Something is definitely rotten in the state of Michigan. And it’s not just the lead-poisoned water coming from the corroded pipes under girding Flint’s public water system. The rottenness goes to the very core of an attitude of managerial expediency unfettered by moral leadership.
Contrary to widespread belief, Flint Michigan’s water woes are not the result of decades’ long neglect of critical infrastructure investments – although that is certainly a contributing factor. The blame for Flint’s water problems lay squarely with a legacy policy choices dating back decades. The fact that towns like Flint, Michigan are currently facing critical fiscal crises is the result of successive generations of corrupt and incompetent local elected leadership. But the immediate cause of the water crisis in particular stems from current Michigan Governor’s attempt to rectify fiscal mismanagement through authoritarian, anti-democratic governance policies.
Snyder’s policy of usurping local governmental authorities and placing economically depressed towns like Flint under the sole control unelected ‘emergency managers’ is the proximate cause of the Flint crisis. The philosophy behind Snyder’s policy choices seems to be that governments should be ‘run more like a business.’
Under Snyder’s dubious management-oriented philosophy, principle-centered leadership often takes a backseat to expedient tactics. In Flint this policy regime has tragically backfired. The absence of moral discernment has caused a crisis from which the citizens of Flint as well as for Michigan taxpayers are unlikely to escape any time soon.
Let’s be clear. The situation in flint was not an act of nature, or an accident, or a mistake. It is a man-made environmental disaster. It was entirely foreseeable and entirely preventable. Potentially thousands of children may have suffered permanent neurological injuries due to elevated levels of lead in their blood – elevated levels caused by drinking and bathing in contaminated water that was falsely declared safe by officials who were appointed by and report directly to the Governor – a two-term Governor at the end of a term-limited run who may feel he no longer has to be accountable to the Michigan voters.
But what has elevated this crisis from mere tragedy to the heights of diabolical absurdity was the Snyder administration’s year-long denial – despite an abundance of objective evidence to the contrary – that there was even a problem to begin with. When Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor, MacArthur Genius grant-recipient, and world-renowned expert on water quality declared the brown sludge coming from faucets in Flint to be toxic waste, the Snyder administration dismissed him as a quack. When local pediatrician Dr. Mona Hannah-Attisha, alarmed that children were showing up at her practice with skin rashes and thinning hair, alerted political leaders that blood lead concentrations in children were 2 to 3 times normal levels, Snyder called her findings inconclusive, and vigorously denied that the elevated lead levels were caused by the city’s drinking water. When an EPA memo describing dangerously high levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water was leaked to the media, the Snyder administration lambasted the memo’s author as a ‘rogue employee.’
The level of official misconduct here is beyond ludicrous. In fact, if it weren’t staring us right in the face, we would have difficulty conceiving of such ribald villainy on the part of our elected officials. The situation in Flint is a humanitarian debacle of world class dimensions. If Al Qaeda or ISIS had intentionally poisoned the drinking water of over 100,000 Americans, it would be considered a national security crisis. We would immediately mobilize the military and hunt down the culprits without prejudice. The crisis in Flint cannot be characterized as anything else but an intentional act of sabotage.
Flint is not the only city in which Snyder’s autocratic, myopic and niggardly policies have wrought havoc. Snyder’s regime has gone about systemically disenfranchising largely Democratic, majority black towns under the guise of ‘emergency management.’ Flint, with a population that is 57% African-American, joins Pontiac, Detroit, Highland Park, Benton Harbor and several other localities targeted politically by the Snyder administration. This seems to be part of a deliberate policy to isolate and quell his political adversaries under the dubious pretense of imposing ‘fiscal discipline.’ It is unavoidably apparent that the Snyder administration’s policies have had profligate social and financial costs. The Flint catastrophe could likely have been prevented by treating the water for a mere $100 per day (a small price to pay for precaution), but some estimates now place the long term cost of remediation at $1.5 billion or more, as pipes corroded by river water continue to leach lead into the Flint water supply. In the full light of day, Snyder’s policies seem to be motivated more by a desire to usurp the political power of the electorate, than by a genuine desire to help economically depressed localities manage their finances.
The toxic ideology that governments should be run like businesses needs to be challenged vigorously and soon, because the policy regime that led to the crisis in Michigan is far from an isolated case. Governors in Wisconsin, Kansas, Maine and Florida are implementing similar neo-liberal policies in efforts to enforce fiscal discipline on localities within their states. Many more environmental and infrastructural disasters of the sort we are witnessing in Flint are sure to follow if the dogma of market fundamentalism continues to infect the policy realm.
In the case of Flint, Michigan, the villains are easy to spot. They are the politicians who caused the fiscal crisis in the first place, and the politicians who caused a humanitarian crisis in a badly-conceived attempt to alleviate the fiscal challenge. The major lesson here is that suspending the democratic process in the interests of managerial expediency usually turns out badly. The fanciful notion that a strong dictator is more effective at governing than a ‘weak’ democratic process is a theory that was considered and discarded at the founding of our nation.