Flint is a failure of government…of a certain kind

Running government like a business leads to cutting corners and, ultimately, tragedy.

Guest post by Jeremy Mohler of In the Public Interest

Nearly four decades ago, Gil Scott-Heron, the under-appreciated jazz vocalist who deeply influenced the birth of hip-hop, wrote a song for Detroit:

“But no one stopped to think about the babies or how they would survive, and we almost lost Detroit this time. That when it comes to people’s safety, money wins out every time. How would we ever get over losing our minds?”

He was talking about the decision in the 1950s to build a nuclear reactor south of the city. In 1966, the reactor suffered a partial meltdown. No one was injured, but the meltdown was a significant event — along with the larger meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl — in the rise of the anti-nuclear movement, an early driving force leading to today’s vibrant environmental justice movements.

Gil Scott-Heron’s “Bridges,” released in 1977.

In “We Almost Lost Detroit,” Scott-Heron was questioning, through poetry and rhythm, the sanity of building such a serious danger in the first place. As the world’s superpowers were barreling headfirst through the nuclear age, drunk on Cold War hysteria and profits to be made, he asked a question about the future, “how would we ever get over losing our minds?”

There’s a resonance between that question and what’s happening now in Flint, Michigan, an hour by car north of Detroit, where lead has been leaching into the city’s water for over a year and a half. Children have been poisoned, yet leaders have been slow to respond.

“But no one stopped to think about the babies, or how they would survive.”

Before the tragedy gained national headlines, Flint’s residents were paying some of the highest rates in the country for water they couldn’t even drink.

“That when it comes to people’s safety, money wins out every time.”

The tragic story of money winning out yet again demands a brief retelling. Flint, a predominantly African-American city in which nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, switched its water supply from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River in April of 2014. The switch was part of a series of decisions to cut government spending made under the direction of a state-appointed “emergency manager,” who was tasked with improving the city’s financial situation by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

The Flint River’s water, known by many in the area to be contaminated — in fact, it’s 19 times more corrosive than Detroit’s water — leached lead from the city’s pipes. Brown water began flowing from showers and faucets, and residents began to complain. A local General Motors plant even stopped using the water after it started rusting car parts.

In March of 2015, a third party water consultant recommended the city spend $50,000 to add corrosion control chemicals into the system after iron was found in the water. That same month, the Flint City Council — democratically elected by residents — voted overwhelming to return the city’s pipes to the old water source. But they were overruled. Snyder’s “emergency manager” at the time, who had seen the report, called switching back to Detroit’s water “incomprehensible” because it would cost too much money. He also didn’t add the chemical.

“That when it comes to people’s safety, money wins out every time.”

Finally, on October 1, 2015, a week after high levels of lead were found in the blood of Flint children, city officials told residents to stop drinking the water.

Since, federal and state lawmakers have spent considerable energy defining who‘s at fault, and have been slow to act — so slow that some Flint residents recently hired lobbyists to push the federal government to provide much-needed aid.

Snyder and others are blaming “government” and “bureaucracy.”

Snyder has come under heat himself. News just broke that he’s been using a loophole in state law to reallocate taxpayer funds to pay for his own legal defense in the crisis.

On Tuesday, a congressional oversight committee berated a former federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official for not responding more urgently after she learned that the city wasn’t adding the needed chemical. Flint’s emergency manager at the time of the switch was also criticized. Snyder and EPA administrator Gina McCarthy will testify in front of the committee on Thursday. The blame game will surely continue.

Scott-Heron’s song reminds us that to restore some basic sanity, to make sure this doesn’t happen again, we must rise above the finger pointing. We must take a moment to question why we’re having this discussion in the first place.

Assigning responsibility is important, but only insofar as it speeds up helping Flint’s residents and cleaning up the mess.

It seems to me that what Scott-Heron was talking about — people losing their minds and putting money and power over human beings— is once again the heart of the matter. Regardless of who‘s to blame, what happened in Flint is the result of running government like a business.

Yes, Michigan’s elected officials and government agencies failed. But they failed because of how they govern, the “small government” politics that makes them think public institutions should operate like corporations and causes them to ignore those they don’t need to get elected. Underinvestment in key public goods like drinking water is what “small government” looks like.

Snyder is cut from the “small government” cloth. He’s a former corporate executive and venture capitalist with little government experience prior to taking office. He talks about “outcomes” and “deliverables,” calls residents “customers,” and has sought to “reinvent” Michigan to make it business-friendly. Just last week, Snyder had to back off a plan to privatize the state’s public mental health system after many called for the system to remain publicly accountable.

He also pushed through the anti-democratic 2012 law allowing emergency managers to take over Michigan’s cash-strapped municipalities and school boards. The law had been rejected by the state’s residents the year before, but Snyder passed it anyway. These managers are, by definition, anti-democratic — they have unchecked authority over local elected officials, like Flint’s City Council.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a former venture capitalist.

And Snyder isn’t alone. Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker has always worn his “small government” ideology on his sleeve. Under Walker’s watch, vital public functions and assets have been privatized, public services have been undermined, and the state’s economy is suffering. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), a public-private agency charged with creating jobs, has repeatedly broken the law by spending federal funds without authorization and losing track of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Nearby in Illinois, the state’s governor, Bruce Rauner, is a former private equity executive who, since being elected a little over a year ago, has taken on unions and pushed hard to sell off public assets like Chicago’s Thompson Center, one of the most used indoor public spaces in the state.

This is the kind of “government” that failed the residents of Flint, government that sees itself as a top-down business, cutting costs, privatizing, and shrugging off democracy whenever it wants.

The kind of government with leaders that blame deficits for all of society’s problems and rule out raising revenues (taxes) to fund much-needed investments in critical infrastructure and social programs.

Water is a public good provided by public institutions that must have the public’s health and safety in mind. It’s clear now that running government like a business means that you don’t care to invest in places that can’t afford to buy your products.

Flint’s tragedy needs to be fixed now regardless of costs. But if there’s any lesson for us to learn, it’s not that one particular political party or level of government is to blame, it’s that the idea of running government like a business leads not only to negligence but also to tragedy.

We need to stop cutting corners and invest in America — that’d be one way to “get over losing our minds.”

In the Public Interest advocates for the common good and against bad privatization deals (private prisons, charter schools, infrastructure, etc.) Check us out at inthepublicinterest.org

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