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Jim Hightower: What Really Poisoned the Water in Flint, Michigan

Lambert here: A powerful debunking of the neoliberal talking point (and conventional wisdom from the Beltway all the way to your local Chamber of Commerce) that “government should be run like a business.” Oddly, the people who espouse this category error will often urge that “government is like a household” in other contexts, but that is a topic for another time.

By Jim Hightower, a national radio commentator, public speaker, and author who served from 1983 to 1991 as the elected commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture. Originally published at Alternet.

The mantra of every Koch-headed, right-wing politico is that government should be run like a business, always focused on cutting costs.

Welcome to Flint, Michigan. This impoverished, mostly African-American city has indeed been run like a private corporation since Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed his “emergency manager” to seize control of Flint’s heavily indebted local government. Snyder’s coup d’etat usurped the people’s democratic voice and effectively imposed a corporate-style autocracy over them, run by his unelected CEO-like manager who answers only to Snyder.

Flint’s emergency manager holds authoritarian budgetary power and is focused not on serving the people but on the bottom line. His mandate from the governor was to slash costs ruthlessly, so bankers and other holders of the city’s debt could be paid off. Snyder was delighted that his appointed czar proved to be an enthusiastic slasher, including a cleaver move in 2014 to cut a couple million dollars from the budget by shifting the source of the city’s drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

Sure, some scaredy-cats worried about contaminants in that river, but Snyder’s health officials pooh-poohed them — and, besides, the beauty of one-man rule is that you can ignore the people and take bold, decisive action. That’s what corporate CEOs do, and even if there is some collateral damage, it’s the bottom line that matters.

But — oops — the bottom line of thinking you can simply apply corporate methods and ethics to public responsibilities is that very bad things can happen. In this case, Flint’s water supply is contaminated with lead, its entire infrastructure of water pipes needs to be replaced, thousands of the city’s children may be permanently impaired by lead poisoning … and Snyder’s name is mud.

Not that Gov. Snyder personally dumped lead and other toxins into Flint’s water, but by dumping his small-minded, budget-whacking policies on the people of this largely poor, largely minority community, he did, in fact, poison them. Worse, when Flint’s families immediately and loudly complained that their tap water was oddly colored, nasty tasting, stinky and causing rashes on their children, Snyder and his top officials did nothing. Nothing!

For a year and a half, the governor’s team denied there was a problem, even when residents showed jugs of the brownish liquid to the media and to officials. It’s a myth, claimed the authorities, accusing locals of “trying to turn (the issue) into a political football” and asserting that the complainers were just being finicky about the aesthetics of their water.

Aesthetics? A General Motors factory in Flint had to quit using the water because it was corroding metal engine parts, and a hospital stopped using the water because it was damaging its medical instruments!

Finally, after out-of-state toxicity experts confirmed that Flint’s water constitutes a major public health emergency, Snyder and crew were forced to switch from denial to damage control. He has since apologized to Flint residents and is trying to save face (and his job) by promising to “fix” the mess he made.

The mess is not just in the water, however. Flint reveals that there is a much deeper contamination poisoning our country’s political morals: namely, an insidious right-wing belief that poor people (particularly people of color who are poor) are underserving moochers whose misfortunes can be ignored — even when their misfortunes stem directly from the discriminatory practices of slippery elites like Snyder. This example in Flint proves once again that government can’t be run like a corporation, as a corporation exists to profit only a few, not serve the many. Despite the shallow sloganeering of ideologues, government has to be run … well, like a government.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

81 comments

  1. James Levy

    The values of one set of values over another cannot be proven. Normative claims are not amenable to material tests. So what a society holds as valuable is reached by consensus, historically a consensus among elites that is then passed down the ladder not as what it is, but as the Will of God. Protestantism created such a funhouse of conflicting values that you needed Economics to eventually come along and claim that it had a set of values that were “scientific” and therefore de facto obligatory for all rational people to follow (you can also see Absolutism in politics as a response to the ideological confusion that arose from the time of Luther). These values became in its neoclassical form competition, profit maximization, and a certain kind of efficiency (inputs to outputs). For well over a century America was informed by an unstable synthesized highbred of bland, generalized Christian values fused to capitalist economics. Since the old moral system broke down for good in the 1960s, the only set of values with any clout left standing were neoclassical economic values (and, ironically and not among the elites, Evangelical Protestantism). And thus we got neoliberalism as the reigning morality of our elites and our age. Hightower is trying to buck that trend, as is Sanders. But they are faced with an incredible challenges, for they cannot make the same claim of universality and infallibility for their values that the neoliberals make for theirs.

    1. Troutbum75

      Mr. Levy says,”The values of one set of values over another cannot be proven. Normative claims are not amenable to material tests.”
      Not true at all, this issue was dealt with in 1939 by John Dewey in his slim book “Theory of Valuation”.
      Valuing is a process, not static and as such is subject to an empirical testing process ( sciencing or cause and effect ) if it is to be useful. When valuing is subject to emotion, expressing only custom, convention, and tradition they represent opinions and whim. And at that point, values are largely ceremonial rather than empirical and are subject to manipulation by elites.
      With all due respect, Mr. Levy sounds like a “value-free” social science professor.

