Something's In the Water

The Flint water crisis has moved from tragedy to proxy battlefield for questions much larger than water policy. Governor Rick Snyder's job is of course probably doomed. Race and capitalism are both on the line: Flint has become a symbol around which the left and right argue about whether the city is being mistreated due to its black population, and how morally contemptible it was to make the decision to switch water sources to save taxpayer money.

Some quick context, for anyone who hasn't dived in yet: like many older US and European cities, Flint, Michigan has old lead water pipes running through the streets. In cities like these, there is normally a very small amount of lead present in tap water. Flint's crisis came about when Michigan--hoping to save money in a financial crisis--switched its water source from Lake Huron to a nearby river. The river had a lot more corrosive particles (like iron, which is why the water looks yellow-brown) and bacteria, so as it has run through the pipes, it has corroded off lots more lead, which ends up in the drinking water. The river had actually already been deemed unfit to drink (without anti-corrosive agents being added) in 2011.  So it was really a very avoidable problem. It was one that people knew about, ignored, and probably just plain lied to the public about. 

It seems really weird that this can happen, given EPA lead testing mandates. 

(For those curious, the current state is more stable because the state is now using anti-corrosive agents in the water, but eliminating the risk requires replacing 20k-25k lead pipes. The water is still kinda yellow due to iron from the river, but there's much less lead.)  

Here's where things get really weird: Flint became a symbol because the onset of its problem was sudden (after the state switched water supplies) and visible (the iron content in the water makes it look really quite disgusting). There are a whole lot of other cities that are at high risk, and occasionally have their own lead crises. A few other Michigan cities are even suffering.

What's particularly odd about Flint as a symbol here is that there are dozens of cities in the US with higher lead poisoning rates than flint. Pennsylvania and NJ seem to host the most, but our research on that hasn't been thorough enough to say for certain. There may be 20 states where the average lead exposure to children is higher than Flint. Flint is possibly getting $30MM in aid; these other cities are not.  And there are plenty of cities that have higher lead exposure levels than the EPA allows. This isn't to say that the Flint crisis isn't a big deal--lead exposure for children is pretty horrid and quite clearly linked to lower IQ, lower attention span, and a higher propensity for violence

For most of these cities, lead exposure has been on the decline. Unleaded gasoline and (for many cities and states) the banning of lead paint has been a big part of this.

What's odd about Flint, though, isn't that something went wrong. It's that something went wrong when there was obvious warning ahead of time (a 2011 study showed the Flint river needed anti-corrosion chemicals to be safe), that simple counter-measures weren't taken (the anti-corrosion chemicals weren't added), and officials at both city and state levels seemed to do backflips to pretend and claim that everything was just fine.

The common American reaction to this is, "vote the bums out!" We won't weigh in here on which people do or don't deserve to keep their jobs.

But focusing on Gov. Snyder, and Michigan or Flint officials, or on cost-cutting, or on race--these all miss the point: the US has Federal (EPA & CDC) agencies, state agencies, and city officials whose job it is to figure this stuff out. And it is frequently not figured out. More and more news outlets are starting to expose an epidemic of US cities using lead testing methods intentionally designed to under-report total lead in the water. Officials in cities like Chicago, DC, Durham, Columbia, and Jackson all had spikes in lead content in their water, and all chose to delay reporting this to the public. 

What becomes clear, if we step back from Flint and Snyder specifically, is that there is a systemic perverse incentive afoot. If cities are persistently pervert testing to under-report lead content reporting, and persistently conceal lead exposure crises that arise.

The question, then, is what's that incentive?  Professors Konisky and Teodoro of Indiana University and Texas A&M University make what we think is the most compelling argument: it's actually harder to regulate local governments than it is businesses, for a few reasons. First, you can't just shut down a local government the way you can a business. Second, local governments have weird competing priorities and incentives; getting funding requires appealing to public representatives. Third, there are political costs to governments regulating other governments. We can see these odd political incentives arise: Flint's sudden lead crisis is going to cost many people their jobs--but also might get $30MM in aid to replace the lead pipes more quickly. Other, quieter problems--those that aren't sudden--go largely unnoticed, so nobody's heads are taken off in the process.

In the end it's probably a very odd, complicated, abstract force that's behind Flint and all the other lead exposure problems that we didn't happen to get outraged out. Going after all of the other "local" causes--like Governor Snyder--may be satisfying and even important, but they'll go far short of preventing more of this in the future. 


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.