Flint’s Bottom Line

The Flint water crisis shows the human toll of running government like a business.

Of all the horrors that have emerged from the Flint lead-poisoning scandal  — and they have only begun to unfold — January 12’s “Lead Testing and Family Fun Night” at Flint’s Freeman Elementary was comparatively minor. The perversely breezy advertising for the event promised a balloon artist, raffles, face painting, and blood tests for the kids. Tellingly, the Facebook event page was filled with anxious posts from parents worried about how much the lead test part of the festivities would cost.

The lead test was free, but the parents’ concern is easy to understand. Flint is one of the poorest cities in Michigan — a state run by Rick Snyder, a former computer executive turned politician. Snyder’s mission is to “reinvent Michigan” in the image of corporate America — a mission that often entails distributing public services to the wealthy on the backs of the poor.

For well over a year, the people of Flint — who pay some of the nation’s highest water rates (water bills rival the cost of rent) — drank and bathed in water that, officials now admit, was contaminated with lead and other toxic chemicals. Snyder has offered apologies but has been quick to blame the Flint water crisis on a failure of infrastructure — “government failed you,” he said, deftly pointing the finger at the same bureaucracies he has always campaigned against.

But the disaster in Flint isn’t a result of bureaucracy. It’s the deadly consequence of treating public goods as private commodities — an increasingly dominant feature of municipal life in America today.

The broad outlines of the Flint disaster are by now well-known. Nevertheless, because the Snyder administration and his hand-picked emergency manager in Flint have muddied the waters by pinning blame on Flint’s city council and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), it’s worth rehearsing the crucial details.

For decades, Flint had been served by DWSD, but in 2013, Emergency Manager Michael Brown decided to take Flint out of the Detroit system to join the Genesee County suburbs in a new, regional Karegnandi Water Authority. This move — approved in a ceremonial vote by Flint’s powerless city council — was allegedly taken to save money, despite the recommendation of an engineering firm (contracted by the state) that Flint stay with DWSD rather than pay 30 percent of the new pipeline, which would end up costing the city more.

Once Flint’s EM announced the decision to leave the Detroit system in April 2013, DWSD announced that Flint’s preferential long-term water deal would end in one year. It offered a more expensive, temporary contract to cover the time left before the KWA was completed (as Lindsay Smith has reported for Michigan Public Radio, this is where some state officials try to shift blame to Detroit, always a useful villain in state politics).

Rather than sign a temporary deal with DWSD, in March 2014, Flint’s new emergency manager, Darnell Earley, approved the cheaper decision to tap the polluted Flint River. Within a month, residents began drinking and bathing in the river water.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) failed to add a crucial corrosion control chemical — standard in large municipal systems — that prevents lead from leaching out of old service lines. The DEQ apparently advised Flint to follow a protocol designed for new water systems, despite the well-known fact that service lines in older cities like Flint are made with lead. (And what’s more, nobody in the cash-strapped city government even knows where the lead pipes are — the records are kept on handwritten paper index cards in an old cabinet at city hall.)

Shortly after the switch, Flint residents reported water that was brown, abrasive, and even nauseating, a sign that lead contamination is only part of the problem (E. coli bacteria and chlorine have also been found in the Flint River water). But DEQ experts appeared to game water safety tests, omitting homes that tested high for lead from subsequent studies and instructing city residents to flush their lines before collecting water samples, which would dilute the lead readings.

In short, Michigan’s state environmental regulatory agency oversaw the distribution — for roughly six hundred days — of water that was virtually guaranteed to poison the children of its seventh largest city.

The only question that remains is why? How much of this atrocity was due to incompetence, and how much of it was done to save money?  Of course, incompetence and cost-cutting go together: competence costs money, and cutting expenses is the single job description of Flint’s emergency manager. Indeed, cutting costs remains one of the Snyder administration’s highest and proudest priorities.

So it is hard to read a 2012 statement from Snyder’s office on “Energy and the Environment” (note which comes first) without getting chills: to those complaining about “endless red tape,” the governor proudly announced, over one hundred environmental regulations have been taken off the books, and “Michigan’s quality of life agencies – DEQ, DNR and MDARD – have all improved in timeliness even while their staff levels have gone down.”

Snyder presents himself as a pragmatic, pro-business, post-partisan Midwestern Republican — Scott Walker with a human face — and his vocabulary is cribbed from the dullest corporate training seminar you were ever forced to attend. Buzzwords like  “dashboards” (the term for the scorecards his office publishes for state agencies), “Relentless Positive Action” (his vacuous brand of technocratic eagerness), and “best practices” litter his speech. He is shockingly glib, unembarrassed by cant and misplaced positivity.

