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“Flint Was Forgotten Before It Was Poisoned”: America’s Forgotten Cities Populated By A Forgotten People

Long before Flint began dealing with a toxic water crisis, the city was already rusting and oozing from its underbelly.

What little hope remains is weary and torn, abandoned like the rows of dilapidated uninhabitable homes and weed-strewn lots that dot the avenues, drowning in water too toxic to drink.

The story of Flint, Michigan, not unlike other former smokestack cities that dot the upper Midwest, is almost too painful to tell. The latest revelations, involving a water supply tainted with lead, feels like a cruel joke being played on people who can least afford the laugh.

With thousands of children at risk, the Justice Department has announced an investigation into who knew the water was toxic and when; Michigan’s attorney general has launched a separate inquiry. Ultimately, what happened in Flint may not be a criminal matter, but there is nothing moral about what happened there.

The once-booming center of industry has lost half of its population in recent decades and is now one of the poorest cities in the nation. Today, nearly 40 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line. What remains of Flint is 56 percent black and nearly 40 percent white—all too poor to get up and leave.

Blink and you could be standing in Gary, Indiana, East St. Louis, Illinois, or Camden, New Jersey, watching a similar tragedy unfold. Factories close, the middle class takes flight to the suburbs to build better schools and tend to pristine lawns.

They are among America’s forgotten cities—wracked with pervasive poverty and violent crime—populated by a forgotten people. Mostly black and brown, they have little voice over their own destiny. There are no finely suited Washington lobbyists pressing their interests. Presidential candidates rarely come to places like these and they almost never make the national news unless something really bad happens.

There are so many problems, so many complications in Flint that it is difficult for any one issue to command its collective attention.

Back in April 2014, an unelected manager appointed by the state to make Flint solvent decided the city could save money by drawing water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron. Local residents thought it was a joke given the ugliness thought to be swimming in that river.

It would have taken a five-minute test to prove the river water unsafe. City leaders, who were then weighing less expensive options, knew as early as 2011 that water from the Flint River would need treatment with an anticorrosive agent before it would be drinkable.

In the end, the governor says he had no choice, since Detroit “kicked Flint off” its Lake Huron system. The fact is, that never happened. Detroit asked for a rate change and instead of negotiating, Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointee opted out. They were more concerned about saving money than saving lives.

To make matters worse, the Michigan State Department of Environmental Quality decided $100 a day was too much to pay for an anticorrosive additive that could appropriately treat the water. Consequently, the iron pipes eroded—turning the water brown—and lead began seeping into the water supply.

State and federal officials knew there was a problem. With brown water pumping out of kitchen faucets and fire hydrants, there was no way to hide their error.

State agencies reportedly used testing methodologies that would hide the real level of pollutants—including flushing residential systems before testing. They cheated to make it appear that the water was in compliance, knowing that skewed tests were used.

Ultimately, it took 18 months and a mother named LeAnne Walters who wouldn’t give up, Chicago-based EPA regulations manager, a local physician, an investigative journalist, and a class action lawsuit to force the state to do the right thing.

By then, the damage was done—to Walter’s 4-year-old twins and the at least 5 percent of Flint children who have tested positive. The effects of lead poisoning, especially on children, are well known and there are no safe levels for human consumption. Lead poisoning can have devastating effects on children, causing convulsions, hyper irritability, and neurological damage that lasts into adulthood. Studies show linkages to juvenile delinquency, ADHD, and a decrease in IQ performance. In fact, there is so much lead in the blood of Flint’s children that the state has called a state of emergency. The scourge is irreversible. This is a manmade disaster that will have catastrophic generational effects.

The Flint water crisis is just the latest among a host of serious environmental issues surrounding the city. When General Motors and suppliers pulled up stakes and left for greener pastures, they left unconscionable levels of contamination behind. The same is true in other Rust Belt cities. A community’s wealth is not only tied to jobs and education but also to health and the environment.

