For the past few weeks, liberals have sought to blame Republican governor Rick Snyder for the lead contamination plaguing Flint, Michigan’s municipal water supply. In office since 2011, Snyder has publicly expressed concern, declared an emergency, activated the National Guard to help distribute bottled water, filters, and test kits, and asked the state legislature for $28 million in emergency funding to address the situation. But some on the left are demanding a villain, and ritual vilification. Thus, in her closing statement at the last presidential debate, Hillary Clinton expressed outrage (and urged “every single American” to be similarly outraged) at Snyder’s supposed indifference to the plight of Flint residents, even suggesting, risibly, that the governor would have handled the matter differently if the residents were affluent and white instead of “poor in many ways and majority African-American.” Bernie Sanders went further and called on Snyder to resign.
This is nonsense, and all the caterwauling is simply the Left’s standard narrative in matters of municipal mismanagement. The essential facts are undisputed. While waiting for a new, long-planned pipeline to Lake Huron to be completed, in 2014 Flint began using the Flint River—previously used for short periods as a backup—as the primary water source for city residents. Though the river water itself was not tainted, without proper treatment it was corrosive enough to leach lead and other heavy metals from Flint’s aging pipes, which caused residents to be exposed to high lead levels. Remarkably, this contamination went undetected for 18 months. Some children in Flint exposed during that time have tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin. The city has now switched back to the previous (safe) water source, and state officials are conducting testing and distributing filters, but beleaguered Flint residents understandably remain alarmed—and uncertain of who to blame.
The fact is, Flint is an urban wasteland—crime-ridden, impoverished, broke—because it is and for decades has been run by incompetent (and in some cases corrupt) politicians who have betrayed their unfortunate constituents. Clinton, Rachel Maddow, Salon.com, and Michael Moore—all of whom have been heaping blame on Snyder—should instead be criticizing the inept local elected officials who ran Flint into the ground over a decade ago. Formerly a vibrant automotive hub flush with high-paying union jobs, Flint has been in economic freefall since the late 1980s. That’s when excessive labor costs and burdensome work rules negotiated by the United Auto Workers led General Motors to relocate production facilities, causing massive layoffs from which Flint never recovered. GM employment in the city fell from a 1978 high of 80,000 to less than 8,000 by 2010.
GM’s departure was accompanied by urban decay, rampant crime (Flint’s per-capita violent-crime rate is seven times the national average), unemployment, poverty, and white flight. Flint has shed half its population since peaking at around 200,000 in the 1960s. About 40 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line. Due to a shrinking tax base and undisciplined spending (especially on bloated city payrolls and lavish pensions for city employees), by 2002 Flint had accrued $30 million in debt, triggering the first in a series of state-imposed “financial emergencies.”
During this period of de facto financial receivership, Flint didn’t maintain its infrastructure (including water mains) adequately, and—strangely—failed to plan for its own supply of potable water. For nearly 50 years, Flint had gotten its water from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, even though Detroit is about 75 miles away. While that source was safe and reliable, the rates Detroit charged were high and continued to increase. As a cost-saving matter, in March 2013 Flint’s all-Democratic mayor and city council voted 7-1 to obtain the city’s water from another source (Lake Huron), upon the completion of a pipeline expected to be ready in 2016. Detroit—also under a state-appointed emergency manager—promptly retaliated against Flint by announcing that it would discontinue providing water in the spring of 2014. City officials now argue about who is responsible for the decision to use the Flint River as the substitute water source and for failing to install a commonly used corrosion-control system to prevent the leaching.
The mayor and city council who presided over this debacle are attempting to shift responsibility to the emergency manager, Darnell Earley (himself a Democrat), and to Governor Snyder for appointing him. Clearly, the decision to use the Flint River as the primary water source without appropriate testing and treatment was a mistake. Even worse was the failure to detect the problem for 18 months. Numerous officials—federal, state, and local—have resigned in the wake of the lead-contamination discovery, including regional EPA head Susan Hedman, the head of Flint’s water-treatment plant, and top officials at the state environmental agency (whose workers are represented by SEIU Local 517).
As a matter of municipal governance, however, providing services such as public safety, roads, sewers, and clean water are local, not state (let alone federal) responsibilities. If Flint’s mayor and city council failed to discharge their responsibilities in a prudent and competent manner, they should be held solely accountable for that dereliction. For local officials to blame an “emergency manager” (appointed due to their own mismanagement) for not avoiding an error they caused is like the proverbial son who murdered his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court, seeking leniency on the grounds that he is an orphan.
The apogee of silliness over Flint’s tainted water, however, is the suggestion that Republican presidential candidates personally help distribute bottled water in Flint, raise funds to help affected residents, and take similar actions to demonstrate their compassion toward—or “solidarity” with—the residents of Flint. It is past time for the residents of failed cities to recognize the cause of the maladies that afflict them, vote out incompetent officials, and accept responsibility for self-government. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once described state and local governments as “laboratories of democracy,” where citizens may try “novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Experimentation is good, but it is essential to assign responsibility for public policy mistakes. Otherwise, we lose the “lesson” of the experiment, and we’re doomed to repeat it. In Flint and other failed cities, the results of the “experiment” are clear. Profligacy, mendacity, and negligence produce poor results—including, ultimately, misery and danger. Flint—like Detroit—is a case in point.
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images