      1. James Levy

        Please rank these in order: kindness, mercy, justice, order, safety, truthfulness. When you tell me which trumps which, or how I can prove that it is better to be kind than to be just, or just than kind, or merciful than just, then I will take your argument seriously.

          1. Adam Eran

            The (neoliberal/capitalist) values leading to toxic water: All of humanity is nought but marketable labor. All of nature is nought but marketable land. All human interaction is basically a financial transaction, and profit justifies any behavior. (thanks to Karl Polanyi)

            Mr. Levy has tapped into the fundamental bankruptcy of science-olatry, or perhaps “MBA thinking.” This is the notion that we can measure everything significant, and if it can’t be measured it isn’t real.

            Recommended to debunk MBA thinking: Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth. He carefully describes how the men who promoted the “scientific” approach that inspired America’s first business schools (Wharton, Harvard) were con men. That’s right, Frederick Winslow Taylor altered his experiment’s measurements so they would fit his (surprise! harsh on labor) theory!

        1. Penny

          You take seriously only what you deem serious? Interesting. Poisoning children by mistake…this is your idea of not serious?

    2. Steven

      Hightower is trying to buck that trend, as is Sanders. But they are faced with an incredible challenges, for they cannot make the same claim of universality and infallibility for their values that the neoliberals make for theirs.

      That claim needs to be exposed for the fraud it is. The Nobel Prize winning chemist Frederick Soddy wrote almost 90 years ago

      a logical definition of wealth is absolutely needed for the basis of economics if it is to be a science.

      With neoliberal economics what we got instead was the income capitalization valuation method (ICVM). As “Michael Hudson … the best economist in the world” has repeatedly written, “The product of Wall Street is debt” – NOT wealth. Wall Street’s ‘wealth’ is based on nothing more than a promise to pay some arbitrary sum of money based on “junk” economics and mathematics or a less definite figure based on the likelihood of finding some ‘irrationally exuberant, greater fool’.

      And we all fall right in line. How many ‘liberals’ (“10 degrees to the left of center in good times, 10 degrees to the right when it affects them personally” – Phil Ochs), how many ‘monetary reformers’ check the ‘value’ of their portfolios either immediately before or after reading postings on sites like Naked Capitalism? It is this mistaking debt for wealth that allows Wall Street to unload its ‘product’ on an economically illiterate public; to substitute money paid into the Social Security fund by those fortunate enough to still have jobs for money the 0.01% would otherwise have to pay for taxes, etc.

      It is this ICVM of defining ‘wealth’ that paralyses the hosts (us) Hudson writes about while the parasites (Wall Street, its banks and a corporate elite) derive the bulk of their compensation by off-shoring jobs and running up yet more corporate debt to boast the value of their stock options. This whole process of using money to ‘keep score’ has reached the stage where that money has all the value of Monopoly money – all but worthless to those who don’t play the game. The banks don’t need your money any more to balance their books at the Fed. You have become ‘useless savers’. They can just have the Fed create the necessary funds for them and cut all those trying to ‘store value’ right out of the picture.

      1. Laughingsong

        And we all fall right in line.

        What you mean ‘we’ Kemosabe? :-)

        Not all NC readers can be painted with that broad brush. We ourselves (I and Himself) have no portfolio to check. We have a house. It’s not an “investment”, it’s a roof over our heads and a door behind which we can temporarily block out the world. As for what society holds as valuable, it seems to me that society’s stakeholders (aka all of us) are in a constant tussle about what our values are.

        1. Steven

          Well, me anyway.
          As for “values” we are not talking about the kind that regulate interpersonal relationships – or for that matter the price of a painting or the royalty received for say Beethoven’s 9th. We are talking about what it costs to keep you and yours alive and reasonably comfortable. This really isn’t rocket science. Check out Soddy’s “Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt”, 2nd edition. Soddy listed three ingredients of wealth: energy, discovery (scientific and technical knowledge) and diligence (machine tending – something that these days is probably best left to a computer). All those oil wars of the last century and this one seem to suggest Soddy was right at least about energy.

    3. redleg

      Budgets are moral documents. They directly measure the values held by those who concoct a budget.
      In this case the appointed manager switched a water supply source (a much more complicated task than one would think, having participated in a few of these myself) and then violated the Safe Drinking Water Act by not taking required corrosion control measures to save a few hundred dollars a day (poly- or ortho- phosphate treatment is cheap and effective).
      That implies that the value of the people in Flint and abiding by federal law is less than a few hundred bucks a day to these diabolical tools.

      1. Penny

        A question worth asking is whether there were cash incentives for the emergency managers’ budget cuts. Did they get a percentage of what they ‘saved’?

      2. lori

        And it was only 80 to 100 dollars that he saved a day… you are talking business. were talking human life our children were poisoned… my granddaughter was born 9 months ago. We moved back to Michigan from out of state about 10 months ago we did not know what was really going on in Flint, if they would have said something like they were required to we would have never moved into Flint.
        This is about the disregard for human life he did not care and we have to continue living this way… they even bought bottled water for each floor of the State Building in Flint last January for them to drink. Even Flint elected officials knew what was going on. Protective Services DHS everybody knew but us it finally took a doctor that spoke up for us that’s how this finalit got out in the open, then a week or so later thats when Snyder apologized.
        I would also like to say thank you to all the people that are helping us… it’s very overwhelming, we are very appreciative and it brings us to tears to see all the love
        Thank you all very much from all of us in Flint, Michigan

  2. DakotabornKansan

    The Flint water crisis is the product of structural violence.