Last week, when Snyder stopped by the Detroit Auto Show — the showcase for the Big Three and the jewel of local elites’ social calendar —a reporter asked him about the unpleasant matter of Flint’s toxic water. “I’m here for the auto show today,” he smiled, relentlessly accentuating the positive. “What a great way to showcase Detroit and Michigan.”

But more than Synder’s cloying dishonesty, the Flint catastrophe shows the cruelty that comes from running government “like a business.” One of the fundamental premises of “best practices” is that techniques of organizing any institution can be easily exported to another — so universities, the military, nonprofits, a plastics factory, or a municipal water system can follow similar organizational methods.

The problem however, as the political theorist Wendy Brown has argued, is that “best practices” are always market values — competition, efficiency, “innovation.” When these values are imported from the private market to the provision of public goods, the interests of the public — indeed, the very notion of “a public” at all — recede into the background. The best practices, as it happens, are usually the cheapest and the quickest.

When a government is run like a business, much of its infrastructure and personnel become superfluous. This often means in practice that infrastructural investments like education and water — everything “necessary for the reproduction of communities” — are neglected in communities with declining economic importance.

Snyder is fond of referring to Michiganders as “customers” of the state government — a designation that also applies to corporations. When one of Michigan’s wealthiest customers — General Motors — found, a few months after the water switchover, that Flint River water was destroying its tooling and auto parts, it simply stopped using it. Some customers can spring for the premium stuff. But other customers are left with the municipal equivalent of expired meat at jacked-up prices, harassed and humiliated if they protest.

That is what happened to Flint citizens who complained to every level of government — the state, Flint’s Democratic mayor, and eventually the EPA. LeAnne Walters, whose home eventually returned tests of 13,200 parts per billion — double the EPA standard for hazardous waste — led regular demonstrations in Flint that forced independent investigations of the water. Walters’s children tragically now show the symptoms of lead poisoning. The city responded by suggesting Walters hook up a garden hose to her neighbor’s house.

One of the most horrible ironies of the Flint disaster is that both Flint and Detroit are located next to the hemisphere’s largest concentration of clean freshwater. Flint and Detroit share numerous other similarities as well. Both are black-majority industrial cities, largely abandoned by the industries they helped to build, and damaged by public-sector disinvestment, predatory banking, and other forms of de facto segregation. And like other Michigan cities — Benton Harbor, Pontiac, and Ecorse, to name a few — they have both been placed under emergency managers to cut municipal expenses.

While the Flint story broke nationwide this month, another slow-moving disaster erupted locally in Detroit. For the past two weeks, Detroit Public Schools teachers have staged “sick-outs” across the district in protest against conditions at city schools. Teachers shared stories and pictures of elementary schools without heat in the Michigan winter, with black mold creeping across classroom ceilings, with chipped paint, rats, and roaches.

Earley, the emergency manager who approved the fateful decision to tap the Flint River, is now the latest emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. With no experience in education, and a starring role in poisoning an entire generation of one city’s children, Earley is now responsible for the education of another’s.

What comes next for Flint?

The situation is grim. City residents are trapped, unable to sell their homes in a city with undrinkable, poisoned water. More immediately, the governor has pledged $28 million in emergency aid, for plumbing upgrades at schools and daycare centers, water filters and bottled water for city residents, and nine new nurses for city schools. (The chair of the state’s appropriations committee warned that this is “not a blank check.”)

But estimates of the cost of rebuilding Flint’s damaged water supply range wildly, from fifteen years and $60 million to over $1 billion. Contemplate the chances of a billion-dollar appropriation for a place like Flint.

It’s difficult to read news from Flint without feeling a sickening combination of rage and despair. Lead poisoning does irreversible, invisible harm to the bones and brains of young children — it fundamentally shapes their life chances, even if its effects can take time to manifest, condemning children and parents alike to years of worry and potentially a lifetime of medical intervention.

There can be no greater indictment of a system and a government devoted to exalting the market as the highest virtue, and to treating citizens as nothing more than abstractions on a balance sheet. Detroit and Flint, taken together, lay bare a brutal fact — Michigan no longer seems to have any need for a large proportion of its children.

As a Flint man recently told a reporter: “We’re like disposable people here. We’re not even human here, I guess.”