If you happen to read the left-wing, mainstream press or listen at all to the words of the Democratic presidential contenders, you know that there are few more important stories in the United States than the water troubles in Flint, Mich. Unfortunately, however, to the activist Left, the story is much less important for the sorry, sordid truth of the matter than it is for advancing the Narrative — that racist Republicans care little for the environment, hate the poor, and crush the little guy to save a buck.
At first glance, the Flint crisis is among the stories least likely to serve the Narrative. Flint, like most rust-belt cities, has been run by Democrats for generations. And, like many of those same cities, it has been enduring a slow-motion economic and cultural collapse. Its population has fled, it owes more than a billion dollars in unfunded pension liabilities, and it finds itself unable to afford the basic services its remaining population needs to preserve public safety and public health.
Democratic Detroit responded by notifying Flint that it planned to shut off service in spring 2014, leaving Flint with a dilemma: Should it renegotiate with Detroit and pay still higher rates until 2016? Or should it seek a different water source? Flint chose a different water source: the Flint river.
It’s easier to find Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster than it is to pin down responsibility for the switch. Vox, in its lengthy “explainer” says it remains a “point of contentious political debate.” A Huffington Post analysis said, “It’s not clear exactly how the decision was made.”
But whoever made the call, it’s clear enough that it wasn’t made over the objection of the city council. As HuffPo outlines: “The Flint River already served as the city’s official backup,” and “the Flint Water Treatment Plant pumped water several times each year for the sole purpose of making sure it stayed ready.”
The decision, however, was a disaster. The water looked and smelled terrible, residents were outraged, and both the state of Michigan and the federal Environmental Protection Agency dropped the ball. The EPA has said that it knew in April 2015 that “switching the water supply could enhance pipe corrosion and thus increase lead levels in residents’ drinking water,” but it failed to inform the public. The responsible EPA regional administrator, Susan Hedman, resigned last week.
As for the state of Michigan, its Department of Environmental Quality reportedly advised the city to “monitor the water for a year.” But merely “monitoring” the water was the wrong call. Flint residents were being poisoned by the day.
But the Left is unmatched in its ability to capitalize on a crisis to call for more money and more control. Writing in the Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel says the real lesson is that government just wasn’t big enough, declaring the crisis “a direct consequence of decades of policies based on the premise that government spending is always a problem and never a solution.” Yet Flint’s extraordinary government spending was the reason for its near-bankruptcy. A more than billion-dollar unfunded pension liability is not a sign of municipal frugality.
As if our nation needs more divisive identity politics, Hillary Clinton stepped in to racialize the controversy, saying, “If it had been a rich white suburb where the water was brown and smelly, people would have come immediately to the rescue of those families.” The New York Times has piled on, taking aim at emergency-manager laws and noting their role in overriding home rule in “largely black jurisdictions.”
Is there any issue where a good broadside against systemic racism won’t put you on the side of the angels?
Here we go again. Is there any problem that more money won’t solve? Is there any issue where a good broadside against systemic racism won’t put you on the side of the angels? But for its combination of talking-point discipline and complete lunacy, nothing beats this Chris Hayes segment from MSNBC, in which he manages to link the Flint crisis to Jeb Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise.
You see, if the fat cats who contributed to his PAC had only diverted some of that money to Flint, it could have kept paying Detroit rates, and no one would be sick. Yes, he actually made that point. Out loud.
By that standard, Flint is anybody’s fault. It’s everybody’s fault. If only Disney had contributed a tiny percentage of its Star Wars profits to Flint, everything would be okay. If only Apple had diverted some of its iPhone sales or Starbucks some of the proceeds from its Christmas-hating mochas, Flint would be lead-free. By the Chris Hayes principle, now Flint is the corporate Left’s fault.
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The fact of the matter is that Flint, the state of Michigan, and the EPA had all the resources they needed to do the right thing, and the human beings involved failed. Miserably. Money can’t fix human frailty. Indeed, money often enables and perpetuates the worst forms of misconduct and incompetence. The only thing that truly deters future failure is the one thing that politicians and bureaucrats shun the most — the same level of accountability that you and I face when we fail in our private-sector jobs: termination, humiliation, and a sad stint in the unemployment line.
Before we let the Left yell more about racism and turn every crisis into an opportunity to demand still more power and more money, I’ve got a novel idea — let’s give competence a try.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.