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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

“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

“Cronyism Causes The Worst Kind Of Inequality”: Friends Of The Rulers Appropriating Wealth For Themselves

Economic inequality has skyrocketed in the U.S. during the past few decades. That has prompted many calls for government policies to reverse that trend. Defenders of the status quo argue that rising inequality is a necessary byproduct of economic growth — if we don’t allow people the chance to become extremely rich, the thinking goes, they will stop working, investing, saving and starting businesses. A receding tide will then cause all boats to sink.

Critics of the status quo have responded with the claim that inequality doesn’t help growth, but instead hurts it. This view was given ammunition by a number of recent studies, which have found a negative relationship between how much income inequality a country has and how fast it grows. One example is an International Monetary Fund study from 2015:

[W]e find an inverse relationship between the income share accruing to the rich (top 20 percent) and economic growth. If the income share of the top 20 percent increases by 1 percentage point, GDP growth is actually 0.08 percentage point lower in the following five years, suggesting that the benefits do not trickle down. Instead, a similar increase in the income share of the bottom 20 percent (the poor) is associated with 0.38 percentage point higher growth.

A similar 2014 study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded the same thing. Interestingly, the negative correlation between inequality and growth is found even when controlling for a country’s income level. This isn’t simply a case of wealthier countries growing more slowly and also being more unequal.

So the evidence is pretty clear: Higher inequality has been associated with lower growth. But as with all correlations, we should be very careful about interpreting this as causation. It might be that countries whose growth slows for any reason tend to experience an increase in inequality, as politically powerful groups stop focusing on expanding the pie and start trying to appropriate more of the pie for themselves.

The IMF and OECD list some channels by which inequality might actually be causing lower growth. The most important one has to do with investment. When poor people have more money, they can afford to invest more in human capital (education and skills) and nutrition. Because these investments have diminishing marginal returns — the first year of schooling matters a lot more than the 20th — every dollar invested by the poor raises national productivity by more than if it gets invested by the rich. In other words, the more resources shoring up a nation’s weak links, the better off that nation will be.

That’s a plausible hypothesis. But there might also be other factors contributing to the correlation between inequality and growth. It could be that there is something out there that causes both high inequality and low growth at the same time.

The obvious candidate for this dark force is crony capitalism. When a country succumbs to cronyism, friends of the rulers are able to appropriate large amounts of wealth for themselves — for example, by being awarded government-protected monopolies over certain markets, as in Russia after the fall of communism. That will obviously lead to inequality of income and wealth. It will also make the economy inefficient, since money is flowing to unproductive cronies. Cronyism may also reduce growth by allowing the wealthy to exert greater influence on political policy, creating inefficient subsidies for themselves and unfair penalties for their rivals.

Economists Sutirtha Bagchi of the University of Michigan and Jan Svejnar of Columbia recently set out to test the cronyism hypothesis. They focused not on income inequality, but on wealth inequality — a different, though probably related, measure. Concentrating on billionaires — the upper strata of the wealth distribution — they evaluated the political connections of each billionaire. They used the proportion of politically connected billionaires in a country as their measure of cronyism.

What they discovered was very interesting. The relationship between wealth inequality and growth was negative, as the IMF and others had found for income inequality. But only one kind of inequality was associated with low growth — the kind that came from cronyism. From the abstract of the paper:

[W]hen we control for the fact that some billionaires acquired wealth through political connections, the effect of politically connected wealth inequality is negative, while politically unconnected wealth inequality, income inequality, and initial poverty have no significant effect.

In other words, when billionaires make their money through means other than political connections, the resulting inequality isn’t bad for growth.

That’s a heartening message for defenders of the rich-country status quo. If cronyism is the real danger, it means that a lot of the inequality we’ve seen in recent decades is benign. Eliminate corrupt connections between politicians and businesspeople, and you’ll be safe.

But Bagchi and Svejnar’s finding cuts two ways. It also means that plain old inequality isn’t beneficial for growth, as its defenders have claimed. That removes one of the big objections government policy makers face in talking steps to reduce inequality — and that doing so is unlikely to hurt economic growth.

 

By: Noah Smith, Bloomberg View, Bloomberg Politics, December 24, 2015

December 28, 2015 Posted by | Crony Capitalism, Economic Growth, Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Debate Upshot: Democrats Are The Only Responsible Party”: GOP Wants To Make Life Miserable For Anyone Who Isn’t Older, Wealthy, White, Straight And Male

The third Democratic debate is in the books, having been conveniently held on a night that featured both college football bowl games and the opening weekend of the new Star Wars movie.

It’s just as well, though, because it was a largely uneventful night. Politico has a decent rundown of the main highlights, from Sanders personally apologizing for the data breach to the candidates’ renewed push on gun control. There isn’t much reason to believe that debate will move the polling needle in a significant way, which obviously plays well for Clinton as far as the contest goes.

But debates aren’t just about sorting out the differences between primary candidates. They’re also about promoting a political party’s worldview and illustrating how its leaders would manage the nation’s problems. That’s one of the biggest reasons why the DNC’s debate schedule is so frustrating: it’s not only that infrequent and low-viewership debates prevent a healthy and vigorous contest, but also that they deny the American people a chance to hear from the party.

