A Philosopher's Blog

Flint’s Water

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2016

Like all too many American cities and towns, the Michigan city of Flint faces dire financial woes. To address these woes, the state stepped in and bypassed local officials with the goal of cutting the budget of the city. One aspect of the solution was to switch Flint’s water supply to a cheaper source, specifically a polluted river. Another aspect seems to have been to decline to pay the $100 per day cost of treating the water in accord with federal regulations. The result was that the corrosive water started dissolving the pipes. Since many of the pipes in the city are made of lead, this resulted in citizens getting lead poisoning. This includes children, who are especially vulnerable to the damage caused by this toxin.

More troubling, it has been claimed that the state was aware of the problem and officials decided to cover it up. The state also apparently tried to discredit the research conducted by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha before finally admitting to the truth.

There have been various attempts to explain why this occurred, with filmmaker Michael Moore presenting the hypothesis that it was an attempt at “racist genocide.” This claim does have a certain appeal, given that the poor and minorities have been impacted by the corrosive water. Apparently the corrosive water has far less effect on newer infrastructure, which tends to be in areas that are better off economically. It is also appealing in that it is consistent with the fact of institutional racism that still plagues America. However, before rushing to accept the genocide hypothesis, it is worth considering alternative explanations.

One alternative is that the initial problem arose from political ideology. There is the view that the most important objective is reducing the spending of the state (typically to also lower taxes). Going along with this is also an opposition to federal regulations. Switching to the corrosive water and not treating it was initially cheaper and certainly evaded the regulations governing drinking water treatment. That said, the approach taken by the state did go against some professed conservative values, namely favoring local control and being opposed to government overreach. However, these values have been shown to be extremely flexible. For example, many state legislatures have passed laws forbidden local governments from banning fracking. As such, the initial action was consistent with the ideology.

In regards to the fact that the impact has been heaviest on the poor and minorities, this need not be driven by racism. An alternative explanation is that the policy was aimed not on the basis of race, but on the basis of power and influence. It is, of course, the case that the poor lack power and minorities are often poor. Since the poor lack the resources to resist harm and to buy influence, they are the most common target of budget cuts. Because of this, racism might not be the main factor.

In regards to the ensuing cover up, it might have begun with wishful thinking: the state officials did not want to believe that there was a problem. As such, they refused to accept that it existed. People are very good at denial, even when doing so is harmful to themselves. For example, many who do not take good care of themselves engage in wishful thinking in regards to the consequences their unhealthy behavior. It is, obviously, even easier to engage in wishful thinking when the harm is being suffered by others. Once the cover up progressed, the explanation is rather easy: people engage in a cover-up in the hopes of avoiding the consequences of their actions. However, as is so often the case, the cover-up has resulted in far more damage than a quick and honest admission.

This ongoing incident in Flint does show some important things. First, it does indicate that some traditional conservative claims are true: government can be the problem and local authorities can be better at decision making. Of course, government was the problem in this case because the focus was on saving a little money rather than ensuring the safety of the citizens.

Second, it serves as yet another example of poor assessment of consequences resulting from a shortsighted commitment to savings. This attempt at saving has done irreparable harm to many citizens (including children) and will cost millions of dollars to address. As such, this ill-considered attempt to save money has instead resulted in massive costs.

Third, it serves as yet another lesson in the fact that government regulations can be good. If the state had spent the $100 a day to treat the water in accord with federal regulations, then this problem would have not occurred. This is certainly something that people should consider when politicians condemn and call for eliminating regulations. This is not to claim that all regulations are good—but it is to claim that a blanket opposition to regulations is shortsighted and unwise.

I would like to say that the Flint disaster will result in significant changes. I do think it will have some impact—cities and towns are, no doubt, checking their water and assessing their infrastructure. However, the lessons will soon fade until it is time for a new disaster.

 

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 21, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    Flint’s water crisis is not simply about some evil, racist Republican who didn’t care about poisoning children: http://thefederalist.com/2016/01/19/hillary-clinton-cant-blame-michigans-governor-for-flints-water/

  2. TJB said, on January 21, 2016 at 8:34 pm

    This is an example of government failing at every level.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 22, 2016 at 1:58 pm

      True-it will serve as a case study for systematic failures. It also helps explain the ever growing appeal of political outsiders-business as usual will kill us all.