    “Structural violence is one way of describing social arrangements that put individuals and populations in harm’s way… The arrangements are structural because they are embedded in the political and economic organization of our social world; they are violent because they cause injury to people … neither culture nor pure individual will is at fault; rather, historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces conspire to constrain individual agency. Structural violence is visited upon all those whose social status denies them access to the fruits of scientific and social progress.” – Paul Farmer

    Flint reminds me of Rudolf Virchow, one of the great pathologists of the nineteenth century as well as a crusader for social justice and equality. Virchow believed that medicine was not only biological, but also social intervention and politics (public health in the most profound sense).

    In 1848, Virchow investigated an outbreak of typhus in the Prussian province of Upper Silesia. Virchow identified social determinants of health, factors such as neglect, poverty, poor housing, poor education and the lack of public provision of medical care, as key elements in the development of the typhus epidemic.

    “Do we not always find the diseases of the populace traceable to defects in society?” – Rudolf Virchow

    “All diseases have two causes, one pathological the other political.” – Rudolph Virchow

    This is a time of increasing social and public health injustice in the US.

    Virchow argued that the health of people was a matter of direct social concern; social and economic conditions had an important effect on health and disease; the measures taken to promote health and to combat disease must be social as well as medical; and medical statistics would be the standard of measurement: “we will weigh life for life and see where the dead lie thicker; among the workers or among the privileged.”

  3. itstheirownfault

    This is n=most manifestly NOT the fualt of the govener. This is just the corrupt local Democrats trying to pin the blame on the GOP for their own mistakes.

    It is absurd o imagine that we live in system where the local municipal governments are somehow fiefdoms beholding to the State governments. It just does not work that way. State governments are not resonsible for municipal utilities, nor should they be.

    This is a classic example of corrupt Democrat political machines, organized around racial electioneering practices blaming other people for their screw up–screw ups mostly due to their own venality and incompetence. We constantly see this: Just look at Katrina.

    Leftist know how to destroy and take. They do not know how to actually do something productive.

    There certainly is a deeper “problem here: it is the Democrat Party. Shame on you for carrying their water.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      You appear to be ignorant that Flint was being run by an appointed Emergency Manager at the time the decision that poisoned Flint’s water was made. Do consider studying up a bit.

      NOTE I would be the last to deny that local Democrats are corrupt. That is not the issue here.

    2. tegnost

      You might throw us a bone here and posit why state gov’ts are not responsible for municipal utilities

    3. zapster

      Considering there’s video of city council meetings, that’s simply a base canard. They never even discussed using the river. This was entirely the city manager’s decision.

        1. Vatch

          It is indeed a very important distinction between the typical city manager role, and the outside emergency manager who was actually in charge. Darnell Earley was the emergency manager from September, 2013, until January, 2015. The switch from safe to dangerous water occurred in April, 2014, so it occurred on his watch. His predecessor was Michael Brown. It’s almost a shame that Brown wasn’t responsible for the water crisis, because then Governor Rick Snyder would have been able to say “you’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie!” But it was Earley who was doing a certain type of job, not Brownie.

          By the way, I read that Earley has resigned as destroyer in chief of the Detroit Public Schools.

          1. run75441

            Kurtz approved the move to the KWA authority and off of Detroit Lake water. Early made the witch to river water. Ambrose said no way about going back to Detroit water. Three Governor Snyder appointed Emergency Managers.

            1. Penny

              The part I do not understand (unless there were cash incentives) is the reason to shift to Flint River water when KWA water from Lake Huron would be coming onstream within a few years. After all it cost about $4 million to set a Flint River water treatment facility, the budget savings were maybe 2-3million a year and with KWA water they would be saving similar or more. In other words over a reasonable time horizon-they would have saved MORE money waiting for KWA than with the impetuous shift to Flint River water.

    4. Synoia

      Leftist know how to destroy and take. They do not know how to actually do something productive.

      Yes youar are cirrect. The British National Health Service is a disgrace, becuse ew Doctors becom millionaires, Hospital Admininistrators do not become Millionaires, and Drug prices are tightly controlled.

      It is a further disgrace that the UK’s Infant Mortality rate is not first in the world, nor its longevity the best in the world.

      Of course we know the US Medical system in the best in the world, with highest efficient, lowest costs per person and the best outcomes for infant mortality and longevity.

      Yes you are correct, Bevan, the Socialist, creator of the UK’s NHS destroyed the profit potential of the UK’s health system. That it actually serves the population well is an undesirable coincidence.

  4. William Beyer

    If the Founders had thought government should be run like a business, they would have created a corporation, not a government.

    1. Carla

      NC readers may be interested in the following link, where one may sign up to receive the REAL Democracy History Calendar:

      http://afsc.us12.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=22ec715597d3c293b2e73e2e8&id=e937dc1b64

      If you enroll, a week’s worth of entries, one for each day, will arrive in your in-box every Monday morning, to peruse at your leisure. These are short; sometimes a paragraph, sometimes two; once in a while, just a quote. The calendar is a joint production of the national Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy (POCLAD) and the Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Much of its base comes from the research and writings of individuals connected to both organizations on these themes over the last two decades.