Those who did tune in had the opportunity to hear from three candidates who can be trusted, to varying degrees, to lead the nation. There are some obvious differences between them that don’t need restating here, but the distinction between the Democrats and the Republicans in their debates could not possibly have been sharper. The GOP wants to drop more bombs on anything that moves in the middle east, cut taxes on every corporation and rich person it can, and make life miserable for almost anyone who isn’t older, wealthy, white, straight and male.

It’s not just about morals, though: it’s about basic responsibility. Republican foreign policy wouldn’t just needlessly kill untold numbers through needless military aggressions–it would also generate a massive increase in terrorism and instability just as George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq did. Republican tax policy wouldn’t just benefit the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class–it would also bust the budget, create massive deficits and hurt the demand-side consumer economy. Republican climate policy wouldn’t just benefit fossil fuel companies and increase pollution–it would also put the entire planet at risk of eventual civilization and species collapse.

Republican candidates are catering to a furious and fearful population of resentful paranoiacs. Their policy platforms are predictably wildly irresponsible.

The Democratic Party may still have a way to go in becoming as progressive as it needs to be. But there’s no question that only one of America’s two parties can be counted on to do the basic job of running the government.

 

By: David Atkins, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, December 20, 2015

December 21, 2015 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Democratic Presidential Primaries, GOP Presidential Candidates, Hillary Clinton | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Familiar Premise Of Free-Market Conservatism”: Iowa’s Radical Privatization Of Medicaid Is Already Struggling

On Jan. 1, 31 days before Iowa caucus-goers cast the first votes of the 2016 presidential race, the state will gain another national distinction, but of a dubious variety: It plans to launch the most sweeping and radical privatization of Medicaid ever attempted.

In an extraordinary social policy experiment, Iowa’s Gov. Terry Branstad (R) is kicking about 560,000 of the state’s poorest residents out of the traditional Medicaid health-care program for the poor and forcing virtually all of them to sign up with private insurers. The trend toward managed care for Medicaid has been underway for decades and some 39 states do it to some extent. But experts inside and outside government say no state has tried to make such a wholesale change so quickly — in Iowa’s case, launching the program fewer than 90 days after signing contracts with private health-care companies.

Iowa is conducting an extreme test of a familiar premise of free-market conservatism: that the private sector is more efficient at management and service delivery than government. But the results so far should give pause to those who automatically make such assumptions. The transition of Iowa’s $4.2 billion Medicaid program has made the rollout of HealthCare.gov look orderly.

An Iowa administrative law judge late last month recommended that Iowa throw out the contract it awarded to WellCare, one of the four companies hired to manage the new program, noting that the company failed to disclose details of its “integrity agreement” with the federal government after the 2014 convictions of three former executives involving the misuse of Medicaid money. In addition, WellCare had paid $138 million to resolve claims that it overbilled Medicare and Medicaid, and the firm had also hired two former Iowa legislators, who improperly communicated with the Branstad administration during the bidding process.

The Des Moines Register has reported that the four companies selected to operate the Iowa program have had more than 1,500 regulatory sanctions combined and have paid $10.2 million in fines over the past five years. These involved canceled appointments, privacy breaches, untimely processing and failure to obtain informed consent.

The Iowa rollout has been hampered by delays, and some beneficiaries of the program are only now getting their enrollment packets, though the deadline for signing up is Dec. 17. Health-care providers complain that they are being forced to sign incomplete contracts or face a penalty, and they complain that some contracts don’t cover services that had been covered under the existing Medicaid program.

Branstad’s administration has answered critics by saying the new program will save $51 million in its first six months. But he has been unable to come up with documentation to justify the cost savings for Iowa, which already has a low-cost Medicaid system.

Branstad had the authority to implement the new program without input from the state legislature. But officials with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) were in Iowa this week and will make a ruling next week on whether the plan can proceed.

“The rollout has been an absolute unmitigated disaster,” said Democratic Sen. Joe Bolkcom, the Iowa chamber’s majority whip. “CMS and the Obama administration need to protect vulnerable Iowans from this train wreck.”

Branstad has implicitly acknowledged some difficulty. This week he extended until April the “safe harbor” in which Medicaid providers will receive 100 percent reimbursement regardless of managed-care network.

In response to my inquiry, Branstad’s office sent me to the state’s Department of Human Services, where a spokeswoman, Amy Lorentzen McCoy, said all is well. The state, which now has 12 percent of Medicaid recipients in managed care, would have gone this way anyway, she said, but the urgency increased with the recent Medicaid expansion. (Branstad was one of the few Republican governors to accept the Obamacare expansion of the program.)

Now, as the nation’s attention turns to the Iowa caucuses, Iowans will likely be witnessing either a fight between Branstad and President Obama (if the federal government forces a delay in the Iowa program) or chaos (if the program is allowed to proceed). Other states, such as Kansas and Kentucky, have tried similar experiments, but they either moved more deliberately or didn’t extend the private program to vulnerable populations such as the disabled.

“A lot of issues have been raised with the pace of the rollout” in Iowa, said Julia Paradise, a Medicaid expert with the Kaiser Family Foundation. “The provider networks for the plans have not yet been established. There’s a lot of confusion among beneficiaries.”

Branstad could recognize this, and slow things down. In failing to do so, he’s relying more on dogma — faith that the private sector always does things better — than reality.

 

By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 11, 2015

December 14, 2015 Posted by | Free Markets, Medicaid Privatization, Terry Branstad | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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