Turns out Flint is not alone; other cities are delivering hazardous amounts of lead to those who use city water systems. The NYT reports:
Unsafe levels of lead have turned up in tap water in city after city — in Durham and Greenville, N.C., in 2006; in Columbia, S.C., in 2005; and last July in Jackson, Miss., where officials waited six months to disclose the contamination — as well as in scores of other places in recent years.
Federal officials and many scientists agree that most of the nation’s 53,000 community water systems provide safe drinking water. But such episodes are unsettling reminders of what experts say are holes in the safety net of rules and procedures intended to keep water not just lead-free, but free of all poisons.
It’s not rocket science to know whether your water supply is safe, and it’s not rocket science to fix old and unsafe pipes. So why are there U.S. cities and towns that are flubbing one of their most basic, obvious responsibilities in such a catastrophic fashion? There are several reasons.
One: bad spending priorities. Nobody wants to spend money on unglamorous things like water pipes. Teacher unions, sanitation worker unions, fire fighters, and police all want raises — or, failing that, big pensions. Politicians who offer huge tax subsidies and rebates to lure companies into town or to build a sports stadium get headlines; politicians who say no to all these glamorous headline-creating opportunities because they insist on getting the real work done first have a way of not getting re-elected.
Two: bad governance. In many cities, government is still run by political machines, most of which happen to be Democratic machines. Entrenched local political establishments, however, reward loyalty, not competence. They see city jobs as a way to pay back favors and to keep the patronage system running rather than as a means of giving critical, life-and-death responsibilities to the most qualified people they can find.
There’s also an attitude problem when it comes to poor governance. A lot of people are just plain slothful and don’t think hard or seriously about whether the basic services on which their city depends are in any way at risk. And in declining cities like Flint and Detroit, a sense of inevitable doom and failure can take hold. This attitude says that nothing is going to work, the problems can’t be solved, and there is no way to afford all the things the city really needs. So why not coast along as smoothly as possible for as long as possible? You can’t fix the problem, so you kick the can down the road. . . until, one day, you can’t.
Three: a bailout mentality. This mentality holds that when things go wrong, some other “they” will take care of things — the state, the federal government. Feeling that there is a backstop in place should a crisis materialize has clearly encouraged and enabled reckless behavior on the part of municipal officials all over this country.
Four: what C.S. Lewis’s character Screwtape called “the horror and neglect of the obvious.” People love innovation and new ideas. City officials are constantly talking about exciting new projects and about taking on new responsibilities—even though they have yet to master the really important responsibilities they already have. When the water pipes aren’t safe, you probably shouldn’t be launching some kind of complicated zero-carbon initiative. When the public schools are failing and you’ve got near-unemployable, semi-literate teens pouring out of your schools, this may not be time to make an Olympic bid that will chew up the city’s resources and disposable income for years to come.
Many of these fancy and attractive new missions have real logic behind them and address real human needs. The advocates of various cool and glitzy schemes always make the argument that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. But in many cities, when it comes to many of the basic necessities of urban life, we can’t walk—or at least we aren’t. The principle needs to be: Walk first, then think about whether it’s time to chew gum. Get the water safe, fix the bridges, get the pension program on a long-term sustainable path, get the schools into shape, train the police: Then go for the shiny, dazzling, cool new projects. Any other approach manifests cold indifference to the needs of the poor, those who have no choice but to drink city water and go to city schools.
The Baby Boom generation has let the country down in many ways; the systematic neglect of the basic and necessary services of national life in the pursuit of visionary goals is turning out to be one of the most costly.