  5. DanB

    There is -or may be- another price to this vicious and pernicious calamity. I’ve read that the Detroit Water Authority made an offer regarding water pricing that would in fact have been less costly than the switch to Flint River water. (I do not know the details of this proposal.) The emergency manager -which I take means in actuality Gov Snyder- rejected the Detroit offer because the end game here is not efficiency and running government like a business but the total privatization of Great Lakes water, and then selling it for what Snyder et al think are ginormous profits. Sort of a tamped down version of Martin Shkreli. It’s the same guiding ideology in both cases.

    1. redleg

      Privatizing the water of the great lakes is fortunately much harder than most people think. Removing water out of the watershed requires unanimous approval of all of the States and Provinces in the entire watershed (not just that lake) per the Great Lakes Compact.
      It’s not the same as “never” but right now it’s close.

    2. Danny

      It’s worth noting that Detroit played an outsized role in this debacle and that also leads back to Gov. Snyder’s doorstep. Detroit was in bankruptcy when the relevant decisions were made in Flint, and Detroit’s emergency manager (with the same command to run the city like a business) was using the water department to make rain.
      Flint wasn’t the only city that felt Detroit was overcharging it. Most of the suburbs that bought water from Detroit actively discussed breaking away or buying the water system. When Flint did decide to join other communities in Genessee County to build an independent water agency with its own pipeline from Lake Huron, Detroit cancelled the water contract with Flint in retaliation. Canceling the contract forced Flint to look to another water source earlier than planned. Flint – while also under state control – then made a series of fateful blunders we keep reading about. BTW, other local suburban governments eventually ended up making a deal to form the great lakes water authority and lease the water system from Detroit.
      In the end I think this debacle largely resulted from the leadership in the State of Michigan choosing winners between Detroit and Flint in a government run like a business.

      1. Penny

        So an emergency manager appointed by Snyder is enhancing detroit revenue by raising the price for water to a city (Flint) run by an emergency manager appointed by Snyder.
        Let us assume each had performance related pay (they get a percent of the effective savings/revenue improvement)
        Then it all makes sense: each had a reason to hurry up and do something that poisoned children.

        Very rational

  6. Bartleby

    Who says that the “government should be run as a business” trope is only espoused by the right-wing? That trope has fallen from the lips of democrats that are appointed to government agencies by democrats. The only difference is that republicans are open about it!

  7. Felix_47

    Wasn’t Flint the hero of Roger and me? How about placing Afghan and Syrian and Muslim refugees in Flint. That might improve the economy. Instead of spending trillions of dollars over there how about just splitting the money and giving it to the refugees with a proviso that they invest in real estate in places like Flint or Detroit. I mention that because one of the only bright spots of the Michigan economy is the influx of Muslim immigrants.

    1. perpetualWAR

      Yes, yes, yes. Let’s allow the refugees access to the US, only if they agree to poison their kids. /s

  8. Torsten

    What originally poisoned the water in Flint was not the one-dollar-one-vote business management of Rick Snyder. The effective cause was NAFTA and the one-dollar-one-vote economic management of Bill Clinton. When the automobile industry left Flint for sunny Mexico, it left a hundred thousand Michigan families without decent jobs and turned white against black, the whites then electing the likes of Snyder.

    As Jay Gould said, the oligarchs can hire one-half the working class to kill the other half. With NAFTA, they don’t have to pay union scale to do it, either.

    1. SufferinSuccotash

      Clinton certainly pushed for it and signed off on it. But who else backed NAFTA to the hilt and who actually originated the idea?

      1. Alfred

        Yeah it was Bush I that did all the set up work but even with fast-track couldn’t get it through Congress before his term ended. Republicans with the support of some Democrats in Congress passed the necessary legislation and Clinton approved it after adding some supposed protections for the environment and workers.

      2. Carla

        Robert Reich, Clinton’s Sec. of Labor, was a stalwart advocate and defender of NAFTA. Now he says he’s sorry.

        1. Vatch

          And he’s actively campaigning against the TPP. I wonder how many other early supporters of NAFTA have realized the error of their ways, and are now against the TPP?

    2. Marco

      With the upcoming CNN Democratic debate in Flint I certainly hope Sanders hammers Clinton (both of them) regarding NAFTA and globalization. Yes the direct cause was a venal Republican governor and penny-pinching emergency manager but the disintegration of Flint’s tax base via off-shored manufacturing jobs set the whole ball-rolling. This mess is a total indictment of Team Clinton (and Obama’s) economic policies.

  9. Wade Riddick

    When private actors provide government services at a profit – especially monopoly services like water and power – the natural tendency is to confiscate the budget for public goods and extort the captive population. These “consumers” are, in fact, captives because they have no other place to turn for affordable service. Are you going to build your own water distribution network with cars?

    This problem with privatizing essential government functions has been a major issue since the days of the Magna Carta and tax farming (i.e., privatized, for-profit tax collection on “commission”).

