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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Race & Unemployment

Posted in Business, Politics, Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 27, 2009

The exact unemployment rate is a rather difficult number to determine. After all, there are various standards for what counts as being unemployed and the methods used to gather data are subject to numerous problems.  However, it it obvious enough that the economic downturn has increased unemployment in the United States.

As I write this, the estimated unemployment rate is about 8.5%. This is the national average and like all averages, it tends to conceal more than it reveals. So, to get a clearer picture of what is really going on, it is necessary to get beyond the average and see what is happening in the specifics.

One specific is location. Different parts of the country have different unemployment rates.  For example, Detroit probably has more unemployment that Tallahassee, Florida.

Another specific is gender: the unemployment rate is higher among men than women. This is due, in large part, to the distinction between the sort of jobs that are dominated by men and those that are dominated by women. For example, construction jobs tend to be male dominated and the construction industry has taken a severe hit.

A third specific is education. The unemployment rate of those who have a college degree is only 4.3% compared to 13.3% for those who lack even a high school education. This is hardly surprising: jobs that require college degrees tend to be more secure and those who are college educated have a broader range of opportunities. For example, a person with a college degree can get jobs that require less than a college degree (although they can face the challenge of being over-educated for the position). In contrast, someone who lacks a high school degree will be very limited in his employment opportunities.

As has  long been the case, getting a college degree is your best bet in terms of getting and keeping a job. Unfortunately, colleges and universities are suffering budget woes and hence tuition will increase as aid decreases. However, there is still a considerable amount of money out there, especially for female and minority students-you just have to look harder for it these days.

As an aside, some people have asked me if my students have become more serious about their studies. After all, the consequences of not getting a college degree have become even more serious and there will be greater competition among those seeking jobs. Interestingly, students have voiced some concerns about the economy, but the level of effort seems to be unchanged. Statistically, the grades are on par with the grades of previous years. This might change if the economic downturn continues. Also, more people might decide to return to college and returning students are generally much more serious than “traditional” students.

Race is also a factor in unemployment. For example, only about 2.3% of white college graduates were unemployed in the final days of 2008.  In contrast, 13.3% of African-Americans were unemployed as were 11.4% of Hispanics.

While it might be tempting to immediately and simply blame racism for the disparity, it is worth undertaking an analysis of the difference in terms of other factors as well.

One factor is the difference in the nature of the employment. For example, Hispanics are commonly employed in the construction field and that field is doing relatively poorly these days. Hence, there would tend to be more unemployed Hispanics than there would be unemployed white college graduates.

Naturally, it can be contended that the distinction in employment is  at least partially the result of racism or factors that involve race. For example, it could be argued that Hispanics and blacks are in job that are more vulnerable because most of the more secure jobs are taken by whites. It could also be argued that race is a factor in who gets let go first-perhaps it is the case that blacks and Hispanics would be more likely to be fired first when a company starts getting into trouble. It would, of course, take further investigation to see if racism is a significant factor in the differences in unemployment figures. After all, a distinction between ethnic groups need not automatically entail that racism is a factor.

Another factor is education. The percentage of whites with college degrees is higher than the percentage of blacks and Hispanics with college degrees. Given that people with college degrees are less likely to be unemployed, this would contribute to the disparity.

This does, of course, raise the question as to why there is a disparity in education and one possible explanation is racism. As such, this specific disparity would be indirectly explained by racism: racism leads to a disparity in education which leads to a disparity in employment.

Of course, there is the fact that the unemployment rate for the college educated is 4.3% while that for white folks with a college degree is 2.3%. In this case, having a college degree cannot be the factor that explains the difference-there would need to be some other factor or factors (including chance, of course).

One possible factor is race. Perhaps white college graduates are able to acquire more secure jobs or are less likely to be let go because of their race. Or there may be other factors that are connected to race.

It is, of course, important to not simply assume that race or racism are the sole factors. There might well be other factors that help explain some of the disparity. For example, there might be a freely chosen employment preferences that are a factor. Perhaps whites are somewhat more inclined to seek employment in fields that have been, by a matter of luck, hit less hard by the economic downturn. Or perhaps location is a factor-perhaps the areas that have been hit hardest have fewer white folks than areas that were hit less hard.

Overall, it does seems reasonable to believe that race and racism are contributing factors to the disparity. However, it should not be assumed that these are the only factors. After all, in order to fix the economic problems we need to have a clear picture of what is causing the problem and getting such a picture requires considering all reasonable possibilities.

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