Something is definitely rotten in the state of Michigan. And it’s not just the lead-poisoned water coming from the corroded pipes undergirding 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’s water woes are not the result of decadeslong neglect of critical infrastructure investments — although that is certainly a contributing factor. The long-term blame lies squarely with a legacy of policy choices over the decades. The fact that towns like Flint are facing critical fiscal crises is the result of successive generations of corrupt and incompetent local elected leadership. The immediate cause of the crisis stems from Gov. Rick Snyder’s attempt to rectify fiscal mismanagement through authoritarian, anti-democratic policies.
Mr. Snyder’s decision to usurp local authorities and place economically depressed towns like Flint under the sole control of unelected “emergency managers” is the proximate cause of the water disaster. The philosophy behind Mr. Snyder’s policy choices seems to be that governments should be “run more like a business.”
Under Mr. Snyder’s dubious management-oriented philosophy, principled leadership often takes a back seat to expedient tactics. In Flint, this approach has tragically backfired. The absence of moral discernment has sparked a crisis from which the citizens of Flint as well as for Michigan taxpayers are unlikely to escape anytime soon.
Let’s be clear: The situation in Flint was not an act of nature, an accident or a mistake. It was a man-made environmental disaster, entirely foreseeable and entirely preventable.
Thousands of children may have suffered permanent neurological injuries as a result of elevated levels of lead in their blood caused by drinking and bathing in contaminated water. Officials who were appointed by and report directly to the governor falsely declared this water safe. Mr. Snyder, it should be noted, is a term-limited governor who may feel he no longer has to be accountable to the state’s voters.
What elevated this crisis from mere tragedy to the heights of diabolical absurdity was the Snyder administration’s yearlong denial — despite abundant 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 Hanna-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 two to three times normal levels, Mr. Snyder called her findings inconclusive and vigorously denied that the elevated lead levels were caused by the city’s drinking water. When an Environmental Protection Agency 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 bald-faced villainy on the part of our elected officials. The situation in Flint is a humanitarian debacle of world-class dimensions. If al Qaeda or the Islamic State 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 Mr. Snyder’s autocratic, myopic and niggardly policies have wrought havoc. The Snyder administration has gone about systemically disenfranchising largely Democratic, majority-black towns under the guise of “emergency management.”
Flint, with a population that is 57 percent black, joins Pontiac, Detroit, Highland Park, Benton Harbor and several other localities targeted politically by the Snyder administration, apparently as part of a deliberate policy to isolate and quell political adversaries under the dubious pretense of imposing “fiscal discipline.” It is clear 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, while 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, Mr. Snyder’s policies seem to be motivated more by a desire to usurp power 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 infrastructure 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.
The villains in the Flint case 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 dictatorship is more effective at governing than a “weak” democracy is a theory that was considered and discarded at the founding of our nation.
• Armstrong Williams is manager and sole owner of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and executive editor of American CurrentSee online magazine. Watch “Right Side Forum” every Saturday live on Newschannel 8 TV 28 in Washington, D.C., from 10:30-11 a.m. and rebroadcast at 6:30 p.m. EST.