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“What Candidates See As Our Infrastructure Priorities”: Time To Press The Presidential Candidates On Flint’s Water Crisis

In every presidential campaign, there are issues everyone knows beforehand will be discussed — what should we do about immigration, how can we improve the economy, where should we go on health care — and events that become campaign issues when they burst into the news. So it is with the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, where a public health catastrophe has played out over the last two years, and more and more politicians are being asked to comment on it.

To get you up to speed, in 2014, in an effort to save money, the city stopped getting its water from Detroit and began getting it from the contaminated Flint River. It turned out that all manner of nasty chemicals were contained in the water, most alarmingly, lead. It’s important to understand that at the time, Flint’s own elected officials were all but powerless, because the city was being run by a “emergency manager” appointed by Michigan governor Rick Snyder; it was the emergency manager who made the final call to switch their water supply (you can read more about that here). Emails released yesterday by Snyder’s administration show that as Flint residents were complaining about the water’s color and taste, and reporting ill health effects, state officials were not particularly eager to do anything about it. Snyder’s chief of staff wrote in one email that other state officials felt that “some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football.”

Well it’s a political football now — as well it should be. I’ve long been an advocate of “politicizing” just about everything (see here or here), not because candidates should take any excuse to blame each other for anything going wrong anywhere in the country, but because elected officials need to make choices, and campaigns provide an opportunity to get them on record saying how they’d address critical issues. Right after a hurricane is the best time to talk about what government should do to prepare for disasters, just as the aftermath of a high-profile police shooting is the best time to talk about police practices. It’s when our attention gets focused on a problem and there’s a real opportunity to make progress.

So what we’re seeing now is that Democrats, particularly President Obama and those running for his party’s presidential nomination, are eager to talk about Flint. Obama met with Flint’s mayor, declared a state of emergency that will allow federal funds to flow there, and called the crisis “inexplicable and inexcusable.” Hillary Clinton raised it in Sunday’s debate when asked what issue she wish had been brought up but hadn’t, saying, “We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population which is poor in many ways and majority African American has been drinking and bathing in lead contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care. He had requests for help that he basically stonewalled. I’ll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action.” For his part, Bernie Sanders called for Snyder to resign.

And the Republicans? It won’t be surprising if they aren’t interested in discussing the race and class issues the crisis raises, and thus far, they don’t seem to want to talk seriously about it at all. Ben Carson was the first to give any substantive comment, placing the blame on Flint’s elected officials and the federal government, neatly excusing Governor Snyder’s administration of any involvement. Marco Rubio was asked about it on Monday and said he couldn’t say much, since “That’s not an issue that right now we’ve been focused on”; from what I can tell he hasn’t said anything about it since. Donald Trump was also reluctant to discuss it, responding to a reporter’s question on Tuesday by saying, “A thing like that shouldn’t happen, but, again, I don’t want to comment on that.” John Kasich said, “I think the governor has moved the National Guard in and, you know, I’m sure he will manage this appropriately.” I haven’t been able to find any comments from Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, or Rick Santorum.

But there is one Republican candidate who made detailed remarks about the issue: Ted Cruz. “It is a failure at every level of government, a failure of the city officials, a failure of the county officials, and the men and women of Michigan have been betrayed,” Cruz said. “Every American is entitled to have access to clean water. And to all the children who have been poisoned by government officials, by their negligence, by their ineptitude, it’s heart-breaking.” In addition, Cruz’s Michigan state director wrote on her Facebook page that the campaign was bringing bottled water to “crisis pregnancy centers” in the city, which try to convince women not to have abortions.

Cruz did his best to fit the issue in with his broader critique of government, but it isn’t surprising that the rest of his Republican colleagues didn’t really want to talk about it. If Snyder were a Democrat, you can be sure they’d be blaming him, but he isn’t. They aren’t going to say that this disaster demonstrates that the problems that affect poor and black people are given less attention by government at all levels than the problems that affect rich and white people, because most of them don’t think that’s actually true. They aren’t going to say that this shows that we need a major investment in infrastructure spending in America, because they don’t really believe that, either.

But those are the broader issues that the catastrophe in Flint raises, and that’s what the candidates ought to be pressed on. They don’t even have to agree on who bears the lion’s share of the blame to agree that we have a national problem that requires attention. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country’s drinking water system a grade of “D” and says that in the next couple of decades we will need to invest hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps even into the trillions, in order to bring the system up to where it should be.

