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.

How the Midwest was won

Bay City, Michigan is known today primarily as the birthplace of the singer and artist Madonna. For me this fading industrial city between Michigan’s thumb and forefinger has a more important meaning. In 1920, it was the city where my mother was born.

For my mother, Bay City was not just a place; it was her home. While she lived most of her life far away from Bay City, she was a Bay City girl through and through. Being away from it for so long was doubtless one of the reasons she and my father retired nearby. Alas, my mother died two years ago. However, five years ago when she was still in reasonably good health I visited her and my father in nearby Midland, Michigan. We spent one day in Bay City and an hour or so at the Bay County Historical Society on Washington Avenue. There for about $15 or so I purchased a new but nearly fifty-year-old copy of the obscure book Bay County Past and Present, Centennial Edition. It had not been updated since the year I was born (1957) but there were still plenty of copies for sale.

The book is slow reading, which explains why I spent five years making my way through the 242-page book. It frequently lost the competition to more interesting books, in particular the many Aubrey – Maturin sea novels by the late writer Patrick O’Brian. I did finally finish the book this week. I am glad I made the effort. Its pages may make for occasionally dry reading but it provides the kind of history that you cannot get in standard history books. Lavishly illustrated with many historical photographs it gives a real sense of time and place to a small area of the country that I know only from occasional visits.

We know about the expansion of our country. However, unless you are a history professor you are unlikely to understand the mechanics of transforming a frontier into a modern city. Books like this one that are meticulously assembled by local historians nicely fill in the gaps we glossed over in our American history lessons. It provides a comprehensive study of Bay County, Michigan, from many perspectives. It includes a geographical understanding of that rather flat part of Michigan. Of course, it also provides a comprehensive history of its settlement, from its earliest years when Europeans showed up (the land swapped between the French, the English and the Americans) through the development of its business and industry.

For example, I learned that before civilization arrived, Michigan was a miserable place to live. There were Native American tribes of course, but life was not wonderful for them. It was difficult to sustain any human life due to the lack of one simple substance: salt. As Lewis and Clark found out, it is hard to survive without salt. Moreover, the fat that fills our modern foods was very hard to come by in primordial Michigan. Unless you were fortunate to kill and consume a bear, you would probably not get any fat in your diet. Today we think of fat as bad, but when you have no source of fat in your diet at all, you can become quite sick. It was the lack of fat and salt, not to mention the omnipresent mosquitoes, which deterred all but the heartiest Europeans from settling in this area. Bay County itself was largely landlocked from the rest of Michigan. Massive swamps covered the middle of the state. Goods had to be ferried by boat from places like Detroit, which, early in the 19th century was more of an outpost on the edge of Lake Erie than a city.

The fur traders that visited the region reported one huge natural asset: wood. Moreover, the wood was reasonably accessible for transport, because the Saginaw River flowed north into Saginaw Bay. Our growing nation had an almost insatiable desire for the high quality wood that Bay County provided. Treaties of a dubious nature were made with the local natives that pushed them further into the woods. They allowed this part of Michigan, which was then just a territory of the United States, to attract a few farmers and, increasingly, lumbermen. The wood literally floated through Bay City, then was carried by ship or barge out into Lake Huron and down the St. Lawrence Seaway. Bay City served as a convenient place to load and unload goods and for lumberman to have holidays. Mostly though they worked long days in lumber camps deep inside Bay County.

Its seemingly boundless lumber attracted sawmills and shipbuilders. In time, Bay City became one of the premier ship manufacturing centers in the country. It specialized in production of large wooden ships, many of which were supplied to our navy during the first two world wars. In time, of course its seemingly inexhaustible supply of lumber gave out. However, its growing wealth made other things possible. Swamps were drained. Once enough swamps were drained, the railroad was able to connect Bay County with the rest of Michigan. Michigan became a state and for a time Bay City was Michigan’s second largest city.

Where does government come from? We tend to take government for granted, and give little thought to how it is organized and institutionalized. This book provides plenty of insight into how a wild territory run by a federal administrator turned into a state. It shows how connections formed between state and local governments. It provides insight into the personalities that governed these communities. There was a time when cities like Bay City truly were communities. The people who lived in Bay City felt more loyalty to their city than to their state or even their country. I found their commitment to democracy truly inspiring. While they had their quarrels, there was no quarrel about using the democratic process. Governments on all levels, from major cities like Bay City to local townships, flourished. Each brought a unique sense of place and character. Moreover, even though they lived very busy lives, citizens stepped forward and grappled effectively with the mundane but vital business of governing.

The impact of inventions like electricity and the telephone are discussed for their local impact. Before electricity, house fires were very common. Fireplaces, wood stoves and kerosene lamps (a later invention) made it very easy to lose a house to fire. There was likely a firehouse within a couple blocks of your house. In the late 19th century, ending up homeless due to a house fire was a common experience.

Things we take for granted like sidewalks, cement and paved roads did not just happen. Instead, they evolved over many decades. With its abundance of wood, Bay City thought it was being very progressing putting in wooden sidewalks over the mud. Many of its streets were covered with wooden planks. It took time to discover that wooden planks required a lot of maintenance. All sorts of variants to make roads impermeable to the filth and mud were tried. Mud was ubiquitous with commerce in the 19th century. Paved roads were the eventual result of many experiments and provided the best tradeoff between durability and cost.

This book, like I imagine many books found at local historical societies, are full of little insights like this. Life was certainly harsher one hundred years ago, yet it was no less full of the things that made life meaningful. What emerges is a portrait of a growing city, filled with people living lives both complex and simple, often near the edge of poverty. They lived very engaged lives. In some ways, I envy them for their lives seem so much fuller than mine is likely to be. While I am fortunate to live well and have many opportunities for travel, I have never really experienced a sense of community that my mother found in Bay City. I wonder how much of this remains in our country, now that we are plugged into our virtual communities.

Of course, we all rest on the laurels of those who came before us. They were not always heroes. There were rapscallions among them just as they are among us today. Yet they did the best they could with their talents. Reading a book like this one though gives you perspective to understand just how Herculean a task it is to build a civilized community, and how valuable a true community is in our lives.

Today Bay City seems tired. Its industry is largely gone. It still has lovely neighborhoods, but many neighborhoods look tired, neglected and used up. You can go down streets and find every fourth or fifth house vacant or boarded up. I do hope this is a temporary phenomenon. Midwestern cities like Bay City deserve a rebirth.