Awkwardly posed and absurdly oversized, it’s a monument you’d expect to find on a journey through some decaying, post-Soviet kleptocracy. Flint’s former mayor finally posted this bronze statue of himself at the entrance to his grand estate after the city expressed no interest. Down the road, Flint residents who voted him into office wonder how much poison their children absorbed and when their tap water will once again be safe to drink.
Journalists pin blame for Flint’s water tragedy on the officials who inherited the city’s mess, creating a danger that we will miss the warnings in this story. Meanwhile, just outside town, that silent statue offers a lesson on how this sad tale unfolded and what it might signal for the rest of us.
Political collapse has practical consequences. Like her neighbor, Detroit, Flint is an early victim of the Politics of Crazy. Mayor Williamson’s monument points to a dangerous future as we struggle with the decline of our social institutions. Like the gaudy decorations on one of Trump’s buildings, it reminds us that in politics, personal failures are often cushioned by collective consequences. That statue is a lighthouse standing over the rocks of the Politics of Crazy.
Flint is not unique. Smaller cities all over the country are dipping below a critical threshold of viability as populations dwindle and their civic fabric frays. It is difficult to shrink a city. An economic revolution has shifted prosperity back toward the once-struggling downtowns of America’s largest cities. Rural areas and smaller cities are losing their reason to exist. As residents leave smaller towns to pursue opportunities elsewhere, populations left behind grow politically weaker, their governments more and more dysfunctional.
Flint is earning a lot of attention, but similar examples abound. Almost all of the elected government of Crystal City, Texas was arrested en masse recently by the FBI. Weeks later, residents discovered their drinking water had turned black. Explanations from city officials have thus far been less than reassuring.
Residents of Sebring, Ohio are being warned that their water supply may be tainted by lead. A city official is accused of falsifying reports to the state EPA. A manager of the city’s water system was accused by the Ohio EPA in 2009 of filing false reports but remained in his job.
Water and infrastructure issues are getting a lot of attention because of events in Flint, but the pressure on schools may be a more pressing threat. A school district is perhaps the most expensive, technically challenging, and economically critical element of a local government’s infrastructure. Their failures in recent years have been far more numerous and much more difficult to solve.
Districts in rural communities in Texas, Colorado, and South Carolina have faced the extreme sanction of losing their accreditation. Kansas City schools lost their accreditation in 2011. A district in suburban Atlanta lost their accreditation in 2008. Rural schools are running out of money as populations decline and needs rise.
Money solves none of the problems created by the Politics of Crazy. Sometimes it makes them worse. A declining capacity for self-government doesn’t always shut off the money-tap. In Beaumont, Texas, revenues from refineries have insulated a school district in a long cycle of decline. While the community’s basic capacity for civic management has eroded away, the money has kept flowing, fueling a cyclone of local government dysfunction.
These problems, experienced locally, rise from a broader dynamic. The premise of the Politics of Crazy is that effective democratic government starts with healthy social capital. Our rapid economic transition toward a freer, more prosperous, and vastly more dynamic global economic order has produced the unintended consequence of eroding that social capital.
A once-dense network of voluntary social institutions is in steep, sudden decline. These institutions once acted as a critical mediating influence, weeding out much of the poison that might otherwise float free in our political ecosystem. Robbed of these critical filters, we are seeing a disturbing rise in the power of cranks, crooks, and crazies. Our failure to adapt to the demands of this changing environment gives rise to the Politics of Crazy, undermining our capacity to maintain successful self-government.
Our first round of failures from the Politics of Crazy are, predictably, emerging in communities that already had the weakest social capital. Flint is a poster-child for this phenomenon and, as such, a valuable warning too pressing to ignore.
Flint’s economic difficulties from the transformation of the auto industry are fairly well known. Less well known is the response from voters to the challenge posed by their changing environment. As jobs and people steadily fled the city, its government resisted pressure to adapt.
In the late 90’s Woodrow Stanley, one of the last capable leadership figures the city would see, fought to trim budgets, contain looting by interest groups, and put Flint on a footing to survive. Voters in Flint rewarded Mayor Stanley’s efforts with a successful recall campaign. With the recall complete and a budget deficit of more than $30m, bond holders dried up access to new borrowing. The failed city was placed in state receivership in 2002 for the first time.
A state administrator restored the city’s finances, reorganized its debt and restored basic services placing the city back on track. Removed from receivership in 2004, the city was delivered back into the hands of its newly elected mayor, a car dealer and millionaire ex-con named Don Williamson.