Economic recovery for Flint and others towns like it is about more than moving in a new company with some new jobs. It’s about rebuilding failing infrastructures and remaking social institutions. We can keep thumping our chest about personal responsibility and entrepreneurship, but there will be no economic uplift in Flint, Camden, Gary, or East St. Louis, until government does its part.

That means forcing chemical manufacturers, automakers, steel mills, and others to clean up their own mess. They should be forced to fill the hole they dug.

It is hard to believe that no one knew what was in that river. It is hard to believe that no one thought to test the water and the system through which it would travel for potential problems. And, the governor’s explanation about why the change was made as well as his reliance on his hand-picked investigative task force is even more dubious.

State leaders, it seems, were content to continue tightening the city’s belt until somebody strangled and died.

 

By: Goldie Taylor, The Daily Beast, January 18, 2016

January 19, 2016 Posted by | Flint Michigan, Lead Poisoining, Rick Snyder, Toxic Water | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Sad Window Into Our Political Dysfunction”: 3 Peerless Republicans For President; Trump, Carson And Fiorina

The leading contenders for the Republican nomination for president tell us three interesting things about America.

First, many G.O.P. voters are so disenchanted they’re willing to entrust the country to candidates — Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — with zero experience in elective office or military command. Only two men without previous time in major elective office or the military have been president, Herbert Hoover and William Howard Taft, and both had held cabinet posts. No president has ever been as inexperienced as any of these three leading Republican candidates.

Second, the public feels an odd awe for C.E.O.s and presumes they know how to run things, even if their records suggest otherwise. This cultural reverence for C.E.O.s perhaps also explains why pay packages have increased — and why Fiorina was allowed to take home a $21 million severance package after she was fired as Hewlett-Packard’s chief executive for incompetence.

Third, the only kind of welfare that carries no stigma in America is corporate welfare. For all Trump’s criticisms of government, his family wealth came from feeding at the government trough. His father, Fred Trump, leveraged government housing programs into a construction business; the empire was founded on public money.

My bet is that Trump, Fiorina and Carson will fade, and that voters will eventually turn to a more conventional candidate, perhaps Senator Marco Rubio. From the Democrats’ point of view, the scariest Republican ticket might pair Rubio with John Kasich. Rubio has natural political skills, projects youth and change, and would signal that the Republican Party is ready to expand its demographic base. Rubio and Kasich would also have a decent chance of winning their home states, Florida and Ohio — and any ticket that could win Florida and Ohio would be a strong contender.

But instead, Republican primary voters for now are pursuing a bizarre flirtation with three candidates who are the least qualified since, well, maybe since Trump put his toe in the waters before the 2000 election.

In that sense, they offer a window into the American psyche — part of which is our adulation of the C.E.O.

There’s something to be said for C.E.O.s’ entering politics: In theory, they have management expertise and financial savvy. Then again, it didn’t work so well with Dick Cheney.

More broadly, the United States has overdone the cult of the C.E.O., partly explaining why at the largest companies the ratio of C.E.O. compensation to typical worker pay rose from 20 to one in 1965 to 303 to one in 2014, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

In any case, even if you were conducting a job search for a great C.E.O. to lead the free world, you wouldn’t turn to either Trump or Fiorina.

My sense is that Trump isn’t the idiot that critics often claim (the most common words voters used to describe him in a recent poll were “idiot,” “jerk,” “stupid” and “dumb”). This is a man who is near the top of diverse fields: real estate, book writing, television and now presidential politics. He’s a born showman, a master of branding and marketing. But he doesn’t seem a master of investing.

Back in 1976, Trump said he was worth “more than $200 million.” If he had simply put $200 million in an index fund and reinvested dividends, he would be worth $12 billion today, notes Max Ehrenfreund of The Washington Post. In fact, he’s worth $4.5 billion, according to Forbes.

