It is what it is

See update for March 4, 2023, at end of post.

I’ve been thinking a lot about corruption lately.

I live in the Pittsburgh area, where the gap between what is and what should be is large. Innuendo, a malicious speculation not about what is known, but rather what is not known lives in that gap. “It is what it is,” I hear people say so often, really capitulating to all that is wrong rather than insisting it be made right.

Corruption is one possible, not necessarily exhaustive, explanation for that gap. I don’t know that it is there, but given the size of that gap, I suspect it. Strongly. Indeed, if I view my world not as a scholar insistent on evidence, but rather as the taxi driver I once was, I would say that Pittsburgh reeks of corruption.

I see it in the road projects, which many of my passengers believe contractors are milking for every last penny: “Jobs,” they say, with a trace of resentment that their own livelihoods seem nowhere near so secure. These projects proceed at a mysteriously uneven pace and often seem interminable. Nobody even knows what they’re doing. The easiest, albeit unproven and incomplete, explanation is that progress occurs as the right palms are greased.

I see it in the snow plowing operation. Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works protests that it has thousands of miles of roads to plow. But somehow some neighborhoods get their alleys plowed while other neighborhoods don’t see a snow plow even on their main streets for nearly two weeks.[1] And surrounding communities, even poor Wilkinsburg and Braddock, which collectively have even more thousands of miles of roads to attend to, do a better job.

I see it in the roads, which are often in deplorable condition. Again, some roads, often in wealthier places, are maintained in good condition. But some roads, often in poorer places, exact an additional toll on residents’ cars.

I see it in the neighborhoods that outgoing mayor Bill Peduto attended to and those he neglected. It was a curious thing that right before the election he lost, a bunch of those roads in in the poor neighborhoods, neighborhoods that could be counted on to vote for Ed Gainey, suddenly got fixed, as if Peduto was making a final plea for those votes. Of course, those neighborhoods have larger problems than the state of their roads: poverty, blight, lack of opportunity, none of which Peduto meaningfully attended to.[2]

The discrepancy occurs elsewhere as well:

But the Biden administration has also faced pressure from businesses to classify all work as essential—pressure that’s been ongoing since Hobby Lobby and wrestling federations were allowed to remain open during early lockdowns. Now it seems like Covid-19 guidelines are being reverse-engineered to conform to what the agency thinks businesses might accept.[3]

Hobby Lobby and wrestling federations, really? But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now advises against cruises even for fully vaccinated and boosted people.[4] How can I not suspect that the cruise industry has somehow failed to grease the right palms?

Certainly, it looks like Delta Airlines has figured out which palms to grease.[5] Indeed, it seems most capitalists have figured it out, as workers are generally now all considered “essential,” meaning, of course, that they are expendable[6] in service to the capitalist death cult.[7]

It’s all, of course, innuendo. I can’t prove corruption in any way explains any of these discrepancies. But I see a power elite whose manipulation of resources is more of a shell game—not taxing the rich, but cutting the social safety net, spending ever more extravagantly on the military, and shooting rich tourists into space—than an actual attempt to address the real problems that ordinary people face.[8] And in this sense it doesn’t even really matter whether we even label it ‘corruption.’ Because the result is the same. “It is what it is.”

Update, November 18, 2022: When last I checked in on this particular story, Ed Gainey was promising snow removal on all streets in Pittsburgh within 24 hours.[9] People don’t believe him.[10]

It’s kind of an odd thing, really. Nobody talks about corruption to the newspaper reporter, or if they do, she doesn’t report it.[11] But I had a guy in my back seat a few nights ago who declared—I don’t know how you would establish this—that Allegheny County is the most corrupt county in the most corrupt state in the Union. My passengers take it for granted that the interminable road work projects are more about keeping those workers employed than they are about accomplishing anything.

Indeed, lately, I’ve been hearing about multiple projects, not all in Allegheny County, by the way, that, not having been done right the first time, are having to be done over again, sometimes multiple times.

It really feels like these workers live in terror that whatever job they’re on is the last one they’ll ever get, so they’re milking it for every penny they can get. And of course, I can’t help but feel that something similar is happening with the snow plowing operation.