  3. nailheadtom said, on January 22, 2016 at 10:43 am

    “It is also appealing in that it is consistent with the fact of institutional racism that still plagues America.”

    Yup, every problem in the US of A has a “racist” element. And the only race at a disadvantage are blacks, in spite of the fact that the most important person in the country is kind of black (although not descended from slaves), many highly paid entertainers, executives, athletes, etc. have, at least in part, an African genetic background. Of course, we’re not worried at all about the drinking water on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota or the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona or the Bois Forte Reservation in Minnesota. Those people are just Indians and some of them have CASINOS so it’s all O.K. None of the blacks alive today in America have ever been slaves. None of their forefathers were ever the targets of an official US government policy of extermination. But the native Americans are even now second class citizens (They didn’t become legal citizens until 1928.) Their land stolen or swindled away, they’re now sequestered in the least desirable parts of a country that once belonged to them exclusively. Worry about the US black population is hypocrisy in high heels and fishnet stockings.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 22, 2016 at 1:57 pm

      Saying institutional racism exists is not the same as saying every problem has a racist element.

      I do have moral concern about everyone. I have Mohawk ancestry, so I do have some special concern for native Americans.

      • WTP said, on January 22, 2016 at 3:16 pm

        I have Irish ancestry. NINA! Potato famine! I’m special, too! But I also have too much self respect to piss on about shit that happened 50-100-200 years ago and whine about how it persists to this day. Now you can find certain areas of Boston, Chicago, etc. where you can bend an elbow with one of the clan and hear his pissy complaints as well. Not everything bad that happens to you happens because you’re an oppressed minority.

      • nailheadtom said, on January 23, 2016 at 1:13 am

        There isn’t a day that goes by without some mention, somewhere, across the fruited plain of the terrible situation for blacks. The other physically identifiable minority groups, the native Americans, Hmong, Karen, Viet Namese, Japanese, Filipino, Chinese and others are ignored in favor of blacks. This has been the case simply for political reasons, blacks having been a cause celebre for over 200 years in the New England Puritan’s continuation of the English Revolution, the basis for the American Revolution and the War Between the States.

        • TJB said, on January 23, 2016 at 12:31 pm

          A moment’s thought reveals that we are all descendants of slaves.

  4. WTP said, on January 22, 2016 at 3:06 pm

    Shit happens to white people too:

    Timothy Schroeder did not. He was a cement technician by trade, dealing with the factories only if they needed a pathway poured, or a small foundation set. Tim and his wife, Karen, lived in a ranch-style home with a brick and wood exterior at 460 99th Street. They saved all the money they could to redecorate the inside and to make such additions as a cement patio, covered with an extended roof. One of the Schroeders’ most cherished purchases was a Fiberglas pool, built into the ground and enclosed by a redwood fence.

    Karen looked from a back window one morning in October 1974, noting with distress that the pool had suddenly risen two feet above the ground. She called Tim to tell him about it. Karen then had no way of knowing that this was the first sign of what would prove to be a punishing family and economic tragedy.

    Mrs. Schroeder believed that the cause of the uplift was the unusual groundwater flow of the area. Twenty-one years before, an abandoned hydroelectric canal directly behind their house had been backfilled with industrial rubble. The underground breaches created by this disturbance, aided by the marshland nature of the region’s surficial layer, collected large volumes of rainfall and undermined the back yard. The Schroeders allowed the pool to remain in its precarious position until the following summer and then pulled it from the ground, intending to pour a new pool, cast in cement. This they were unable to do, for the gaping excavation immediately filled with what Karen called “chemical water,” rancid liquids of yellow and orchid and blue. These same chemicals had mixed with the groundwater and flooded the entire yard, attacking the redwood posts with such a caustic bite that one day the fence simply collapsed. When the chemicals receded in the dry weather, they left the gardens and shrubs withered and scorched, as if by a brush fire.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1979/12/love-canal-and-the-poisoning-of-america/376297/

  5. WTP said, on January 22, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    Not to say that this isn’t a complete abomination on the part of the parties involved, though I mostly blame the GOP governor for this. If he had appointed the best person for the job, this problem would not have happened. It was his responsibility to do the right thing and politics be damned. But I’m very sure, in a purple-leaning-blue state like Michigan, he was trying to do the politically correct thing. And further more, Michael Moore is still a giant douche who was fading away but now he’s back to do his usual BS on the populist kind of gadfly platform on which he thrives.