In other words, Trump’s business acumen seems less than half as impressive as that of an ordinary Joe who parks his savings in an index fund.

An index fund might also have been less ethically problematic. In the 1970s, the Justice Department accused Trump of refusing to rent to blacks. And in 2013, New York State’s attorney general sued him, alleging “persistent fraudulent, illegal and deceptive conduct”; Trump denied the charges.

If Trump’s performance as a business executive was problematic, Fiorina’s was exceptional. Exceptionally bad.

Put aside the fact that she’s the C.E.O. who fired thousands of workers while raking in more than $100 million in compensation and pushing H.P. to acquire five corporate jets. Just looking at the bottom line, she earned her place on those “worst C.E.O.” lists she appeared on.

As Steven Rattner wrote in The Times, Hewlett-Packard’s share price fell 52 percent in the nearly six years she was at the helm. H.P. did worse than its peers: IBM fell 27.5 percent, and Dell, 3 percent.

Oh, and on the day she was fired, the stock market celebrated: H.P. shares soared 7 percent.

If I wanted a circus ringmaster, I’d hire Trump. If I wanted advice on brain surgery or hospital management, I’d turn to Carson. Fiorina would make an articulate television pundit. But for president?

The fact that these tyros are the three leading presidential contenders for a major political party is a sad window into our political dysfunction.

 

By: Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, October 8, 2015

October 12, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Never-Ending Hillary Clinton Story”: Up With The Strongman, Down With The Bitch!

Although nobody sensible would choose to do it this way, America’s political fate has become captive to the TV news media’s never-ending quest for ratings. Months before the earliest votes are cast, the 2016 presidential contest has turned into a “reality TV” melodrama.

The themes are broad and simple: Donald Trump is cast as the Nationalist Strongman and Hillary Clinton as the National Bitch. Up with the Strongman, down with the Bitch! Yes, 20 other candidates are vying for attention, and somebody else could assume a starring role should these narratives lose momentum.

Even the supposedly left-wing MSNBC broadcasts Trump’s speeches live, giving the billionaire braggart free publicity that even he might not be able to afford. Whatever you can say about Trump, he gives good TV — that is, if professional wrestling extravaganzas are your idea of family entertainment.

Also, it’s always been clear that no Democratic woman, and certainly not one named Clinton, can be elected President of the United States without being designated a brass-plated bitch. Having failed to entomb Bill Clinton and drive a wooden stake through his heart, wrecking Clinton’s candidacy has become the Washington press clique’s overriding goal.

And yet the geniuses running her campaign act as if they don’t know it. Consider reporter Amy Chozick’s remarkable piece in the September 8 issue of The New York Times: “Hillary Clinton to Show More Humor and Heart, Aides Say.” According to “extensive interviews” with “top strategists” at the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters, Chozick wrote, Mrs. Clinton would be urged to exhibit empathy and humor on the campaign trail.

Such as when she recently joked, apropos of Trump’s insistence that he didn’t buy that orange thing on his head from Hair Club for Men, that her own “hair is real,” though “the color isn’t.”

Well, it seems here that everybody in Clinton’s Brooklyn office involved in the Times exclusive ought to walk the plank. Voluntarily or otherwise. The Daily Caller‘s sarcastic headline summed things up perfectly: “Hillary Plans To Be More Spontaneous.”

The idea of Clinton as a kind of political Stepford Wife, calculating and “inauthentic” to use the cant term, is so deeply imprinted in the press clique’s standard narrative that they reacted pretty much the way your dog does when you rattle his leash.

Let Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank speak for them all: “And now comes the latest of many warm-and-fuzzy makeovers — perhaps the most transparent phoniness since Al Gore discovered earth tones.”

Never mind that the whole “earth tones” and “invented the Internet” fiascos were malicious inventions. Caricaturing Gore as a posturing phony made it possible for make-believe rancher George W. Bush to become president.