As I sit here waiting for my car’s (gasp) 90,000-mile service, it strikes me that this is how you know corruption. You feel it, even when you can’t connect the dots with logic and evidence, because everything is hush-hush and you aren’t supposed to know.

My dilemma remains. I expect evidence and argument and of course I don’t have this. But I do have that feeling.[12] It’s a feeling I can’t shake.

Update, March 4, 2023: With a criminal injustice system that emphasizes retribution even at the expense of justice, it is to be expected that prisons and jails are not nice places. Still, some seem to be worse than others. And the sense I’ve had of the Allegheny County Jail nearly since my return to Pittsburgh is that it is among the worse.

On Friday [March 3], [Jail Oversight Board member Bethany Hallam, an Allegheny County councilwoman] was critical of the county for failing to provide any previous drafts of [a redacted copy of the 50-page report from the nonprofit National Commission on Correctional Health Care] to the board and for waiting to release it during the March meeting.

“It’s hard to view this as anything other than yet another superficial press stunt by the county administration to distract from the abysmal human rights record of the jail,” Hallam said. “It’s ridiculous, and if there weren’t people suffering and dying every day as a result of their incompetence and cruelty, I would maybe even laugh about the absurdity of it all.”[13]

You know how you walk in, sometimes, in the middle of a story and you can’t really comment or say anything because you haven’t heard the beginning? So you’re just there, listening, knowing you’ve missed an important piece.

That’s how I feel with the Allegheny County Jail. I’ve been hearing bits and pieces. I know there’s a problem. But it long predates my return to Pittsburgh and I don’t feel I have even the beginning of a handle on it. And so I’ve kept silent.

And then I feel I’ve been silent too long. I transport people who don’t expect much out of life because their lives are in such blighted, impoverished places that they don’t even know better, who’ve been in there, daily. Those who talk about their experience tell me it’s a bad place. Which is to say that by any usual standards, it’s a particularly bad place.

Even people who work there or who have worked there don’t like it. And people are dying.

It’s another example of “it is what it is,” an acquiescence to what should not be. It is an acquiescence endemic to Pittsburgh, an acquiescence to what is surely corrupt because it can hardly be anything else.[14] But hey, somebody’s getting their retribution so I guess that makes it all okay.

  1. [1]KDKA Television, “Pittsburgh Councilman Publicly Criticizes ‘Unacceptable’ State Of Roads After Snowfall,” December 27, 2020,
  2. [2]Charlie Wolfson, “After eight years, Peduto’s record is a mix of bold plans and frustrating endings,” Public Source, December 22, 2021,
  3. [3]Molly Osberg, “The CDC Says We’re All Essential Workers Now,” New Republic, December 29, 2021,
  4. [4]Hannah Sampson, “CDC warns against cruise travel after 5,000 new coronavirus cases in 2 weeks,” Washington Post, December 30, 2021,
  5. [5]Yasmeen Abutaleb, “CDC cuts isolation time recommended for people with asymptomatic coronavirus infections,” Washington Post, December 27, 2021,
  6. [6]Molly Osberg, “The CDC Says We’re All Essential Workers Now,” New Republic, December 29, 2021,
  7. [7]David Benfell, “The capitalist death cult,” Not Housebroken, December 29, 2021,
  8. [8]David Benfell, “No excuses: Power, responsibility, and accountability,” Not Housebroken, December 27, 2021,
  9. [9]Julia Felton, “Pittsburgh sets goal to clear roads within 24 hours of snowfall,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 15, 2022,
  10. [10]Julia Felton, “Pittsburghers skeptical of mayor’s snow removal goals,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 17, 2022,
  11. [11]Julia Felton, “Pittsburghers skeptical of mayor’s snow removal goals,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 17, 2022,
  12. [12]David Benfell, “It is what it is,” Not Housebroken, December 31, 2021,
  13. [13]Paula Reed Ward, “Report on Allegheny County Jail deaths finds no ‘trends or common factors’ that led to them,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 3, 2023,
  14. [14]David Benfell, “It is what it is,” Not Housebroken, November 18, 2022,