    Snyder used the capital-intensive pipe network as a choke point. It was a single, central place nobody paid any attention where he could steal a fortune with a game of three card monte. He substituted inferior water that then damaged the already dodgy pipes to the point they were unusable thanks to corrosion. Somebody, somewhere pocketed the money that was “saved” – probably a class warfare transfer in the form of a tax cut. To sum up, the governor and his cronies are just another batch of counterfeiters. He took good water away, substituted bad and then tried to discredit all the auditors who caught on to the “funny money,” if you will. It’s the same scam that’s been run at S&Ls, hedge funds and Chinese milk producers. The attacks on whistleblowers follow the same pattern of Charles Keating against Bill Black.

    If you want to generalize, our money supply isn’t the only public good financiers would like to counterfeit for their schemes. Why do you think the Koch’s obsess so much about the EPA? They want to damage the rest of us by replacing good air with toxic pollution so they can save a few pennies and we can endure horrendous losses.

    In essence all across America, from private prisons to charter schools and national security contractors, you’re witnessing politicians “privatizing” government functions so they can take an end-run around Progressive Era budget controls and pocket the tax dollars. Nothing’s done in Washington unless it can be used as an excuse to stuff the wallets of lobbyists. To that end, everything from unions and civil service protections to contracting bid regulations are under assault. Corporate ownership and money transfer (especially to campaigns) is anonymous. Our services degrade, economic growth suffers and we endure grievous injuries while our vast wealth is embezzled. The result isn’t “efficiency”; it’s ransom, kidnapping and extortion. The only efficiency that counts here is in collecting political rents.

    While lead is on the radar, we need to talk about the “Crack epidemic” crime wave of the 1980s which was really the second great lead-driven crime epidemic of the Twentieth Century. It was all due to counterfeit “leaded” gasoline. If we can’t talk right now about how much cheaper lead abatement would be in these neighborhoods than incarceration, then we’ll never be able to address it.

    We’ve also counterfeited food by taking fiber out of the food supply and then lying on TV about how good the processed pseudofood is. It’s another pollutant because fiber is an essential component of human nutrition. Without it, you suffer from fiber-deficiency – inflammation and insulin resistance. Pseudofood raises autism, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, acne and polycystic ovary risk in populations who consume it – yet you never see the full information about this disclosed. Without transparency, there is no free market. Yet when it comes to providing that information they always find plenty of resources to cook up cute jingles and cartoon characters that keep us distracted from the real shell game. Like all counterfeiters, they have to spend so much money on symbolism precisely because the underlying reality is so toxic.

    The game’s gotten so expensive these days, it would just be cheaper for all of us to do it the right way in the first place. The system is poised on the edge of realizing this right now. Flint is one more electric shock to a sleeping giant.

    1. SufferinSuccotash

      To paraphrase the late Maggie Thatcher, there’s no such thing as government–there are creditors and there are cops. Of course there’s no genuine market economy either, because to have that you need accurate appraisals of value, and to have that the market needs to be regulated, and to have that you need, um, government.

    2. Carla

      Wade Riddick, this is one of the very best online comments I have ever seen, anywhere. It should be published as a stand-alone Op-Ed and widely distributed. Kudos to you!

  10. Frank Shannon

    It is not only about minorities. Flint Michigan is about 40% white. The neoliberals didn’t have any qualms about poisoning 40,000 white people.

    1. JTMcPhee

      The real category probably ought to be “mopes.” The powerless disorganized distracted mass of humans, carried forward day by day by nothing but the momentum generated by a search for spurious pleasures and a disinclination to die. Skin tones provide means of manipulation for the dysleadership, of all flavors, but the folks who do the torturing don’t really distinguish — just steal from the weakest.

      1. Vatch

        The powerless disorganized distracted mass of humans

        Hey! Today’s Super Bowl Sunday! One of the biggest distractions of the year! Panem et circenses, except nowadays, the oligarchs are trying to avoid providing the bread…..

  11. cnchal

    I am still waiting for a smoking gun email where there were warnings from Flint government water works managers to Snyder’s appointee, that switching to the Flint River would have these consequences.

    If there isn’t at least one, it means that the city managers of Flint’s water supply are egregiously incompetent or were threatened by the emergency manager and kept silent to save their paycheck.

    I would like to point out to Mr Hightower, that state and local governments are run like a business, in that they are not currency issuers and can’t just print money to pay obligations. The money has to come from taxing local business profits and the employees of those businesses.

    What I find ironic, is that the plutocrats that closed Flint manufacturing facilities and moved them to China, where they could abuse the workers and pollute without consequence are running the same playbook here now, just on a larger scale where entire cities are being destroyed.

    Welcome to Flint, Michigan. This impoverished, mostly African-American city has indeed been run like a private corporation since Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed his “emergency manager” to seize control of Flint’s heavily indebted local government.

    Flint’s economy doesn’t have enough wealth generating profitable businesses to tax anymore. Globalization is the reason, and the root cause of Flint’s and many other cities and states financial plight.

    1. diptherio

      Plenty of blame to go around, I’m sure, and far more heads than just that of the Gov. should be rolling over this (figuratively, of course).

      What I want to know is how much of Flint’s debt is due to interest rate swaps that were subject to bankster manipulation of LIBOR. Also, no one seems to mention that all of Flint’s debt is likely covered by muni bond insurance. It seems like defaulting on the debt and letting the insurers deal with it would be a superior outcome to poisoning everybody to try to make those payments, right?