So how is it possible that Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, one of two staffers quoted in the Times by name, couldn’t see that coming?

Another Clinton staffer confided that although the candidate would emphasize income inequality, she’d be “scrapping the phrase ‘everyday Americans,’ which wasn’t resonating with voters.” One mocked it as too much like Walmart’s “Everyday low prices.”

Presumably, the campaign will choose a more tasteful slogan from Tiffany & Co. or Bergdorf Goodman.

Esquire‘s always understated Charles P. Pierce calls Clinton staffers “a writhing ball of faithless snakes,” more concerned with advancing themselves than electing her. Do they not grasp that wrecking her candidacy is Priority One at the New York Times?

Indeed, no sooner had Clinton made a rote apology for the manufactured email “scandal” than staffers “who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations,” hurried to the same Times reporter to emphasize that they’d been urging her to kiss the news media’s collective feet for weeks.

Supposedly, Bill had resisted the idea on the grounds that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Supposedly too, he urged staffers to try harder to make that clear.

Based solely on her appearance on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC program, I’d say the aforementioned Palmieri — President Obama’s former communications director — couldn’t explain how to pour sand out of a boot with the instructions printed on the heel. Her speech mannerisms make her difficult to follow, and she talks in circles.

The Clinton campaign needs to send out more spokespeople like former governors Howard Dean and Jennifer Granholm, who are capable of clarity and forcefulness. Here we are months into this pointless debacle and it’s left to the Justice Department to state that Clinton’s email arrangements were legal, proper, and presumably known to everybody in the Obama administration who sent her a message.

And, oh yeah, that business about how Clinton’s obsessive secrecy caused her computer’s server to be wiped of all data? That was false also, as Bill Clinton apparently wanted the campaign to say all along.

So spooks in places like the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (seriously) now say emails sent in 2010 should be made Top Secret in 2015?

Isn’t that like getting a traffic ticket in the mail from a town you drove through last month because they dropped the speed limit last week?

And if it really is as absurd as that, then shouldn’t somebody say so?

 

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, Featured Post, September 16, 2015

September 20, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Election 2016, Hillary Clinton | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The ‘Clinton Rules’ Of Journalism”: Why Clinton-Bashing Articles Are A Golden Goose For Her Detractors

We’re beyond corrections now.

The New York Times issued a lengthy editors’ note Tuesday regarding the paper’s tangled, bungled coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails, which, they conceded, “may have left readers with a confused picture.”

That’s a rather gentle gloss on the media tempest that made landfall Thursday night, after an article that purported to break news of a criminal investigation into Clinton, was published on the Times site and front page Friday morning, and was the subject of an email blast.

But then the Times silently amended the story, whittling the headline, and the story’s claims, down from “Criminal Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email” to “Criminal Inquiry Is Sought in Clinton Email Account,” and then finally, “Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email,” where it stands as of this writing.

Of course by then, it had been copied, repeated, and aggregated all over the Web.

Per Reuters:

The New York Times originally reported that two government inspectors general had asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into Clinton’s use of her private email account

It altered its report on its website overnight without explanation to suggest she personally was not the focus of a criminal referral.

Then, the Justice Department said the inspectors general had requested a criminal investigation into the emails, before backtracking and saying that there was a request for a probe but not a criminal one.

When the crux of the original story — that Clinton was under criminal investigation — was tweaked to indicate that the investigation was not criminal in nature, nor was Clinton the target, the Times editors quietly corrected it on the online edition of the paper, after it had been online for a few hours, with none of the fanfare that attended the original story’s publication: no email blast; no correction.

Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, published a long note outlining exactly how and why Times reporters fouled it up. She concluded that, in the Times’ haste to publish an earth-shattering exposé on the Democratic frontrunner, the paper of record had rushed to print an overly sensationalistic story that relied on dubious sources. She also lamented editors’ decision to discreetly revise the story without first issuing a proper correction. Her prescription: “Less speed. More transparency.”

