The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The water crisis in Flint, and the strategy of government failure

Progressives can't just worry about market failure. We also need to do something about government failure.

Flint resident Mycal Anderson, 9, reacts to having his blood drawn for lead testing in Flint, Mich. (Conor Ralph/The Flint via AP)
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For better or worse—I’d guess for worse—I’m a hard-boiled policy wonk who’s been around the block enough times that I see little that surprises or shocks me. But the recently publicized water crisis in Flint, Mich., did both. The depth of government failure, the neglect and mistreatment of an already deeply vulnerable population, the potentially permanent damage to children’s brains, and the series of events that led to this tragic debacle must be carefully examined for at least two reasons.

Flint’s water crisis reveals government failures at every level

First, the fact that the richest economy on the globe failed to provide an essential public good is a symptom of government failure with which we must reckon. Second, such failure is not a benign accident. It’s not a passive failure of lazy oversight. It is a strategy to first break and then discredit the public sector, to undermine trust and inculcate disgust. The beneficiaries of this strategy are the wealthy who will then push for smaller government and tax cuts. Those who pay the price will be people much like those in Flint. And there are many more of the latter than the former.

Here are a few facts of the case, but if you do nothing else, read every word of this WaPo account of what happened in Flint. In early 2014, Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, put Flint, a city that lost its manufacturing base to globalization, under the control of an emergency manager. To save money, the city shifted its water supply from Lake Huron, for which it had to pay Detroit, to the Flint River. Critically, when the switch was made, the state ceased to add anti-corrosion chemicals to the water, and that, according to the Post, “allowed rust, iron and, most dangerous, lead from aging pipes to flow into residents’ homes.”

The citizens noticed the problem right away. “Their tap water was discolored and foul-smelling, they said, and skin rashes appeared after bathing in it.” At that point, the system failed the people of Flint at every level. Snyder’s staff argued that the people in Flint were trying to make the issue into a “political football.” Top regional EPA regulators suppressed a staff memo that raised alarms about lead levels in the water.

Meanwhile, a Flint pediatrician compared kids’ lead levels in their blood before and after the switch, and found that they’d doubled and tripled. State officials dodged once again, accusing the doctor of causing unnecessary hysteria. Finally, outside pressure forced the Michigan government to acknowledge the accuracy of the pediatrician’s data and reverse course.

That is decidedly not a happy ending. Brain damage from lead poisoning is irreversible.

Readers of this column know that I’m always on the lookout for market failures, and they’re not hard to find. The solution to such failures is, by definition, some form of government intervention, such as temporary stimulus to offset the collapse of private sector demand in a recession.

But those of us who advocate for such interventions cannot assume away government failure, any more than free-market conservatives can assume away market failures. Progressives can and should make the point that public goods, such as safe water, must be provided by governments as private firms will not adequately provide such goods to everyone. But we cannot go on blithely about the roles and responsibilities of government without confronting government failure.

But how do we do that? For one, we must recognize that government failure is not an accident. It is a strategy of those who benefit from less government. Though they don’t quite put it this way, trust me as someone down in the trenches in this fight when I tell you that I keep running into politicians whose message to their constituents is, in so many words, “Washington is broken. Send me there and I’ll make sure it stays that way.”

Fiscal cliffs, threats to default on the national debt, government shutdowns, the collapse of the budget process, unwillingness to compromise, ignoring facts and science that challenge ideology, and of course, as in Flint, the failure to provide basic public goods—all of these can make people say one of two things: 1) “the government is a corrupt mess of which I want nothing to do with,” or 2) “we cannot have a fair economy or decent society without a well-functioning government. So let’s get to work to make that happen.”

The problem with #1, of course, is that it denies the uncontroversial recognition that quality public goods are a hallmark of an advanced economy, not to mention social insurance, a safety net against poverty, laws against discrimination, and much more. The problem with #2 is it is not clear how to “make that happen.”

It is particularly hard to defend a functioning public sector when the concentration of wealth interacts with our uniquely money-fueled politics and policy. Forty percent of the wealth in this country is held by the top 1 percent of households, and political science has clearly shown that politics favors their preferences and protects their wealth. As Jane Mayer writes in an important new book on the political activities of the hyper-conservative Koch brothers: “…the political policies they embraced benefited their own bottom lines first and foremost. Lowering taxes and rolling back regulations, slashing the welfare state and obliterating the limits on campaign spending might or might not have helped others, but they most certainly strengthened the hand of extreme donors with extreme wealth.”

Meanwhile, 42 percent of Flint residents are poor, compared to 17 percent for the state of Michigan. If money is to rule politics, those impoverished residents haven’t got a chance. Racism is also in play: 57 percent of Flint residents are black, compared to 14 percent statewide.

But here’s the thing. There are a lot more people who need a functioning government than exist in the top 1 percent. There’s also a general election in the offing. We need to hear candidates lay this out. Not just inveighing against the banks and the wealthy, but explaining why #2 above is the essential response, as #1 is untenable. And we need to hear a lot more about the unsexy business of what they’ll do to make the public sector work the way we need it to.

Flint is a wake-up call. The question is, now that we’re awake, what are we going to do about it?