The Thinker

Recipe for dysfunction: the Flint water crisis

My wife and I have been watching the Flint Water crisis for the last year or so. It has been in the news for a long time, just on back pages of papers or in obscure news articles when it was mentioned at all. Now, of course, it is suddenly a national story.

We were following it in part because my wife was born in Flint, Michigan so stories from Flint will naturally flag her interest. When she first heard that the state of Michigan (acting as its manager) had changed Flint’s water source from Lake Huron (via Detroit’s system) to the local Flint River, she said, “This isn’t going to work”. Although considerably cleaned up from its polluted days, she knew the Flint River was still an unsafe water source, much like the Hudson River near Albany is after decades of General Electric dumping PCBs into the river. The river is not the sewer it once was but lots of crap still ends up in it.

In the auto industry’s heyday, Flint was Detroit’s younger brother, living off the auto business. While cars were certainly built in Flint, equally important was its role in supplying auto parts. ACDelco, for example, still has a plant in Flint although it is certainly smaller than it was. Over the years we have made a few trips to Flint. Like many cities in Michigan, it’s a pretty sad place. If you’ve been paying attention to Flint stories, you’ll learn there is much that is dysfunctional in Flint. For example, it has a police force that works 8 to 6, Monday through Friday. If you need help at other times call the county police and hope that they will respond. This was due to the city’s declining tax base. It could no longer afford a full-time police department. Long ago Flint was pimped for its cheap blue-collar labor, found even cheaper elsewhere, so the city underwent hard times from which it never recovered. It became another sad tale of urban blight, if you can call of city of 100,000 with lots of boarded up houses and a declining tax base “urban”.

A perfect storm came together to cause the Flint water crisis. It would be easy to blame this entirely on Michigan State government, and it certainly does earn the majority of the blame. But it’s clear that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had a hand in the problem, basically by not providing the oversight that was needed. When it detected a problem, it didn’t take effective action to hold Michigan accountable.

The impact of the problem is easy enough to see now: thousands children and adults with elevated lead levels, which are not easily corrected and will likely lead to lifelong cognitive problems. The problem is more than the lead, which is mostly a factor of the differently treated water going through old pipes rather than of contaminants in the Flint River. It’s mostly a story about an absence of government, but it’s also a story of ideology overriding common sense. It’s also a story about the drawbacks of federalism. I’ll tackle each of these.

For several decades now Republicans have been pushing the rube that government is the problem instead of the solution. The government than governs least governs best they opined, channeling Thoreau. Michigan voters bought into this and turned the state bright red when it elected Rick Synder in 2010 as its governor. That was also the year its legislature went red, when Republicans won the State House (they had previously controlled the State Senate). It was quite a change, with the house going from 67 Democrats to 47 Democrats. Republicans got carte blanc, controlling all the levers of state government. The usual stuff that happens when Republicans claim a state government started. This included legislation allowing the state to take over local governments that could not stay fiscally solvent. Flint was one major city (the other being Detroit) to be taken over by the state.

From Governor Snyder’s perspective, Flint residents proved they couldn’t govern themselves. This was their fault: they were incompetent. In fact the city was a victim of economic forces largely beyond their control. The city needed “adults” (i.e. mostly white men from nowhere near Flint) to take charge, adults appointed by Snyder with the consent of the state government. And thus half-baked solutions like changing Flint’s water supply became a way to make the city more lean and efficient. (In fact, the City of Detroit offered Flint a 50% discount to keep it as a customer but the offer was spurned.)

Unsurprisingly the new city managers were tone deaf to complaints from citizens about their discolored water or from a local pediatrician who kept trying to get their attention with actual test results. They were not accountable to any voters and being challenged on their actions simply set up a wall of cognitive dissonance: if you are so smart why did you let things get so bad? Those cute, misinformed and principally black Flint residents simply didn’t know what they were talking about. It’s clear though that had Flint not been taken over, it would not have done something so radical as to quickly change its water source, at least not without considerable deliberation and testing. The mayor and city council would have probably raised concerns like whether it would have affected the aging lead pipes in the city. Not doing so might jeopardize their reelection. But when you are an out of town manager not running for reelection, you do what you think is right and aren’t concerned much about local input.

Federalism empowers regional control by allowing states to make regional decisions. There are obviously virtues to federalism, but occasionally there are drawbacks as well. This was pretty obvious by the way the EPA mishandled this crisis. The regional EPA senior executive was mindful of the political consequences of getting too involved in the issue. Michigan was now bright red, and he could expect interference and hostility if he went out on a limb for Flint. He chose not to, which was obviously a mistake, but an understandable one given that the job requires making political choices. In politics sometimes you overlook individual deficiencies to address a larger goal. That’s probably what happened here, but the judgment was obviously a flawed one and led to his resignation. Michigan deserved to have its hand slapped, but more importantly it’s the EPA’s job to raise these issues to prevent exactly these sorts of situations.

And so a perfect storm happened. A tone-deaf and ideologically driven state government tried to do things its way with entirely predictable results. Thousands were sickened and will endure lifelong disabilities. Government served no one here, certainly not the residents of Flint, and became an obstruction to common sense governance.

It’s unclear to me if we will learn any lessons from this. Here are mine:

  • Government should not be run by ideologues but by people who want society to run like a well-oiled engine.
  • We need local input and local control if possible but sometimes local government can’t do it all and are victims of macro forces beyond their control, like Flint’s shrinking tax base and it’s not necessarily their fault.
  • State and federal resources should be used to empower and supplement local control, not to countermand it.
  • Government exists to serve the people, not just the people that fund politicians’ campaigns.
  • Most importantly, anyone who serves in government has the role of a fiduciary. They should be there not to destroy government but to make it run better. Gumming up its machinery won’t make it better, and that’s what happened here to tragic effects.
 

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