10 February 2016: In life and government, we get what we pay for

The ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan has implications reaching far beyond the lead-laden water the good citizens ingested. Citizens nationwide are looking far more closely at their water supplies. Clean drinking water is something Americans have taken for granted unlike in countries across the globe.

But water isn’t the only thing we have come to take for granted, which leads to another implication for the Flint water crisis. We take for granted safe food and medicines, certified professionals as opposed to quacks, infrastructure, transportation, and much more.

That wasn’t true a century ago. It was during the Progressive Era, personified by Teddy Roosevelt, that government grew beyond its traditional roles to insuring safety for Americans in a variety of areas: Food and Drug Administration, work force safety, Federal Aviation Administration, state oversight of professional certifications, city water and sewer standards, et cetera and so on.

And we have come to expect it to deliver on that, and when government doesn’t perform to insure our safety, from inspecting cantaloupes to providing safe drinking water, we rightfully demand an accounting. But we have to be careful when criticizing government failures because government works when not sabotaged by those entrusted to make it work, leaders like Gov. Rick Snyder (MI-R) who let the Flint water debacle unfold.

While government can borrow from the business model for some governance methodology, such as a town or county manager system, government is not a business and cannot be run like one, no more than a business can be run like a government agency.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank gets to the rub of the problem. In his column laying the blame for the Flint water crisis directly at Snyder’s doorstep, Milbank quotes former Florida governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush when he said, “The disgrace over Flint’s water is related to the fact that we’ve created this complex, no-responsibility regulatory system, where the federal government, the state government, a regional government, local and county governments are all pointing fingers at one another.”

“Um, no,” Milbank counters. “Bush was attempting to muddy the proverbial water by portraying the Flint debacle as a failure of government at all levels.” Further, “Snyder attempted the same diffusion of responsibility saying that ‘government failed you—federal, state and local leaders—by breaking the trust you placed in us.’”

Snyder’s priority was to balance the books of the bankrupt city even if it meant massive human degradation. His viceroys opted to pump tainted, deadly water into the homes of the innocent trusting homes of the town. A catastrophe has ensued, with Snyder remaining blissfully in denial.

“The Flint disaster, which was three years in the making, is not a failure of government generally,” Milbank insists. “It’s the failure of a specific governing philosophy: Snyder’s belief that government works better if run more like a business.”

Over the years, I have argued that is the problem with public education critics who insist the only way to measure a student’s and a school’s success is by looking at their standardized test scores, as if the students are robots that can be fine-tuned and finessed for sale at the market place.

Neither public schools nor government deals with commodities or profit. They deal with people and are vested to provide for their best interests. As such, a successful government’s bottom line is addressing citizens’ needs as opposed to corporations, which is about profit and shareholder return.

When a government—local, state, or federal—loses its way and begins to behave like Hewitt-Packard, bad things happen. That is the lesson of the Flint water crisis.

And that’s the lesson that needs to be heeded here in Clear Creek. With the impending closure of the Henderson Mine and the end of the financial stream it generated in terms of taxes, some are demanding the county government whack services and staff willy-nilly with little or no thought.

While government and private enterprise are vastly different functions with different sets of rules and desired outcomes, they share one commonality: You usually get what you pay for, and if we take a meat cleaver to our county budget, it will look like a butcher’s shop floor.

Prudence is what is needed. Otherwise, a Clear Creek version of Flint lies ahead.

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