      I mean, if they were REALLY running Flint like a business, they would have declared bankruptcy, created a new municipal entity to purchase their assets, let the creditors fight it out over the scraps, and then ‘re-opened’ a few days later with their assets still in tact and none of the debt. I think it’s called a 311 sale or 511 sale or something like that. This is one area where Donald Trump probably would have some useful advice to give on governance.

  12. DakotabornKansan

    Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and therefore a basic human right.

    The Flint and Detroit water calamities are perfect examples of structural violence.

    “Structural violence is one way of describing social arrangements that put individuals and populations in harm’s way… The arrangements are structural because they are embedded in the political and economic organization of our social world; they are violent because they cause injury to people … neither culture nor pure individual will is at fault; rather, historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces conspire to constrain individual agency. Structural violence is visited upon all those whose social status denies them access to the fruits of scientific and social progress.” – Paul Farmer

  13. mad as hell.

    The water crisis in Flint is a blatant attempt to subjugate it’s citizens to poisoning. This was done by some Michigan authorities with their hand knowingly turning on the deadly spigot. By now you would think that people would be setting up the barricades and beginning a revolt. My God, those in charge knew the water they were giving them was polluted and still they did it and continue to get away with it.

    These man made disasters affecting the poor and the minorities of this country keep piling up on each other like cars on a foggy California freeway
    If these actions can not get a populace to literally revolt then how BAD does it need to get in order for people to say enough? Apparently it’s going to have to be a lot worse and it’s going to be awhile !

    1. perpetualWAR

      Correct. When the government had to alter the water source to the auto manufacturing plant, they KNEW they shouldn’t have allowed people to continue drinking the filthy stuff.

  14. Eric

    Excellent exposition of a key aspect of one of the most pernicious aspects of our time, MBA-Mind. “Run it like a business” has been used to justify financial extraction on too many of our precious systems including government, education, and healthcare. Thanks for publishing Jim’s piece here.

  15. perpetualWAR

    The article is a good expose, however the author makes one fatal error: It’s not just the right wing doing this, it is both political parties.

  16. John

    I started reading Michael Hudson’s Killing the Host just yesterday. In the early chapters he addresses the question of the commons and certainly public water supplies are part of the commons. He observes that the classical economists foresaw or observed a mixed economy where community necessities were in public hands and were run to the benefit of all and not the profit of a few. An earlier comment stated that Governor Snyder’s goal is the privatization of all Great Lakes water realizing some enormous profit. Whether this is the case or not, what has been done to Flint is immoral, unethical, perhaps not illegal, but certainly despicable. Not all of life is about cutting costs and paying the bondholders. Hudson also observes that sort of austerity is the road to ruin.

  17. JTMcPhee

    Some of our fellow humans are apparently still alive and trapped under the rubble of apartment buildings in Tainan, Taiwan. Said buildings appear to have collapsed as a result of fraudulent construction. This in a nation or whatever one chooses to call it, that was “established” by a gang of “conservatives” led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, who invaded and oppressed the “native” Formosans with a little help from the good old USA. Part of “who lost China.” All that is an aside to observing that there’s a little moral from the fable, a reminder how corruption and corruption and corruption and still more corruption is baked into everything these days. Takata airbag exploders, F-35s, FIRE, the “electoral process,” on and on — in the Tainan building collapses, more of the same self-seeking pleasure-building (via money grabbing) behavior that in just that category, “building collapses in earthquakes and structural fails,” is present all across the planet.

    And any bets, in the corruption that is the political economy in Taiwan, starting with the Anschluss of the Kuomintang, that there will be “consequences” for any of the behind-the-corporate-veil, protected-by-cronyism-and-baksheesh individuals who decided to leave out the rebar and mesh, cut the quality of the concrete mix, all that stuff? Any more than our more local banksters and corruptniks? Stuff like this is “not encouraging:” http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2015/02/15/13-people-from-same-family-killed-after-building-collapses-in-India/3971424046751/

    Or this:

    The Latest: Families worry if collapse victims get justice

    Relatives of six people killed in a Philadelphia building collapse in 2013 say they are distressed that some people they deem responsible have not been punished.

    Their comments come as two demolition contractors hired at a cut-rate price to take down an empty store are being sentenced Friday for the deaths.

    Contractors Griffin Campbell and Sean Benschop (BEN-‘skop) face sentencing for involuntary manslaughter and other crimes. Campbell’s wife says he hoped the $112,000 contract would be his big break after years running a lunch truck.

    Prosecutors say Campbell ignored safety standards before a towering brick wall collapsed onto a thrift store.

    City Treasurer Nancy Winkler calls it “disturbing and distressing” that they had to sue the building owner and others to seek full justice over the collapse that killed her 24-year-old daughter.

    Two demolition contractors being sentenced in a deadly Philadelphia building collapse admit some responsibility but they also call themselves scapegoats for the people who hired them.

    Prosecutors say contractor Griffin Campbell cut corners and caused a four-story brick wall to collapse on an adjacent thrift store two years ago, killing six people and injuring a dozen others.

    Campbell was hired at a fraction of the going rate for the job.

