Politics & Prejudices: Is Flint just the beginning? 

Well, we all know now what happened in Flint. To save a little money, an emergency manager switched the city to unsafe water, and an indifferent state government ignored, denied, and covered up what has happening to the people.

Eventually it all blew up and became an enormous national story. This probably is the effective end of the political career of "laissez-faire Rick" Snyder, the darling of those who wanted to believe anyone from Ann Arbor just had to be a moderate, if not a secret liberal. For five years he has proven his "moderation" by eagerly embracing everything the hard right of his party sends him.

That's the good news. The bad news, of course, is that thousands of children drank and washed in water that qualified as toxic waste, and it will be years before we know how extensive the developmental damage will be.

We have to be vigilant to see that the state does right by these people. But that's not the only thing we need to worry about. The entire nation has neglected its infrastructure for years, and the landscape is dotted with aging, often overlooked small and medium-sized industrial cities.

Think Saginaw, Bay City, Muskegon, Toledo. They all have shrinking populations, fewer good-paying jobs, and less revenue than they once did, both from taxpayers and the state. That spells trouble ahead.

Could Flint have been our "canary in the coal mine"?

For an answer, I turned to professor Charles Ballard of Michigan State University, who is, for my money, the best economist in Michigan. He's a Texas transplant who knows and loves this state, and has written an excellent book, Michigan's Economic Future. So could Flint be just the beginning? "The short answer is yes," Ballard told me. "Flint's problems are even worse than many cities, because to the remarkable magnitude of the loss of its industrial base, but lots of older cities, including Detroit, have similar stories."

Detroit has indeed lost more jobs, but in a percentage sense, Flint lost more and faster. Think of a Detroit one-tenth the size that was essentially a General Motors company town. Then, the bottom fell out.

Seven out of every eight GM jobs disappeared. Here's all you need to know about Flint: Back in 1979, General Motors had more blue-collar workers on the job in Flint than it does today... in the entire country!

No wonder the city has big problems — which were certainly made worse by the state constantly cutting revenue-sharing funds. To be fair, it is entirely possible that those running Flint in the good times failed to invest properly in maintaining the city's infrastructure. Water and sewer pipes aren't sexy.

But they are essential. Flint is in the shape it is in, Ballard said, because "after the loss of so many of the manufacturing jobs that used to provide solid incomes for workers with modest skills, and after decades of flight to the suburbs, what is left behind is a low-income population with aging infrastructure, legacy costs, and an inadequate tax base." If you think that sounds like Detroit... you are right. There are lots of people who will tell you we can't afford to do anything.

Ballard knows that's nonsense. "Michigan has more than enough resources to have fixed the roads and more than enough resources to have supported higher education so that tuition would not have skyrocketed."

And we could afford to do that and fix our infrastructure too.

But we don't.

Why? Apart from not properly taxing those who can easily afford to pay, Ballard says there are two big reasons: "First, we rely a lot on local communities to finance their public sectors." Trouble is, they can't do it on their own.

That's partly because of so-called legacy costs. "It was so easy, decades ago, for elected officials to promise that the city would provide pensions and health care benefits in 2016." Everybody thought back in the boom times that things would keep growing and there would be plenty of money.

But there's not. That may have been short-sighted on the part of the politicians — but there's an even bigger problem, Ballard noted: "Our obsession with tax cuts. State and local government in Michigan and across the country have reduced the percentage of the economy that gets collected in taxes."

That has meant literally billions less to keep civilization working. "In other words, if we were to raise the same percentage of our income in taxes that we raised a few decades ago, we would have billions more every year now. If we allocated those extra billions intelligently, we would have excellent roads and bridges, and we would have avoided the Flint water crisis."

However, there is a small catch — common sense would have been necessary — and a tiny dollop of political courage.

"Yes, it would have required more (gasp) taxes overall, and it would have required more revenue sharing from the state to local governments, and it would have required the political will to tackle the infrastructure problems."

But instead, we've elected tea party fanatics who would rather let the world collapse than ask Dick DeVos to pay a bit more.

And unless that changes soon, we are certain to have more Flints.

Maybe the sewers will collapse in the next city, or the bridges, or some poorly maintained government buildings. Nobody yet knows.

We only know we're letting America fall apart. That's not a movie title, at least not yet. It is, however, a tragedy.

Racism, cheap politics, and hate

You wouldn't think there's any way the Republicans could wiggle free of their responsibility for the Flint mess. Their governor appointed the emergency manager who made the decision. His Department of Environmental Quality fudged data, lied about, covered up, or ignored what was happening to the people.

The governor himself took no action for months after he reluctantly reconnected Flint to Detroit water in early October after it was clear that what the people were drinking was full of lead.

But even Snyder finally manned up enough to take responsibility in last month's State of the State address, telling Flint "I'm sorry most of all that I let you down ... you deserve to know the buck stops with me."

But that wasn't good enough for the haters. Flint residents are mostly poor, mostly black, and vote Democratic, so there's compassion for them in many Republican hearts. They need to be blamed.

Ian Shetron, a conservative "researcher" in Washington, D.C., and a native of nearby Flushing, wrote a column claiming "the lion's share of the responsibility rests with the city." That, he alleged, was because Flint City Council voted "and decided to go to the Flint River as an interim water source."

Except, as the Center for Michigan's truth squad pointed out, this just isn't true; the council, which, incidentally had no power, just voted to eventually connect the city to the new Karegnondi Water Authority, which when finished will use Lake Huron water, just as Detroit does.

Worst of all was a bizarre hate-filled rant by Chuck Moss, a former GOP state representative who blames "UAW Democrats" for everything that happened in what he slyly refers to as a "run-down African-American political stronghold."

Moss also accused the Snyder-appointed emergency manager who made the switch of also being a "UAW Democrat." Unfortunately, he named the wrong man, and for good measure, spelled his name wrong.

Guess Snyder appoints so many of those auto union Democrats to top jobs that an amateur clown like Moss can't keep them straight.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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