Paul Krugman: The Flint Water Disaster Was No Accident


The poisoning of Flint, Michigan's water and the irreversible harm to the city's children, was no accident, Paul Krugman argues in his Monday columnThe nightmare stems from a disturbing trend in which hardline right-wingers are rejecting their most basic responsibilities to safeguard public health and safety, particularly where the public is low-income and majority African American.

This trend is neither new nor isolated, the economist argues. Like London's Great Stink of 1858, the resultant crises only elicit official action when their stench reaches the halls of power. Krugman writes:

In the 1850s, London, the world’s largest city, still didn’t have a sewer system. Waste simply flowed into the Thames, which was as disgusting as you might imagine. But conservatives, including the magazine The Economist and the prime minister, opposed any effort to remedy the situation. After all, such an effort would involve increased government spending and, they insisted, infringe on personal liberty and local control. 

It took the Great Stink of 1858, when the stench made the Houses of Parliament unusable, to produce action.

But one does not have to look back more than 150 years to find a historical precedent. Krugman notes that in the 21st century, the Flint crisis is already in good company:

[A] funny thing has happened as hard-line conservatives have taken over many U.S. state governments. Or actually, it’s not funny at all. Not surprisingly, they have sought to cut social insurance spending on the poor. In fact, many state governments dislike spending on the poor so much that they are rejecting a Medicaid expansion that wouldn’t cost them anything, because it’s federally financed. But what we also see is extreme penny pinching on public goods. 

It’s easy to come up with examples. Kansas, which made headlines with its failed strategy of cutting taxes in the expectation of an economic miracle, has tried to close the resulting budget gap largely with cuts in education. North Carolina has also imposed drastic cuts on schools. And in New Jersey, Chris Christie famously canceled a desperately needed rail tunnel under the Hudson.

In the case of Flint, public outrage and global attention have finally forced Michigan governor Rick Snyder to issue a tepid apology and shine some light on his administration’s dismissal and potential coverup of the mass poisoning. It did not go unnoticed that the state's undemocratic emergency manager scheme enabled a related water disaster in Detroit, which, like Flint, is poor and majority African American.

Yet public exposure does little to fix lead poisoning, which can cause “profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system,” according to the World Health Organization. What's more, it is not clear if growing grassroots calls for Snyder's removal—and even arrest—will be heeded.

But according to Krugman, while the Flint crisis is certainly human-made, there is no single culprit behind “Michigan’s Great Stink.”

“What we see in Flint is an all too typically American situation of (literally) poisonous interaction between ideology and race,” Krugman notes, “in which small-government extremists are empowered by the sense of too many voters that good government is simply a giveaway to Those People.”

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