Blow, Kristof and Collins

In “The Poisoning of Flint’s Water” Mr. Blow says it is hard to imagine such a thing happening in a city that didn’t have this particular demographic profile — mostly black and disproportionately poor.  In “America the Unfair?” Mr. Kristof says we need to leverage populist frustration into constructive postelection policy. He says it’s been done before.  In “Palin, Trump, Cruz and Corn” Ms. Collins says Sarah surfaces and Ted gets trounced for the wrong reason.  Well, whatever trounces him is good, doncha know…  Here’s Mr. Blow:

In November, I was the guest speaker at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s annual dinner. Before I spoke, the group called to the stage a longtime investigative journalist who had done tremendous work bringing the Flint water crisis to light. His name was Curt Guyette. He, in turn, recognized the scientists, doctors, politician, lawyers and activists who had helped in that quest.

I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard about this crisis before that night, but the details they laid out hit me with the force of a train.

Local officials made the decision to switch the city’s water supply in 2014 from its longtime source supplied by the city of Detroit, which contained corrosion-control chemicals, to the Flint River, which did not contain those chemicals. It was billed as a cost-saving measure for a city facing financial distress.

But the Flint River water corroded the city’s pipes and leached poisonous metals into the city’s water supply, including lead, which is particularly dangerous if consumed by children or pregnant women.

Some of the water tested so high for lead contamination that it was “more than twice the amount at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies water as hazardous waste,” according to Guyette.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized.”

The residents of Flint consumed this poisonous water, knowing that something was wrong because of its changing colors and smells, but mostly unaware of just how dangerous it was.

An entire American city exposed to poisoned water. How could this be?

It is hard to imagine this happening in a city that didn’t have Flint’s demographic profile — mostly black and disproportionately poor.

And, it got worse: Officials apparently kept assuring residents that things were under control, even though many residents knew intuitively that they were not.

As The New York Times reported in October:

“All along, through months of complaints from residents of this city about the peculiar colors and odors they said were coming from their faucets, the overriding message from the authorities here was that the water would be just fine.”

And not only did the city not respond quickly, according to Guyette’s reporting, it artificially suppressed finding on lead levels, and when the federal Environmental Protection Agency offered to help remedythe problem, city officials apparently declined the help.

The damage done by this misguided decision, and the callous apathy on the part of officials to quickly admit their error and work expeditiously to correct it, displays a staggering level of ineptitude, if not criminal negligence.

Lawsuits are sure to spring up by the thousand. It’s not clear whether anyone will be held criminally responsible, but it is highly likely that civil suits for damages could be successful, so much so that they could bring the state to its knees.

The possible damage seems almost incalculable and one can imagine that a jury would find that the monetary damages should match.

I have not stopped thinking about Flint since November, and now the story has gained new urgency as it has become a cause celebre and entered the national political debate.

Bernie Sanders has called for the resignation of Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, saying in a statement:

“There are no excuses. The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint’s water. He did nothing. As a result, hundreds of children were poisoned. Thousands may have been exposed to potential brain damage from lead. Governor Snyder should resign.”

Hillary Clinton has condemned the Snyder administration, called for the federal government to “step up” in the crisis and dispatched two top campaign aides to meet with Flint’s mayor.

(On Tuesday that mayor, Karen Weaver, endorsed Clinton for president.)

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Sunday of the situation that the city should have tape around it “because Flint is a crime scene.”

Celebrities, including P. Diddy and Magic Johnson, have expressed their outrage, and some, like Cher and Meek Mill, have pledged large donations of water to the city.

The Flint native Michael Moore, in an online petition, demanded that President Obama visit the city when he went to Michigan on Wednesday,writing:

“This week, you are coming to Michigan to attend the Detroit Auto Show. We implore you to come to Flint, less than an hour’s drive north of Detroit. Do not ignore this tragedy taking place every day. This may be Gov. Snyder’s Katrina, but it will become your Bush-Flying-Over-New Orleans Moment if you come to Michigan and then just fly away.”

(Obama did not go to Flint during his visit to the state, but did address it while there, and met with the mayor of Flint in Washington the day before.)

Snyder conceded Monday that the Flint water crisis wasindeed his Katrina and on Tuesday, during a State of the State address, apologized for the crisis.

But Moore tweeted a response Tuesday that might well capture the outrage many feel about this story:

“On Sat, I called Flint ‘Governor Snyder’s Katrina.’ Today he said he accepts that comparison. Except Bush didn’t cause the hurricane. #Jail

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders don’t agree on much. Nor do the Black Lives Matter movement, the Occupy Wall Street protests and the armed ranchers who seized public lands in Oregon. But in the insurgent presidential campaigns and in social activism across the spectrum, a common thread is people angry at the way this country is no longer working for many ordinary citizens.

