Let Them Drink Pollution?

The tragic crisis in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been poisoned by lead contamination, is not just about drinking water. And it’s not just about Flint. It’s about race and class, and the stark contradiction between the American dream of equal rights and opportunity for all and the American nightmare of metastasizing inequality of wealth and power.

The link between environmental quality and economic inequality was spelled out more than two decades ago in a memorandum signed by Lawrence Summers, then chief economist of the World Bank, excerpts of which appeared in The Economist under the provocative title, “Let them eat pollution.” Starting from the premise that the costs of pollution depend on “the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality,” Summers concluded that “the economic logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

A different logic is supposed to underpin U.S. environmental policies. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act mandates that water quality standards should “protect the public health” – period. Its aim, as former EPA administrator Douglas Costle once put it, is “protection of the health of all Americans.” Under the law, clean water is a right, not something to be provided only insofar as justified by the purchasing power of the community in question.

Even when cost-benefit calculations are brought to bear on environmental policy, the EPA uses a single “value of a statistical life” – currently around $8.7 million – for every person in the country, rather than differentiating across individuals on the basis of income or other attributes.

In practice, however, the role of costs and benefits in shaping public policies often depends on the power of those to whom they accrue. When those on the receiving end are poor, their interests – and their lives – often count for less, much as the Summers memo recommended. And when they are racial and ethnic minorities, the political process often discounts their well-being even more.

So it was that Flint – the city with the second highest poverty rate in the nation (surpassed only by Youngstown, Ohio), where more than half the population is black – wound up with lead in its water supply up to 866 times the legal limit. The levels in some residents’ homes were high enough for the EPA to classify the water as “toxic waste.”

The contamination was a result of budget-cutting measures imposed by the city’s “emergency manager,” who was installed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder with power to override the elected city council. To save money, the city’s water supply was switched to the heavily polluted Flint River in 2014. At the same time, officials stopped adding treatment chemicals to control corrosion in the system’s old lead pipes. When residents complained about the discolored and foul-smelling water coming out of their taps, and researchers found evidence of lead contamination, their concerns were brushed aside by state officials.

Governor Snyder denies that environmental racism has anything to do with the plight of Flint’s residents. There are still some people who will tell you that the Earth is flat, too.

In a lead editorial, the New York Times accused the governor of “depraved indifference” toward Flint’s residents. But the roots of the tragedy go deeper than the failings of individual politicians or officials. What we’re seeing today in Flint is an outcome of depraved inequalities - inequalities are corroding the body politic nationwide along with the water pipes in Flint.

Flint wasn’t always like this. When I lived there as a kid in the early 1950s, its workers earned the highest industrial wages in the nation. The American dream was alive. But in ensuing decades the city was ripped apart by macroeconomic policies that decimated America’s manufacturing industries, the failure to construct a national health system to relieve employers of the soaring costs of private insurance, and the debilitating racial and fiscal politics of metropolitan segregation.

It is only a small step from the emergence of “sacrifice zones” at the losing end of America’s widening economic and political chasms to the systematic violation of the right to a clean environment that we see in Flint. It is not enough to pass legislation to protect the public health of all Americans. Good laws that are not enforced are no more than good intentions. For a functioning government – even, it turns out, a functioning water system – we need a functioning democracy.

The poisoning of Flint is a symptom of this deeper inequality crisis that affects us all. And it’s a timely wake-up call as we embark on the 2016 election season.

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