Democracy has failed in Michigan. In November, 2012, voters repealed a state law permitting the governor to impose state appointed austerity fiscal managers on local jurisdictions, but the legislature came back by the end of the year with a new, un-repealable, emergency manager law. For years the state emergency managers running Flint’s water system have insulted citizens who complained about water quality at the same time the same officials knew about the rising level of lead and other toxic substances in the water but kept poisoning Flint’s children anyway. And state emergency managers in Detroit’s public schools have run up a cumulative deficit of $3.5 billion at the same time they have neglected the decaying conditions in which children are expected to learn and teachers to work. Citizens in Michigan’s poorest communities have been rendered powerless by the loss of checks and balances.
Through weeks’ of rolling sick-outs, Detroit’s teachers have tried to bring attention to the roof leaks and buckling gym floors and rodents (alive and dead) littering the buildings where they work. Although photographs in newspapers have been distressing, Michigan’s laws, as they have been adjusted in recent years, don’t really provide a path for citizens to regain control. So last Thursday, according to Corey Mitchell writing for Education Week, “The Detroit Federation of Teachers, along with the American Federation of Teachers… filed a lawsuit against Detroit public schools and Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, alleging that the district has failed to ‘provide a minimally adequate education and to properly maintain the schools.’ Parents and students are also named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the latest volley in a frenzied legal struggle between teachers and the leadership of the troubled state-run school district… Recent inspections of schools by city workers have uncovered numerous code violations including issues with mold, rodents, broken glass, and leaking roofs. The lawsuit said district officials, including Earley, have allowed the condition of the schools to ‘deteriorate to the point of crisis’….” Mitchell adds that Darnell Earley, Detroit Public Schools’ current emergency fiscal manager—and previously the state emergency manager involved with Flint’s water poisoning—has turned (unsuccessfully) to the courts to try to prevent protests by teachers. Now the teachers’ union is turning to the courts to demand that the state eliminate conditions that violate established building codes. We will have to watch to see if the courts can correct the overreach of the executive and legislative branches of Michigan’s government.
Jared Bernstein—formerly an economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and before that on staff at the Economic Policy Institute, and currently on staff at the Washington, D.C. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities—tries to help us put Michigan’s governance crisis in perspective: “I’m a hard-boiled policy wonk who’s been around the block enough times that I see little that surprises or shocks me. But the recently publicized water crisis in Flint, Mich., did both. The depth of government failure, the neglect and mistreatment of an already deeply vulnerable population, the potentially permanent damage to children’s brains, and the series of events that led to this tragic debacle, must be carefully examined for at least two reasons. First, the fact that the richest economy on the globe failed to provide an essential public good is a symptom of government failure with which we must reckon. Second such failure is not a benign accident. It’s not a passive failure of lazy oversight. It is a strategy to first break and then discredit the public sector, to undermine trust and inculcate disgust. The beneficiaries of this strategy are the wealthy who will then push for smaller government and tax cuts. Those who pay the price will be the people much like those in Flint. And there are many more of the latter than the former.”
Bernstein describes the strategy of the so-called “corporate” reformers: “(W)e must recognize that government failure is not an accident. It is a strategy of those who benefit from less government.” “Fiscal cliffs, threats to default on the national debt, government shutdowns, the collapse of the budget process, unwillingness to compromise, ignoring facts and science that challenge ideology, and of course, as in Flint, the failure to provide basic public goods—all of these can make people say one of two things: 1) ‘the government is a corrupt mess with which I want nothing to do,’ or 2) ‘we cannot have a fair economy or decent society without a well functioning government. So let’s get to work to make that happen.’ The problem with #1, of course, is that it denies the uncontroversial recognition that quality public goods are a hallmark of an advanced economy…. The problem with #2 is it is not clear how to ‘make that happen.'”
How does this all derive from our growing plutocracy? Bernstein explains: “It is particularly hard to defend a functioning public sector when the concentration of wealth interacts with our uniquely money-fueled politics and policy. Forty percent of the wealth in this country is held by the top 1 percent of households, and political science has clearly shown that politics favors their preferences and protects their wealth… Meanwhile, 42 percent of Flint residents are poor, compared to 17 percent for the state of Michigan… Racism is also in play: 57 percent of Flint residents are black, compared to 14 percent statewide… There are a lot more people who need a functioning government than exist in the top 1 percent.”
Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder has tried to diffuse responsibility by doing just what Bernstein describes: discrediting government at all levels—federal, state, and local. In The Flint Disaster is Rick Snyder’s Fault, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank explains why we should not accept Governor Snyder’s attempt to convince us that, in Bernstein’s words, “government at all levels is a corrupt mess with which I want nothing to do.” Milbank pins the blame on Snyder himself and on his philosophy of governing:
“(T)he Flint disaster, three years in the making, is not a failure of government generally. It’s the failure of a specific governing philosophy: (Governor) Snyder’s belief that government works better if run more like a business… The governor, former head of Gateway computers, was first elected as part of the tea party wave of 2010 with a plan to use his tech industry skills to run Michigan. He spoke of ‘outcomes’ and ‘deliverables,’ called residents ‘customers’ and sought to ‘reinvent’ the state to make it business-friendly. A centerpiece of Snyder’s agenda, and one of his first actions, was a new law that gave the state dramatic powers to take over failing municipalities and school districts by appointing emergency managers with unchecked authority. Michigan voters killed that law in a November 2012 referendum, but a month later Snyder got the legislature, in a lame-duck session, to enact a law very similar to the one voters had rejected. This time legislators attached it to a spending bill so it couldn’t be undone by referendum. The unelected viceroys had mandates to improve municipal finances but little incentive to weigh other considerations… Snyder undertook an arrogant public policy experiment, underpinned by the ideological assumption that the ‘experience set’ of corporate-style managers was superior to the checks and balances of democracy. This is why Flint happened.”
A huge question as we move into February will be whether the stories of Flint’s water and Detroit’s public schools will just slip to the back pages of the paper and then out of the news altogether. Or will we continue to pay attention to their meaning? Flint’s water-poisoning catastrophe and the deplorable deterioration of the Detroit Public Schools are evidence that our politics have dangerously veered away from the principles we learned in basic civics.
If you haven’t read Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman’s important piece on Michigan from last week, check out Michigan’s Great Stink. (This blog explored Krugman’s important piece here, and recently covered the problem of the loss of democratic governance in Michigan here, here and here.)