Could Flint Fiasco Poison Austerity As Stupid, Wasteful & Cruel?


‘Austerity Fallacy’ Echoes Its Evil Twin, Sequester

In severity of health damage, media staying power, and political indefensibility, the Flint, MI lead poisoning looms as a national turning point. What disgrace better spotlights hurtful Republican governance that ends up poisoning one hundred thousand citizens — failed austerity at its worst? Rarely does stupid and wasteful, if not immoral, merge so dramatically.

Here’s a drinking water diversion that allegedly “saved” $15 million by exploding into a $2 billion must-pay boondoggle. So much for “cost-effective” austerity when privatizing city services. And the outcome still looms without a reliable medical solution to life-long, lead-caused early brain development damage. Will poisoning stadiums full of children (plus eight related deaths) finally expose the nefarious “Austerity Fallacy”?

Despite half-assed cheap shots, even the vast, rightwing conspiracy can’t defend gross negligence behind state and appointee blunders from start to finish. After all, why not authorize a standard, proactive EIR (environmental impact report), costing all of 1% of $15 million? Off the shelf science confirms what happens when polluted water, untreated with anti-corrosives, pulses through an aging, lead-pipe water system. Does not Flint prove emphatically what Nobel economist Amartya Sen declared: “Indiscriminate austerity . . . does not do anything to change a system while hugely inflicting pain”?

Because the US is in crisis mode, only undeniable calamities break through the ideological smoke and celebrity media haze. What pushes the national visibility of Flint abuse is its utter avoidability, massive health damage, and mammoth penalty for Scrooge-like penny-pinching. Plus, there’s no outside scapegoat to demonize, not even Obama. Nor can the right blame terrorists nor immigrants or minorities. Not weather calamity or state revenue crises, just criminally negligent officials whose taxpayer sting could cost 13000% the budget ($2 billion vs. $15. million “saved”). That’s $130 dollars due and payable for every botched dollar budgeted.

Silver Lining from a Spectacular Fail?

That potential 13000% penalty is surpassed only by much larger, Gulf oil spill-like catastrophes (that one topping $100 billion dollars vs. less than $5 million estimated for protective ocean safety devices). Penalties from national austerities are high (Europe, Greece, America), but my research unearthed nothing recent that paralleled such conscious, extensive and costly disregard for domestic citizen health.

Politically, let’s consider Flint as an unambiguous, unforced Republican scandal. Aside from Bush-Cheney neocon warmongering (with later enablers re Obama), or the bizarre belligerence of citing a climate change “hoax,” the Party of No here openly devastates innocents, mainly minorities. The Michigan GOP governor (plus fellow austerity freaks across WI, KS, NC, OH) should be indicted as serious menaces to public health and safety. Just when showboaters like Trump mouth off about delivering national greatness, his fellow partisans are doing exactly the opposite: crushing decency with the worst form of bean counting — by those who can’t even count. Having brought about failed states abroad, the rightwing is now actively sponsoring failed cities and states at home.

When Government IS the Problem

Flint dramatizes that it’s not just (big) “government” in Reagan’s abstraction but rightwing control that’s “the problem” — plus, how mortifying management disasters can be. Bad government IS the problem when the crock of heartless austerity reigns, topping overruns that the worst of “big government” can hardly match. Obviously, the only longterm “solution” is progressive, rational government run by fully vetted (experienced) politicians who think — and stop — before they needlessly fling themselves off some cliff.

Significantly, the Flint fiasco required no noisy, left-wing protests: Governor Snyder all by himself exemplifies austerity at its worst. Remember all the brouhaha about Syria’s Assad or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein poisoning their own citizens? Thus, the magnitude of the scandal should damage the entire Republican mindset, slicing and dicing this marriage made in hell: staggeringly low, unfair taxation with penny-pinching that endangers human life.

With respect to Dave Johnson’s thorough overview of the Flint fiasco, “Government Run Like A Business Led To Lead In Flint’s Water,” only the most backward business makes the terrible bet of “saving” $15 million while risking 130 times that in mandatory penalties. The GOP may delude itself, equating austerity with running government “like a business,” but how many companies survive such unforced blunders? Compare the immense downsides to Volkswagen for its own unforced crimes.

Judging by once rational states that went reactionary (MI, WI, PA, OH, FL) plus others (SC, NC, KS, AZ, ME) the more intense the austerity mania, the worse the permanent damage to state prosperity. Look how service cutbacks and reduced taxes in Kansas, pushed crudely by Sam Brownback, wiped out the state surplus of $680 million and produced a $300 million yearly budget shortfall. State credit ratings dropped, then higher borrowing costs amplified the expanding gap. Thus, (defeated) Kansas Democrat Paul Davis railed against austerity for “damaging our schools. It’s hurting our economy. It’s jeopardizing our future . . . Brownback’s irresponsible policies are blowing a hole in the state’s finances, putting our schools at risk of more cuts and causing our economy to lag behind our neighbors.”

‘The Bill Comes Due’

One LA Times columnist perfectly captures the wounds from the self-defeating austerity fallacy: “Crumbling roads and bridges cost business owners dearly in transport costs; underfunded educational systems raise their cost of finding or training qualified workers; poverty and unemployment cause social unrest, which leads to attacks on their property.” Thus, high-income taxpayers temporarily benefit, “but when the consequence is shuttered universities, understaffed schools, and unemployment spreading among what should be their customer base, everyone is impoverished. Eventually, the bill comes due.”

Imagine: if the austerity delusion is decently exposed by Flint, will not other failed rightwing fantasies suffer?  Like the discredited fiction called trickle down economics? Or blarney that neocon militarism “makes us safer” (blind to massive backlashes)? Even the sanctity of American exceptionalism (with or without divine approval)? Failing to deliver basic, clean water, our not so shining cities on the hill provide no great models for others. 

Let us hope more rightwing delusions are threatened, especially that “government is the problem, not the solution.” The right proves to its horror that WHO is in charge is the monumental variable, not just the size of your budget. Let’s also not forget the deranged rightwing myth of voter fraud, nor the triple “hoax” of climate change: 1) not happening, 2) not caused by human agency and 3) thus zero need for human fixes.

That any party, awash with such serial poppycock, survives the next election continues to shock huge numbers, with or without Trump at the helm. That Republicans control most of state and federal government is, as Trump says on immigration, “beyond belief.” And yet, if austerity falls on its face, so discredited and dishonored in Flint, will no political domino theory come into play? A tired and self-defeating political paradigm in place since Reagan is only as strong as its weakest link. And that for me is what Flint represents.


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For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.