Williamson was a charismatic tyrant, incompetent, arrogant, and not terribly bright. He banned the local newspaper from city offices, describing it as unauthorized reading material. He had a newspaper deliveryman arrested for failing to disclose the names of subscribers. Random firings of city employees, a crackdown on ‘baggy pants,’ gross discrimination against certain police officers and fiscal mismanagement on an epic scale were the hallmarks of his administration.
During his 2007 re-election campaign he gave away $20,000 to voters in a “customer appreciation” stunt at his car dealership. A quote from a ‘man on the street’ at the event echoes loudly in the Age of Trump:
“He’s giving back to the city. Nobody else is doing that,” said James Searcy, 42, of Flint, while waiting for the winning names to be drawn.
One wonders whether Mr. Searcy’s kids are still in Flint, drinking the tap water.
In that election Williamson lied about the city’s alleged budget surplus, revealing after his victory that the city was deeply in debt. Two of his actions alone, a discrimination lawsuit and error-prone handling of a building condemnation, have cost the city more than $10m, almost half its annual budget.
Facing the specter of another recall election Williamson resigned in 2009. Again, the mess left behind was far greater than Flint’s capacity for civic management. After a brief stint under a promising new mayor, the state assumed receivership of Flint for the second time (so far) in 2011. It was under that second, far more serious and complex receivership that Flint’s water tragedy played out.
Commentators on both sides have tried to forge a partisan weapon from the Flint narrative. The right points to Flint’s long tradition of Democratic leadership, conveniently ducking vital details of Mayor Williamson’s story. Though he ran as a Democrat, he was solidly Republican, repeating Republican talking points and making the maximum legal contributions to George W. Bush in both elections.
Democrats are working feverishly to pin the blame for Flint on Republican state leadership. Their story somehow always misses decades of nearly exclusive Democratic local government resulting in total, repeated civic collapse. Flint is a not a partisan catastrophe. The Politics of Crazy is a non-partisan phenomenon.
No state worker would have made any critical decisions about Flint’s water supply if the city’s voters could have produced a remotely competent local government. Receivership was the only option for a city that had lost the capacity to govern itself. As incompetent as Flint’s local government had become, falling into the lap of the state meant losing even more control and nearly all oversight. Residents’ interests were now subject to political winds beyond their control.
Additional state or federal infrastructure spending would not have stopped the Flint water crisis. That crisis occurred because there was no competent local authority capable of making administrative decisions on behalf of residents. Why? Because for decades those residents had been electing crooks, charlatans, and occasionally outright idiots into positions of civic authority. A social fabric that once kept the city’s politics minimally healthy had collapsed.
The second time around, the state bailout attracted little interest. State officials had grown tired of administering Michigan’s failed cities. No one wanted to own Flint’s mess, not even its residents. Errors in judgment, critical miscalculations, and calloused disregard led to poisoning. Natural consequences.
Flint is not alone. We miss this warning at our collective peril.
Freedoms we enjoy under an elected, representative government are accompanied by an ironic curse – We will always have the government that we deserve. Sometimes we invite disasters with our choices. Flint’s voters ran the city into the ground, and now their children are living with the poisonous consequences. Unless we learn to adapt to the demands of this new economic environment, more disasters will follow on a grander and grander scale. Flint is a warning shot.
The root of the Flint water crisis, and so many less-publicized incidents around the country, is an utter failure of representative government. Flint was wrecked by its own voters. Those voters are returning to control as Flint emerges once again from receivership. Prospects this time are no more promising than before. A city clerk last year botched the publication of filing deadlines for candidates, threatening to block candidates from appearing on the ballot. As the newly elected local government begins work, familiar fault lines are already appearing. One councilman faces a misdemeanor charge for his conduct in council meetings.
Lest anyone be tempted to take comfort in their distance from Flint’s disaster, similar forces are at work at the highest levels of our government. Since 2010, America’s legislative branch has been effectively closed, leaving the courts and bureaucracy to limp along as best they can under emergency budgets and without Congressional leadership.
Making matters worse, Republican voters are lining up behind a national version of Mayor Don Williamson, a wealthy, ranting blowhard campaigning on racism, empty slogans, and vulgarity. Democrats are not immune. A leftist Ron Paul, an ideological gadfly making bizarre promises backed by fiscal voodoo, has harried their nominating campaign. Sen. Sanders is threatening to deliver the left’s answer to Donald Trump, a campaign of folk songs and emotion leading toward a public policy train wreck.
There is no refuge from the Politics of Crazy. We will, collectively, evolve the means to adapt, or we will experience the story of Flint on a national and even international scale.
A bronze statue just outside Flint commemorates a political failure that has poisoned thousands of families and further tattered an already thin civic fabric. Doughy and brooding, with hands inexplicably crammed into pockets, the Sphinx of Flint has a story to tell for those who are listening.