Acton Commentary

Lessons of the Flint Water Crisis

As a native of Flint, Michigan, I am very saddened by the contaminated water crisis that has broken out in my hometown and has now gathered international attention. What’s even sadder is that I am not terribly shocked that such a crisis could take place there. Flint has long been Exhibit A in the story of the decline and fall of a once-proud industrial city in the age of globalization; it is also a prime example of why monopolies in politics, business and labor are inherently prone to collusion, complacency and even corruption. Flint is what happens when we avoid competition out of a false sense of “solidarity.”

I was first tipped off to the crisis when I was home for Christmas in 2014 and getting all the snow, slush and salt washed off my mother’s car during that brutal winter. The carwash attendant asked if I was a local; when I explained my exodus from Flint to Rome, Italy, he responded, “You’re a wise man.” Considering Flint has lost more than half its population since 1960, such wisdom is quite unremarkable, so I asked him what he meant. He replied, “Man, the city is poisoning the water!”

After looking into the matter (and ensuring that my mother’s home in Flint Township had a different water supply than the city), I discovered the attendant was talking about the water supply that had been sourced from the Flint River since April 2014. Flint had been purchasing its water from Detroit since 1967 and anyone in Flint would be automatically suspect of drinking from or even going near the river. (It’s hard for outsiders to understand that people in Flint actually do go to Detroit of all places for improved services.) “Who in their right mind would take drinking water from the Flint River?” was my immediate reaction.

Trying to reduce its water expenses, Flint decided to switch its provider from one in Detroit to one tapping into Lake Huron. The new pipelines weren’t ready, so the Flint River became the temporary source. Rashes, hair loss and other problems became apparent almost immediately, but city, state and federal officials assured everyone the water was safe, when it obviously was not. It turned out that the river’s water was corroding the pipes and causing rust, iron and lead to leak into the water. The first two can be seen and smelt, the third cannot and is the most damaging to health.

My Acton colleague Joe Carter has put together a useful explainer of the whole thing. Because Flint is largely a poor, African-American city in a state with a white, former businessman, Republican governor, it did not take long for usual partisan politics to enter the picture. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders predictably attacked Gov.  Rick Snyder, as have the national media, celebrities, race-hustlers like Jesse Jackson and, of course, the native son who has most hypocritically profited from the city’s disgrace over the years, Michael Moore.

Snyder takes most of the blame for responding slowly to the crisis, but what really angers the left is his appointment of an “Emergency Manager” to run the city from 2011 to 2015. They cry in unison: How undemocratic! Well, none of them ever ask why Flint (as well as Detroit, Pontiac, and Benton Harbor, all with largely African-American populations) required such a manager in the first place. Flint’s politicians were notoriously incompetent and corrupt, plunging it into bankruptcy which forced the State of Michigan to take it into receivership. Another unmentioned fact: the city was run almost exclusively by the Democratic Party. This one-party rule has left Flint with massive unfunded liabilities and a shrinking tax base. Seventy-five percent of the households in Flint are single-parent and it has been one of the most violent cities in the country for decades. It is a political, social and economic basket case.

You may think it unfair to blame this all on Democrats and you would be right. They were willingly assisted by General Motors and the United Auto Workers. Taken altogether, Democrats, GM executives and UAW bosses did all they possibly could to lock out competition and control the city. Admittedly, Flint was a good place to live for a few decades after World War II: the cost of living was low and “Generous Motors” lavishly paid for all kinds of benefits, including full health-care costs for employees and their dependents (which is why doctors like my father moved to Flint) at the behest of the UAW which funded and kept Democrats in office as well. GM employees received massive discounts on the latest model cars. When I was growing up, the average GM blue-collar worker had so much extra pocket money that a summer home and boat in the northern part of the state were not at all unusual.

It was all too good to be true. Once the OPEC oil shocks hit in the 1970s, GM was in no position to compete with foreign automakers and their more fuel-efficient vehicles; when foreign automakers built plants in the United States, they went to places like Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee where labor unions were not as entrenched.  Even after GM’s decline, however, the UAW and Democrats still controlled Flint and proceeded to drive it straight into the ground. Genesee County, in which Flint is located, was one of the few in Michigan to vote against Ronald Reagan in 1980 and just barely voted for him in 1984.The prevailing mentality of a one-party, one-employer, one-union city remains one of entitlement and oblivious to changing realities.

Would Flint have become Silicon Valley if it had embraced competition as a way of life? Of course not; but at least it would have been more adaptable and better prepared for the changes that were to come. Instead, it relies on someone else (usually the government in Lansing or Washington) to solve its problems anytime something goes wrong. Enterprising and even just normal people looking for a decent life have had little choice but to leave Flint; only the most resilient and, tragically, most hopeless remain.

As all the media attention attests, the sad story of Flint is not limited to itself. The entitlement mentality is like a drug ruining not just American cities but spreading to the country as a whole. People everywhere say they want smaller government except when it comes to their own benefits, which are considered untouchable. George Will says the American people are “ideologically conservative but operationally liberal.” This mentality is clearly influencing the populist election cycle of 2016 where we reward the candidates who promise to protect us from the ravages of a global economy. I can think of no surer way to turn the entire United States of America into a coast-to-coast version of Flint.

Of course, some people are upset that bottled water may be the answer, at least in the short-term. I have already written why there is no “right to water” and the current crisis is further proof that conflating human needs with public benefits is a sure way to degrade both. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, if you think water is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it is free. Larger American cities like Detroit and Chicago have similar problems of cronyism and must change before they suffer similar catastrophes on an even grander scale. And the rest of the country needs to wake up and resist the siren’s call of economic populism. Trust me, I’m from Flint.

Kishore Jayabalan is director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office.