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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