    Prosecutors will ask a judge Friday to sentence Campbell to 25 to 50 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and other charges. A jury cleared him of third-degree murder.

    Subcontractor Sean Benschop (BEN’-skop) pleaded guilty to the involuntary manslaughter counts. He could get far less time for his trial testimony against Griffin.http://www.lockhaven.com/page/content.detail/id/1013619/The-Latest–Families-worry-if-collapse-victims-get-justice.html?isap=1&nav=5050

    Or on a bigger scale, this: 2013 Savar building collapse

    The 2013 Savar building collapse or Rana Plaza collapse was a structural failure that occurred on Wednesday, 24 April 2013 in the Savar Upazila of Dhaka, Bangladesh where an eight-story commercial building named Rana Plaza collapsed. The search for the dead ended on 13 May 2013 with a death toll of 1,130.[2] Approximately 2,500 injured people were rescued from the building alive.[4]

    It is considered the deadliest garment-factory accident in history, as well as the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern human history.[5][6]

    The building contained clothing factories, a bank, apartments, and several shops. The shops and the bank on the lower floors immediately closed after cracks were discovered in the building.[7][8][9] Warnings to avoid using the building after cracks appeared the day before had been ignored. Garment workers were ordered to return the following day and the building collapsed during the morning rush-hour.[10]

    In a “disturbing and disheartening” December 2015 report by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, found that more than two years after the Rana Plaza disaster only eight of the factories inspected out of 3,425 had “remedied violations enough to pass a final inspection” despite the international community’s $280 million commitment to clean up Bangladesh’s RMG industry.[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Savar_building_collapse

    Unlucky number 2013…

    And one last shot, an episode with an article that actually provides some larger context: http://dailycommercialnews.com/Projects/News/2006/1/Wet-concrete-contributed-to-building-collapse-DCN017684W/ Note how the military is quickly into this setup, as proof of “humanitarian utility” of their sector.

    Some grieving relatives and friends are starting to do a little vigilante self-help “justice,” too…

  18. Denis Drew

    I don’t understand why Flint cannot — just as fast — switch back to Lake Huron water. If leaded water has contaminated Flint’s pipes, wouldn’t that gradually wear off (think Grand Canyon)? ???

    1. cnchal

      That is what Governor Rick say’s will happen. By running the right water, with the right chemicals mixed in, the pipes will fix themselves.

      Better living through chemistry! Put that in a glass and drink it, or shower with it. I dare you!

    2. redleg

      The lead in the pipes will continue to leach out for some time. Once the corrosion starts it will only stop when the lead reaches some equilibrium with the water or the pipes are replaced.
      The issue as I understand it (I’m a source water specialist by trade) is chloride level in the river, due to natural salt, road salt, or pollution, plus added chlorine for disinfection caused corrosion to start. Its also causing issues with halomethane compounds (disinfection byproducts) that are also health hazards. This is not a unique problem in switching source water supplies. Normally you would run a pilot study on some old pipe and see how the new water affects the old pipe. But this costs money & takes time, and it isn’t clear if this was done or not.
      But what is crystal clear is that the corrosion control measures required by the Safe Drinking Water Act, specifically adding corrosion inhibitor chemicals such as polyphosphate, were not implemented.

      1. Yves Smith

        It’s not “an equlibrium.”

        The pipes had a coating on the inside. The Flint river water corroded off the COATING. It didn’t corrode the lead.

        Lead will leach into water, period.

        1. redleg

          The coating is carbonate, phosphate, and oxy-hydroxide in water pipes, and it is deposited there from the water in old systems and more recently by adding phosphate. Cement lining was common in larger diameter pipes (16″ and larger) and fittings going back to WW2 era, but before that I’ve only seen a few examples of cement lining with the oldest having a casting date of 1916. Changing the pH of the source water will affect the coating in the pipes either by precipitation or dissolution. This reaction is identified during pilot testing that is the norm for source water switchovers. It isn’t clear what research was done to prepare for Flint’s switch in source water. Based on my professional experience, it appears that this wasn’t done and if it was, the results were ignored.

          The lead comes from lead service lines and lead joints in cast iron pipes, and possibly from old bronze disc gate valves, based on the published results from Flint that show elevated lead levels in water that is from the distribution system and not building specific plumbing. That lead will leach out until 1) there is no more lead to leach out; 2) a coating on the pipe wall is restored that prevents the lead from dissolving; 3) or the pH, Eh, and chloride/fluoride levels reach chemical equilibrium with the lead in the pipes without the formation of scale inside the pipe. All of these three operate on something close to geological time if left to themselves, and manufacturing equilibrium (No.3) is essentially impossible in a large, heterogeneous distribution system due to combinations of metal pipes and fittings, geological materials surrounding the pipes, and that electricians often ground household electrical systems to the water pipes. So left to itself, the lead levels will eventually go down, but it will take decades to centuries to do so and it will vary with location within the system.
          To remedy the situation in a decade, even if the water source is switched back to Detroit, the water distribution system must be replaced or cement lined.

          The corrosion inhibitors, polyphosphate, orthophosphate, etc. do cause a coating to form on the water main, but the conditions in Flint pipes are probably damaged beyond the capabilities of these chemicals, at least in the time scale that is required to stop the leaching.

