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Flint water crisis shows us what real government incompetence looks like

A man sits next to a stack of bottled water at a rally where the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke Sunday about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. U.S. President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Michigan, which will free up federal aid to help the city of Flint with lead contaminated drinking water.
A man sits next to a stack of bottled water at a rally where the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke Sunday about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. U.S. President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Michigan, which will free up federal aid to help the city of Flint with lead contaminated drinking water. Getty Images

The government is incompetent. The government is corrupt. The government is the source of all of America’s problems.

That’s the popular refrain among the Republican candidates running for president. And they’re reflecting the sentiment of many Americans, including some who vote Democratic.

The Gallup polling organization says most U.S. citizens currently see terrorism as the nation’s No. 1 problem, but dissatisfaction with government ranked as the top concern one year ago.

To be sure, government isn’t perfect. Taxes might well run too high in many places. Bureaucracies bloat. And there are things the private sector can do more effectively.

But government – specifically, the people who work in government – aren’t evil, either. They are our neighbors and fellow churchgoers and friends. Some are exceptional at what they do. Most, like the broader population, fail to reach rock star status in their fields, but they still do OK.

They work for all of us. And we take their competence and/or integrity for granted. It’s only when they screw up most spectacularly – Mecklenburg County’s botched property reevaluation comes to mind – that we take notice of them.

But that screw-up hardly compares to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Flint is in panic mode after state officials overseeing the cash-strapped city of 100,000 tried to save money nearly two years ago by switching its water supply intake from Lake Huron to the notoriously dirty Flint River.

Residents kept saying their water was brown and seemed unsafe, only to be reassured that it was safe to drink. The former mayor even went on TV and drank some. But it wasn’t safe after all, as Virginia Tech researchers found in August after testing the water in people’s homes. The corrosive Flint River water has eaten away at the city’s iron water pipes, sending elevated levels of lead into the drinking supply.

One study suggests 90 percent of Flint’s problem could have been avoided by treating the water with an anti-corrosive agent.

It would have cost about $100 per day.

The failure to employ such an agent ranks as a mistake of colossal proportions, clearly. True governmental incompetence or corruption – or both – at work. Generations of Flint’s children now stand at risk for lowered IQ, decreased educational achievement and heightened criminality, experts say. The state’s top environmental regulator has resigned, and others are calling for Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation or even his jailing.

It’s a reminder of the enormous trust we place in the hands of the public sector to do jobs the private sector often isn’t interested in doing. When those public workers and officials screw up, they must be held accountable, as officials certainly must be in the Flint case. But the Flint crisis should also remind us that, with glaring exceptions, public employees and administrators make critical decisions every day and do just fine most of the time.

Even as we demand accountability in the Flint case, perhaps we should pause and appreciate our local public sector workers who bring us stoplights that don’t malfunction, toilets that flush, and drinking water that, thank goodness, doesn’t poison us. --Eric Frazier

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