  6. TJB said, on January 22, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    This is interesting. If Detroit has not cut off Flint’s water, they would not have had to get water from the Flint river.

    While under the authority of a state-appointed emergency manager, the decision is made in 2013 for the city of Flint to stop buying water from the city of Detroit in favor of a new pipeline project from Lake Huron. On the day Flint joined the new pipeline effort, Detroit notified the city it would stop selling it water as of April 2014, forcing Flint to find a new water source.

    http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2016/01/flint_water_crisis_what_you_ne.html

  7. TJB said, on January 23, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Government failure on this issue is nothing new. The question is why people like Mike seem to think we need more government to solve our problems. Government fails, so obviously we need more government. Fits Einstein’s definition of insanity, doesn’t it?

    In The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, Werner Troesken looks at a long-running environmental and public health catastrophe: 150 years of lead pipes in local water systems and the associated sickness, premature death, political inaction, and social denial. The harmful effects of lead water pipes became apparent almost as soon as cities the world over began to install them. Doctors and scientists noted cases of acute illness and death attributable to lead in public water beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, and an editorial in the New York Herald called for the city to study the matter after a bizarre illness made headlines in 1868. But officials took no action for many years. New York City, for example, did not take any steps to reduce lead levels in water until 1992, long after the most serious damage had been done. By then, in any case, much of the old lead pipe had been replaced with safer materials.Troesken examines the health effects of lead exposure, analyzing cases from New York City, Boston, and Glasgow and many smaller towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and England. He draws on period accounts, government reports, court decisions, and economic and demographic analysis to document the widespread nature of the problem, the recognized health effects–particularly for pregnant women and young children–and official intransigence. He presents an accessible overview of the old and new science of lead exposure–explaining, for example, why areas with soft water suffered more harmful effects than areas with hard water. And he gives us compelling and vivid accounts of the people and politics involved. The effects of lead in water continue to be felt; many older houses still have lead service pipes. The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster is essential reading for understanding this past and ongoing public health problem.

    https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/great-lead-water-pipe-disaster

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 29, 2016 at 3:58 pm

      I’ve never claimed that more government solves problems. Government is analogous to coaching: more does not always make things better. What is needed is an adequate amount of good quality government.

      • TJB said, on January 29, 2016 at 8:14 pm

        “What is needed is an adequate amount of good quality government.”

        Can you point to a single example among your thousands of posts in which you concluded there was too much government?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 1, 2016 at 7:48 pm

          Sure. See my response to the big soda ban in NYC.

          • TJB said, on February 1, 2016 at 9:21 pm

            Since the ban never actually went into effect, technically you were against a *proposed* expansion of government. Can you point to an example in which you concluded that an existing government policy went too far?

            • TJB said, on February 1, 2016 at 10:39 pm

              Let me rephrase. Can you point to an example where you came down on the side of individual liberty vs. the collective power of the state?

            • WTP said, on February 2, 2016 at 10:45 am

              You’re pitching softballs TJ. All that matters is the world as Mike imagines it, thus if Mike favors higher taxes so that more money can be spent on the “freedom” of individuals to attend college, in his universe this is siding with individual liberty.

              I mean you might as well ask if he can point to an example where he was wrong about anything substantive.
              You have to look at the world from Mike’s perspective. It is simply the only way to argue in the universe of Mike. Again, see the “A Philosopher’s view of the world…assuming it exists” subtitle of the blog. Solipsism and sophistry are the best of friends.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 3, 2016 at 6:10 pm

              State legislatures forbidding local control in regards to fracking.

            • wtp said, on February 3, 2016 at 7:03 pm

              “Local control”..lolz..

            • wtp said, on February 3, 2016 at 10:13 pm

              Now that i’m at a keyboard…

              TJ, is this not the same sort of thing I pointed out above, re thus if Mike favors higher taxes so that more money can be spent on the “freedom” of individuals to attend college, in his universe this is siding with individual liberty.

              What goes on in Mike’s head is far more absurd than any Trump idea, even a Mexico wall. You have to see the world from inside Mike’s head. You must cater to his solipsism. It is the only way.


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