So now that we’re focusing on the question of drinking water, the candidates should say what they see as our infrastructure priorities, how we should address them, how much we ought to spend, and how that fits in with the other things they’d like to spend money on.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, January 21, 2016

January 24, 2016 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Flint Michigan, Hillary Clinton, Presidential Candidates, Rick Snyder | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“An Economic Self-Kneecapping”: How Michigan Literally Poisoned An Entire City To Save A Few Bucks

You know what’s bad? Brain damage.

Flint, Michigan, is finding this out after it accidentally gave its entire population at least a little bit of lead poisoning when it switched up their water supply. In an attempt to save money for a cash-strapped city, Flint started drinking water from the Flint River — but ended up contaminating children with a poisonous heavy metal. Governor Rick Snyder has declared a state of emergency, and the federal government is investigating.

Why on Earth did they do this? Austerity. Aside from the obvious humanitarian disaster, this is a stark demonstration of austerity’s false economy. Trying to be cheap on Flint’s water supply will end up costing the state of Michigan (and probably the country as a whole) a ton more money than it would have to fix it properly in the first place.

Flint, as you may have heard, has been an economic disaster zone for decades now. What was once a key part of the great Midwest industrial powerhouse — General Motors was founded there over a century ago — has been troubled since the 1970s, beset by deindustrialization, population loss, a collapsing tax base, and the inevitable concomitant spike in crime and poverty.

Of course such a situation is going to require some painful downsizing of local services, which has been partially accomplished under a succession of emergency managers imposed by the Michigan state government with a tremendous amount of legal scuffling. While some cuts or tax increases are surely necessary, in such a situation it’s critical to lay out a trajectory to future fiscal sustainability to avoid a death spiral.

Ideally, this is where the state or federal government would step in, making sure that pain is spread around equitably — particularly to bondholders, who probably knew exactly who they were lending to — and the city doesn’t get stuck in legal limbo for years on end.

But emergency managers, particularly the ones appointed by Governor Snyder (a Republican) have been far more focused on cuts for their own sake, particularly crushing unionized public sector workers. The idea to temporarily use Flint River water while another pipeline was being constructed was one of those cost-saving measures.

It was immediately obvious that the water was filthy, and residents loudly protested that it was cloudy, smelled bad, and tasted worse. General Motors stopped using the water because it was literally corroding their machinery. But Snyder and his handpicked head environmental official Dan Wyant studiously ignored the problem — despite internal warnings of lead poisoning as early as July of last year — until an outside scientific study demonstrated extreme levels of lead in Flint children. In late December — over a year after the water switch — Snyder finally apologized and Wyant quietly resigned.

Lead poisoning is one of the lesser-known great evils of the 20th century. Most notably it may have even caused a great crime wave, as basically the entire population was subjected to minor aerosol lead poisoning from leaded gasoline, resulting in lower IQs and poorer impulse control across the population — and therefore higher crime.

Things have improved since lead was removed from gasoline, but it’s still a gigantic problem for many impoverished communities, who can’t afford to replace their lead pipes or properly remove flaking lead paint. The threat is greatest for small children, who are most vulnerable to lead poisoning and most likely to eat lead paint (which often has a sweet taste). Freddie Gray, the Baltimore resident whose death in police custody sparked major unrest last year — was just so brain damaged.

Now Snyder has already been forced to pony up over $10 million to switch the Flint water system back to the way it was before (hooked up to Detroit, basically), and the city is asking for some $50 million more to replace lead pipes. But that’s very likely only the beginning. Flint’s population is roughly 100,000, and several families have already sued state and local officials over the lead issue. It’s unclear so far how badly the city’s children have been poisoned, but it’s a pretty safe bet the state will end up spending tens or perhaps even hundreds of millions on settlements.

And that’s where a moral atrocity becomes an economic self-kneecapping. Aside from the cost of settlements, children are the major portion of the future’s economic capacity, which depends critically on their ability to function normally. Destroying their brains with heavy metals will rather impede their ability to get the jobs and pay the taxes that will get Flint on a sound fiscal footing.

Being a cheapskate can be expensive indeed.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, January 7, 2016

January 10, 2016 Posted by | Austerity, Flint Michigan, Lead Poisoining, Rick Snyder | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

   

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