How Michigan literally poisoned an entire city to save a few bucks
Being cheap is sometimes very expensive
You know what's bad? Brain damage.
Flint, Michigan, is finding this out after it accidentally gave its entire population at least a little bit of lead poisoning when it switched up their water supply. In an attempt to save money for a cash-strapped city, Flint started drinking water from the Flint River — but ended up contaminating children with a poisonous heavy metal. Governor Rick Snyder has declared a state of emergency, and the federal government is investigating.
Why on Earth did they do this? Austerity. Aside from the obvious humanitarian disaster, this is a stark demonstration of austerity's false economy. Trying to be cheap on Flint's water supply will end up costing the state of Michigan (and probably the country as a whole) a ton more money than it would have to fix it properly in the first place.
Flint, as you may have heard, has been an economic disaster zone for decades now. What was once a key part of the great Midwest industrial powerhouse — General Motors was founded there over a century ago — has been troubled since the 1970s, beset by deindustrialization, population loss, a collapsing tax base, and the inevitable concomitant spike in crime and poverty.
Of course such a situation is going to require some painful downsizing of local services, which has been partially accomplished under a succession of emergency managers imposed by the Michigan state government with a tremendous amount of legal scuffling. While some cuts or tax increases are surely necessary, in such a situation it's critical to lay out a trajectory to future fiscal sustainability to avoid a death spiral.
Ideally, this is where the state or federal government would step in, making sure that pain is spread around equitably — particularly to bondholders, who probably knew exactly who they were lending to — and the city doesn't get stuck in legal limbo for years on end.
But emergency managers, particularly the ones appointed by Governor Snyder (a Republican) have been far more focused on cuts for their own sake, particularly crushing unionized public sector workers. The idea to temporarily use Flint River water while another pipeline was being constructed was one of those cost-saving measures.
It was immediately obvious that the water was filthy, and residents loudly protested that it was cloudy, smelled bad, and tasted worse. General Motors stopped using the water because it was literally corroding their machinery. But Snyder and his handpicked head environmental official Dan Wyant studiously ignored the problem — despite internal warnings of lead poisoning as early as July of last year — until an outside scientific study demonstrated extreme levels of lead in Flint children. In late December — over a year after the water switch — Snyder finally apologized and Wyant quietly resigned.
Lead poisoning is one of the lesser-known great evils of the 20th century. Most notably it may have even caused a great crime wave, as basically the entire population was subjected to minor aerosol lead poisoning from leaded gasoline, resulting in lower IQs and poorer impulse control across the population — and therefore higher crime.
Things have improved since lead was removed from gasoline, but it's still a gigantic problem for many impoverished communities, who can't afford to replace their lead pipes or properly remove flaking lead paint. The threat is greatest for small children, who are most vulnerable to lead poisoning and most likely to eat lead paint (which often has a sweet taste). Freddie Gray, the Baltimore resident whose death in police custody sparked major unrest last year — was just so brain damaged.
Now Snyder has already been forced to pony up over $10 million to switch the Flint water system back to the way it was before (hooked up to Detroit, basically), and the city is asking for some $50 million more to replace lead pipes. But that's very likely only the beginning. Flint's population is roughly 100,000, and several families have already sued state and local officials over the lead issue. It's unclear so far how badly the city's children have been poisoned, but it's a pretty safe bet the state will end up spending tens or perhaps even hundreds of millions on settlements.
And that's where a moral atrocity becomes an economic self-kneecapping. Aside from the cost of settlements, children are the major portion of the future's economic capacity, which depends critically on their ability to function normally. Destroying their brains with heavy metals will rather impede their ability to get the jobs and pay the taxes that will get Flint on a sound fiscal footing.
Being a cheapskate can be expensive indeed.