National Memo editor Joe Conason argued Monday that:

Sullivan lets the Times editors and reporters off a bit too easily, allowing them to blame their anonymous sources and even to claim that the errors “may have been unavoidable.” What she fails to do, as usual, is to examine the deeper bias infecting Times coverage of Hillary and Bill Clinton — a problem that in various manifestations dates back well over two decades.

It seems clear that the Times article was written in accordance with the “Clinton rules” of journalism — which, as articulated by Jonathan Allen, state that “the scoop that brings down Hillary Clinton and her family’s political empire” is the primary goal for journalists. Clinton rules endorse the use of tabloid-worthy headlines (“Criminal!”) and dubious sources, presume guilt, and operate under the assumption of a massive Clintonian conspiracy of widespread collusion and ill intent.

The Times finally ran two belated, garrulous corrections — the first on Saturday, the second on Sunday — which together read:

An article and a headline in some editions on Friday about a request to the Justice Department for an investigation regarding Hillary Clinton’s personal email account while she was secretary of state misstated the nature of the request, using information from senior government officials. It addressed the potential compromise of classified information in connection with that email account. It did not specifically request an investigation into Mrs. Clinton.

An article in some editions on Friday about a request to the Justice Department for an investigation regarding Hillary Clinton’s personal email account while she was secretary of state referred incorrectly, using information from senior government officials, to the request. It was a “security referral,” pertaining to possible mishandling of classified information, officials said, not a “criminal referral.”

These are not corrections on the order of “Mr. McDougal’s name is actually MacDougal,” and it’s baffling that they would be treated as such, quietly airbrushed onto the site like fixing a typo. Which, of course, became the next phase of the story.

It didn’t help that the Times reporter who wrote the piece conceded that the corrections were “a response to complaints we received from the Clinton camp that we thought were reasonable.” This is how a Clinton-bashing story evolves from one of sloppy journalism to the way Hillary Clinton muscled a media titan into reporting what she wanted them to report.

Of course this episode is already becoming subsumed into the vast Clinton conspiracy, as when S.E. Cupp accused the Times of altering its headline “because Hillary asked them to.” A Breitbart headline similarly proclaimed: “New York Times Stealth-Edits Clinton Email Story At Her Command.”

As Sullivan said, “you can’t put stories like this back in the bottle – they ripple through the entire news system.”

Clinton-bashing articles are the gifts that keep on giving, a veritable golden goose of insinuation, innuendo, and dishonesty: Even once the initial specious recriminations have crumbled, the storm of media attention and confusion that follows creates a feedback loop that reinforces Clinton’s detractors’ view of her as a media-manipulating mastermind. And for voters — even those who support Clinton — it’s a reminder that this kind of thing is just going to happen again and again.

 

By: Sam Reisman, The National Memo, July 29, 2015

August 1, 2015 Posted by | Hillary Clinton, Media, The New York Times | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“A Sense Of Disgust With Airlines”: Enough With The Crazy Change Fees

In 2014, airlines in the United States billed more than three billion dollars in “change fees”—fees charged to customers who cancelled or changed itineraries. This bounty came after most of the industry (minus Southwest) tacitly agreed to create a new industry standard of two hundred dollars per change, plus, in some cases, an additional fifty-dollar service fee for tickets booked on non-airline Web sites. And the worst may be yet to come: as the airline-revenue-optimization consultant Tom Bacon wrote a little while back, “Don’t be surprised if you see change fees increase again. … My guess is that change fees will eventually hit $300.” Meanwhile, fees can be four hundred dollars on international routes; on some first-class fares, they are as much as seven hundred and fifty dollars. The size of the fees alone may cause many a sense of disgust: Why pay so much for something that feels like nothing? But the strongest case against high change fees is that they introduce a rigidity into the travel system that is inconsistent with the fast-moving contemporary economy.