          But to your comment about lead always leaching into the water:
          prevent the water from touching the lead and the lead can’t leach. If you have a 100 year old lead service line and copper plumbing, your tap water should be no different than that of the distribution system because of the scale coating the pipes. Try this at home – the public water suppliers that I work with, from big sites to small farm towns, all take samples from households for testing when asked.

    3. run75441

      Denniis:

      About 8 miles of the water line was sold by the state making it impossible to go back unless they get access to that pipeline. The KWA was going to build a new pipeline and supply lake water to Flint and the county in which Flint resides.

  19. human

    Depraved indiference is increasingly being seen as the treason it is when performed by those with the public’s trust.

    1. shinola

      “Depraved indiference is increasingly being seen as the treason it is…”

      Really? By whom?

      Certainly not by anyone who “counts”.

  20. TedWa

    I don’t see any mention that state workers were given bottled water many months before government acknowledged that there was a problem. If they didn’t know, why were state workers given bottled water and told to drink that only. This is a national disgrace, unfortunately we’ve been seeing too many of those lately. Are they going to try to tell us that because it was done to pay off the banks that the ones behind this doing the banks bidding are too big to jail?

  21. bob goodwin

    It is certain that a basic service like safe water in cities is an obligation of government. A Republican governor was clearly at the switch with the lead crisis in Flint happened.
    I find the connection to neo-liberalism strained. Flint was a failing city before Republicans existed on the scene, and the fact that there was (likely) corruption at the local level and (certainly) stupidity at the state level is not the root cause of why Flint failed and how it turned into a much more serious problem.
    If Flint were a business, it would declare bankruptcy, all the non-viable parts of the city would be liquidated and the city’s population would right-size to profitability. It is not a business. But it is neither solvent nor viable.
    When the state took the city over, there were no good choices. There were some appallingly bad choices taken. Large amounts of money will now be redirected to Flint to replace pipes, and little more. The lessons from Flint will differ from what Lambert hopes (and should hope). It is now apparent that the ‘cost’ of the state providing city managers to failing cities is that the state must take on stratospheric liabilities for condemnable infrastructure (it took more than a river to leach lead). Rather than replace local politicians when they no longer have the tools to govern, we will likely leave local politicians unattended in the local gruel.
    There are constituencies even less cared for than urban decay. Inmates and the homeless live even lower. Attempts to provide modest infrastructure to the homeless (as my son, who works at a state mental hospital, would say: Being homeless is not illegal, and it shouldn’t be.) have resulted habitat-for-humanity level housing in semi legal compounds in progressive cities. But the inevitable tension is bubbling up: One homeless ‘jungle’ was found to have ‘tens of thousands of health code violations’.
    Establishing a minimum level of wealth, infrastructure or income causes distortions. Economically (i.e. neoliberally), Flint should be abandoned. It is less expensive to start over. But there also needs to be an affordable place for people to live. Somebody is holding the bag today for the catastrophe in Flint, but you can be sure that in the future there will be reluctance to pick up that bag again.

  22. JTMcPhee

    What “the law” says:

    42 U.S. Code § 300i–1 – Tampering with public water systems

    Current through Pub. L. 114-38. (See Public Laws for the current Congress.)

    (a) Tampering
    Any person who tampers with a public water system shall be imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or fined in accordance with title 18, or both.
    (b) Attempt or threat
    Any person who attempts to tamper, or makes a threat to tamper, with a public drinking water system be imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or fined in accordance with title 18, or both.
    (c) Civil penalty
    The Administrator may bring a civil action in the appropriate United States district court (as determined under the provisions of title 28) against any person who tampers, attempts to tamper, or makes a threat to tamper with a public water system. The court may impose on such person a civil penalty of not more than $1,000,000 for such tampering or not more than $100,000 for such attempt or threat.
    (d) “Tamper” defined
    For purposes of this section, the term “tamper” means—
    (1) to introduce a contaminant into a public water system with the intention of harming persons; or
    (2) to otherwise interfere with the operation of a public water system with the intention of harming persons.
    https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/300i-1

    Just try to prove that intent, that mens rea, anyone out there who has jurisdiction to prosecute under this authority. Not too much for malefactors to worry about there…

    And just for giggles, the other entry under the Safe Drinking Water Act or SDWA, the applicable law that EPA can work with, http://www.epa.gov/enforcement/criminal-provisions-safe-drinking-water-act-sdwa, EPA also is supposed to deal with contamination of public water supplies due to intention-to-harm-individuals contamination via underground injection. Enforcement doesn’t hardly happen. Here’s the text of the statute re enforcement of underground water supply rules and program, for anyone who really cares: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/300h-2

    The general SDWA text is at https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/chapter-6A/subchapter-XII, again lots of mealymouthing and hard burdens of proof… Want to see EPA’s scalp belt for water enforcement (civil, at least) since 1998? Look here, http://cfpub.epa.gov/enforcement/cases/, and if you are interested in SDWA civil enforcement, search the page for “safe drinking water” entries. Damn few.

    1. Carla

      We all know that the law does not apply to the powerful and their minions.

      To paraphrase Leona Helmsley: the law is for little people.

  23. Mike G

    government can’t be run like a corporation, as a corporation exists to profit only a few

    Sure it can — that’s their vision for government as well.

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