Flint water crisis
When Pensions Crowd Out Infrastructure

The enterprising blogger Greg Branch has an interesting explainer on the origins of the Flint water crisis that doubles as a rebuttal to those (mostly on the left) who are trying to turn it into a crude bludgeon against their political opponents. As Branch explains, the disaster was caused by a cascade of failures at multiple levels, implicating people in both parties as well as non-partisan bureaucrats. One passage:

So Flint’s water department is asked to start treating its own water – something it hasn’t done in at least 50 years, if ever. The water guys told the mayor and Council and the EFM (by this time, Darnell Earley), “sure, we can do that.”

Apparently, they couldn’t. I’m speculating here: They had no experience in treating raw water. I don’t know if they read a book, took a seminar or watched a how-to on YouTube, but either way, they started treating the water as if it were being run through a modern distribution system of plastic and copper pipes.

It’s not. It’s running through a 100-plus-year-old system of cast iron mains and lead service lines.

The crisis may have been averted if the authorities understood the need to treat the water properly given their aging water distribution infrastructure—but it would also have been averted if that infrastructure was up to date. The reality is that revenue-hungry city governments had been systemically starving basic infrastructure maintenance for decades while scrounging every dime to meet the demands of unions, feed the greed of crooked politicians, pay exploding health care and pension costs, and fund other “urgent” priorities. As a result, little things like maintenance and upgrades for century-old water systems were apparently out of the question.

Sound principles of public finance and administration, like the laws of arithmetic and the logic of cause and effect, are neither Republican nor Democratic. And when a society like ours ignores basic principles for decade after decade, the consequences start to build up.

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