Modern life moves quickly, and we change plans constantly, but if we need to change our travel plans we face harsh punishments. It’s as if this one part of modern life—planning how we move through the air—is stuck in another age, while everything else is in flux. This rigidity translates into an economic case against high change fees, based on what an economist might call “the deadweight costs” created by stranded passengers.  Consider two travellers—each is on a trip and, due to changed circumstances (perhaps a meeting is cancelled, or a family member falls ill), each should come home early. The first pays the two-hundred-dollar change fee. The second does not, either because she cannot afford it or because she cannot, subjectively, bring herself to pay it. The second traveller creates stranding costs—wasted time, missed meetings, neglected children, and so on—without any benefit to the airline.

Airlines prefer the high change fees for reasons both obvious and less so. The obvious reason is the money. The less obvious reason is that change fees “protect” revenue and help airlines keep their planes as full as possible (achieving “higher load factors,” in the jargon). Without high fees, last-minute changes would be more common, leaving behind seats that are hard to fill on short notice and at the high price that airlines charge last-minute travellers.

High change fees surely both generate and protect revenue for the airlines. But the potential losses from empty seats caused by changes are mitigated in several ways. For one thing, travellers who change their tickets usually absorb any increase in fares, and sometimes the airlines profit from the change, by effectively selling the same seat twice. When changes are made far in advance, there’s plenty of time for the airline to resell the seat. No one can deny that high change fees yield higher profits (for what’s presently a profitable industry). But the fact that Southwest charges no change fees yet remains highly profitable counters the argument that an airline cannot be run without them.

Sometimes airlines defend their change fees by pointing out that they also sell “fully refundable” tickets without such fees, effectively blaming consumers for failing to read the fine print. This argument comes close to a sham, for it ignores the fact that the fares without fees are so expensive that, in practice, only customers in highly unusual situations would purchase them, particularly given that the refund process is itself highly unreliable. This pricing actually serves to protect the change-fee racket, because no rational person would buy a ticket at, say, three times the normal fare instead of one at the regular price, plus a potential change fee. In other words, offering a fully refundable fare simply creates an illusion of choice that the airlines exploit.

Are high change fees a problem that we can expect competition to solve? In an ideal world, yes. But the airlines find it more profitable to collude instead of compete when it comes to fees, despite this being a country where price-fixing is supposedly a felony. To its credit, the Justice Department is currently investigating the price-fixing of fares through agreements to place limits on the number of available seats. But, when it comes to change fees, the airlines rely on a legal form of collusion. The major airlines simply take turns initiating fee increases and then play follow-the-leader. The latest increase (to two hundred dollars) was quietly initiated by United, in the spring of 2013, and copied almost immediately by the other major airlines. If the agreement were explicit, it would be a crime, but the same results are achieved legally, neutering the power of competition. Consolidation after rounds of mergers does not help; Southwest Airlines’ continued defection from the fee cartel has exerted no apparent competitive pressure on larger airlines such as United, Delta, and American.

The Department of Transportation is supposed to prohibit “unfair” and “unreasonable” practices in air transportation. All this suggests that the D.O.T., or perhaps Congress, ought do more hard thinking about what an “unfair” or “unreasonable” change fee looks like. If free changes are too much to ask for, imposing a return to the fifty-dollar fees that were charged in the late nineteen-nineties might more fairly balance the airlines’ interest in dealing with constant changers with the national interest in a more flexible and adaptable travel system. The consumer group flyersrights.org has filed a petition with the D.O.T. requesting a limit on international fees at the reasonable level of a hundred dollars. The major airlines would surely protest, but it is worth remembering that they, like the banks, have been protected by taxpayers against financial failure. In exchange for providing a safety net and putting up with so much else, the public deserves more in return.

 

By: Tim Wu, Professor, Columbia School of Law, The New Yorker, July 21, 2015

July 25, 2015 Posted by | Airline Industry, Change Fees, Flying Public | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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