sidewalks—would not be without severe drawbacks. It’s a legitimate choice we made, to assess ourselves a sort of labor tax, with the option of paying private labor money instead. I don’t insist that the government needs to get involved with everything, and I certainly don’t think that efficiency should override what the populace actually wants. Still, it’s odd, isn’t it? Particularly since this is an obvious case where there are efficiencies of scale—I mean, on our block, probably every other family has purchased a snow-thrower of some kind, almost all of which are not in use at any given moment even during peak snow removal. At the very least, wouldn’t you think it would be more common for a block association or other group of neighbors to voluntarily chip in on purchasing a large snow-thrower for use on all the sidewalks and driveways? Again: I’m not saying there aren’t problems with doing that, but there are also problems with me having to shovel the damn’ sidewalk every time. Or for all our dog-walkers and schoolgoers and other pedestrians who are having to walk on those poorly cleared sidewalks today. And anyone who is reliant on a walker or a wheelchair or even a cane… well, our current system just shrugs and says it sucks for them, but whaddyagonnado.

So, as I say, I was going to write this all up in an actual essay for this Tohu Bohu, but it got all mixed up with my feelings about Our Only President’s budget blueprint, which reflects a desire to sharply reduce or eliminated funding for just the sort of communitarian projects that really do require government intervention. The sidewalk thing? Look, if we wanted to vote in Mayors and Boards who would implement that sort of thing, we could, but we don’t want to, and we get along just fine, more or less. Superfund cleanup? Not so much. EPA research? The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative? Energy Star? The Chemical Safety Board?

Look—I don’t think this budget (perhaps I should write ‘budget’ in quotes to indicate that Our Only President doesn’t really think of it as a budget) is going to be the actual budget of the United States. I don’t actually think that all federal funding for Legal Services will be eliminated. A lot of the stuff zeroed out in this bill—

In the chapters that follow, Budget highlights are presented for major agencies. Consistent with the President’s approach to move the Nation toward fiscal responsibility, the Budget eliminates and reduces hundreds of programs and focuses funding to redefine the proper role of the Federal Government.

The Budget also proposes to eliminate funding for other independent agencies, including: the African Development Foundation; the Appalachian Regional Commission; the Chemical Safety Board; the Corporation for National and Community Service; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; the Delta Regional Authority; the Denali Commission; the Institute of Museum and Library Services; the Inter-American Foundation; the U.S. Trade and Development Agency; the Legal Services Corporation; the National Endowment for the Arts; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation; the Northern Border Regional Commission; the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; the United States Institute of Peace; the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness; and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

—is stuff that Republican legislators and Mayors and Governors want funding for. This is an ideological document, not a practical budget. I think it’s ideological. It could be political. It could be tactical. It could just be ignorant. Whatever it is, it’s not passing Congress. Not even this Congress.

The quote I thought was most telling was from the White House Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney: “This is a hard power budget, not a soft power budget.” (That was in The Guardian’s coverage.) That’s… amazing. I mean, let’s not leave aside even for one moment the fact that we usually discuss hard or soft power in the context of our foreign policy, not as a means of subduing our own populace. And again, let’s not lose sight of the fact that soft power has been shown to be much more efficient and useful than hard power in actually achieving our national goals overseas (go ahead, ask me how that redintegro Iraq business is going). But take a moment and recognize that this was a statement given to the press as PR for the plan. They’re eliminating hundreds of programs, not all of which, admittedly are as popular as Meals on Wheels, but each of which has some thousands of supporters, and what they came up with to sell the thing is a line that I have to think will be heard by all of those people as toughen up, toots. We’re not taking care of each other any more.

And, you know, here’s the thing: we do take care of each other. My neighbor with the big gas-powered snow-thrower did, in fact, clear the sidewalk in front of my house as well as in front of his. People do, either on their own or through their churches or synagogues or Freemason lodges, deliver meals to elderly invalids, even without immediate government intervention. We donate stuff to the schools… well, teachers donate more than anyone, but parents chip in, too, as do local businesses. We make do.

But.

That has limits.

And really, we don’t fund Legal Services only out of charity. Don’t get me wrong: that’s a good enough reason. It’s the right thing to do. But it’s also a benefit to everyone when landlords know that there is at least a chance that tenants will get legal representation. It’s not really good for our legal system or anyone else to know that as long as your victims are too poor to afford a retainer, you can swindle with impunity. That’s not something that we can protect as good neighbors, volunteering our time.

It is, really, soft power, isn’t it? What holds our nation together. Not sheriffs with guns, or for that matter random vigilantes with guns. Not law and order, because as anyone who has lived through a riot can tell you, if enough people decide on disorder it cannot be quelled without more disorder. No, it’s soft power. The ability to persuade, co-opt and include. The sense that we are in it together, that we share preferred outcomes, even if we differ on details or means. Without that…

This budget as a document is saying to me: Everybody needs to shovel their own damned sidewalk. And yeah, OK, for the sidewalks, maybe we do, although even there, it seems to me there’s a better way. But there’s so much more at stake here.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

I love sidewalk shoveling as the vivid analogy for folks who live, as do you and I, in a suburban area with that approach to sidewalk shoveling, and with sidewalks, and with people who use those sidewalks or at least see other people using those sidewalks. But it's also telling that plenty of people live in more rural areas without sidewalks, or in more urban areas where sidewalk shoveling is actually part of the city budget rather than devolved to individual property owner responsibility. And plenty of people never need to use the sidewalk, because they just drive. And plenty of people are able-bodied and don't understand why a badly shoveled sidewalk is such a problem for someone injured or disabled or pushing a stroller. Similarly, there are plenty of people who don't need any of those government programs that this budget hurts, or at least who don't see the programs that they do use. There are plenty of people who live in areas where private charities or NGOs can pick up more of the slack, or who live in areas where people do so much taking care of each other that the government programs seem remote and unimportant, or who live in areas where those government programs don't properly reach. LIHEAP is a huge deal in Massachusetts, and probably not so much in New Mexico.

And that's the problem with agreeing on how to govern this huge complicated and fractionated country. We don't know all the other stories, and the sheer volume of differences is honestly overwhelming. We have trouble imagining the realities we're not living through, especially when we're down in the trenches trying to chip through that last inch of ice on our own damn sidewalk.


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