Flint Water Crisis

Liberals Still Say Austerity Poisoned the Water in Flint, Damn the Evidence

Government stimulus caused the disaster, not austerity or privatization.


Stephanie Mitchell / Youtube

From the second the Flint water crisis became a national story, liberal pundits have leapt at the chance to blame all their favorite boogeymen: fiscal austerity, privatization, and greedy Republicans who care more about money than sick kids.

While that narrative was seriously flawed from the beginning, it's absolutely contradicted by significant new developments on the ground. Far from impugning limited government principles, the Flint water crisis is a quintessential example of the failures of government planning and Keynesian economic stimulus.

Enter The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, who is still arguing that the Flint disaster was caused by austerity and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's "private-sector ideology." He writes:

But the Flint disaster, three years in the making, is not a failure of government generally. It's the failure of a specific governing philosophy: Snyder's belief that government works better if run more like a business. …

"You cannot separate what happened in Flint from the state's extreme emergency-management law," said Curt Guyette, who, working for the ACLU of Michigan, uncovered much of the scandal in Flint. "The bottom line is making sure the banks and bond holders get paid at all costs, even if the kids are poisoned with foul river water."

The emergency-manager law, Guyette argued, "is about the taking away of democracy and the imposition of austerity-fueled autocracy on cities that are poor and majority African American."

Milbank is right that Snyder deserves some blame for what happened—but not because he imposed austerity and privatization on Flint. Quite the contrary: the state-led effort to switch Flint's water source was never intended as penny-pinching measure—in fact, it was more expensive than sticking with the old source, according to recently revealed documents. Instead, it was a public works project intended to stimulate the local economy.

As Reason's Shikha Dalmia reported on Monday, sources told her that the state-appointed emergency manager went along with the plan because "Genesee County and Flint authorities saw the new water treatment as a public infrastructure project to create jobs in an area that has never recovered after Michigan's auto industry fled to sunnier business climes elsewhere."

It would be one thing if state officials had imposed a new water source on Flint over the objections of local officials. But there's simply no good evidence that the emergency financial manager's decision to utilize the Flint River was actively opposed by city leadership at the time (although it is true, as Milbank points out, that once problems started arising, the city council did vote after the fact to switch back to Detroit but were overruled by the emergency manager.) Flint Mayor Dayne Walling actually toasted the decision during the Flint River facility's grand opening ceremony, according to mlive.com. This is simply not the story of an austerity-obsessed governor forcing cheap, toxic water on an unwilling populace.

Milbank also commits the serious error of overlooking the pivotal role the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality played in the catastrophe. DEQ doesn't even make an appearance in Milbank's column, even though the regulatory agency's failure to recommend phosphorous treatment when complaints about the water first surfaced exacerbated the crisis. (Read this FiveThirtyEight piece for an overview of DEQ's errors.)

Of course, Milbank is hardly the only writer to simply ignore evidence that undermines his narrative. The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel claims that, " Decades of catastrophic austerity policies and ruinous government fealty to corporate interests are jeopardizing the people of Michigan—and the rest of the country."

But Flint's principal problem—one that pre-dates the water crisis by decades—is that its economically-underprivileged taxpayers can't afford to pay the pensions of retired city workers. Excess government spending landed Flint in its current, sorry state, not austerity. Likewise, the disastrous decision to go with a more expensive water option was not austerity, but government-sponsored stimulus gone (predictably) wrong.

It's certainly true that Michigan's emergency financial manager system deserves renewed scrutiny given the spectacular level of government failure on display in Flint. It may be the case that local officials, left to their own devices, would have abandoned the Flint River plan sooner. But the policies of austerity and privatization have no bearing on these failures. Liberals pretending otherwise need to stop drinking the river water.