And they’re right: The system is often fundamentally unfair, and ordinary voices are often unheard.

It’s easy (and appropriate!) to roll one’s eyes at Trump, for a demagogic tycoon is not the natural leader of a revolution of the disenfranchised. But the populist frustration is understandable. One of the most remarkable political science studies in recent years upended everything rosy we learned in civics classes.

Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University found that in policy-making, views of ordinary citizens essentially don’t matter. They examined 1,779 policy issues and found that attitudes of wealthy people and of business groups mattered a great deal to the final outcome — but that preferences of average citizens were almost irrelevant.

“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule,” they concluded. “Majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts.”

One reason is that our political system is increasingly driven by money: Tycoons can’t quite buy politicians, but they can lease them. Elected officials are hamsters on a wheel, always desperately raising money for the next election. And the donors who matter most are a small group; just 158 families and the companies they control donated almost half the money for the early stages of the presidential campaign.

That in turn is why the tax code is full of loopholes that benefit the wealthy. This is why you get accelerated depreciation for buying a private plane. It’s why the wealthiest 400 American taxpayers (all with income of more than $100 million) ended up paying an average federal tax rate of less than 23 percent for 2013, and less than 17 percent the year before.

Conversely, it’s why the mostly black children in Flint, Mich., have been poisoned by lead coming out of the tap: As Hillary Clinton noted Sunday in the Democratic debate, this wouldn’t have happened in an affluent white suburb. Lead poisoning permanently impairs brain development, but it’s not confined to Flint. Some 535,000 children across the country suffer lead poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those kids never have a chance — not just because of the lead, but also because they don’t matter to the American political system. American politicians are too busy chasing campaign donors to help them.

There are solutions — more about that in a moment — but a starting point is to recognize that this public mood of impotence and unfairness is rooted in something real. Median wages have stalled or dropped. Mortality rates for young white adults are rising, partly because so many self-medicate with painkillers or heroin. Blacks have been protected from this phenomenon by another unfairness: Studies indicate that doctors discriminate against black patients and are less likely to prescribe them painkillers.

America’s political and economic inequalities feed each other. The richest 1 percent in the U.S. now own substantially more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.

Solutions are complex, imperfect and uncertain, but the biggest problem is not a lack of tools but a lack of will. A basic step to equalize opportunity would be to invest in education for disadvantaged children as the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

“I think any candidate seriously aiming to reduce inequality would have a mild increase in tax on the rich to fund higher school spending,” says Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford expert on inequality. I would add that investments in education should begin early, with high-quality prekindergarten for at-risk children.

We also need political solutions to repair our democracy so that ordinary citizens count along with the affluent. “There is no magic bullet that will set things right, but meaningful campaign finance reform must be at the center of a reform agenda,” Gilens says. “States and cities are leading the way. Arizona, Maine and Connecticut have had statewide, publicly funded ‘clean election’ systems for some time with varying degrees of success.”

One step toward transparency: President Obama could require federal contractors to disclose political contributions.

Right now, the bitterness at America’s grass roots is often channeled in ways that are divisive and destructive: at immigrants, say, or at Muslims. The challenge will be to leverage the populist frustration into constructive postelection policy. But it has been done before.

“Reforms were adopted in the first Gilded Age, an era similarly plagued by government dysfunction, political corruption and enormous economic inequality,” Gilens notes. “Perhaps they will be again.” For the sake of our country, let’s work for an encore.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Sarah Palin is really falling apart.

“Trump’s candidacy, it has exposed not just that tragic, the ramifications of that betrayal of a transformation of our country, but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it, O.K.?” Palin told the crowd at her big announcement endorsing Donald Trump.

The man himself was standing next to her, with a half-smile. Hard to tell if it was self-satisfaction or the look someone might get when trapped at a dinner party next to a stranger who’s describing how she met President William Henry Harrison in a past life.

Even though Palin seemed to have a script, it didn’t help. “He is from the private sector, not a politician. Can I get a hallelujah? Where in the private sector you actually have to balance budgets in order to prioritize, to keep the main thing, the main thing, and he knows the main thing,” she continued.

Got that? It’s been quite a while since the world outside the Tea Party has checked in on Sarah Palin, but I think it’s safe to say there hasn’t been a whole lot of personal growth. The absolute high point of her rather long, rambling address was the moment when she complained that the United States pays for Middle Eastern “squirmishes.”

The next day, Palin spoke at another Trump rally, where she appeared to blame Barack Obama’s veterans policy for her son’s domestic violence arrest this week. Republicans seem currently O.K. with blaming the president for anything, including sunspots. But even some of them must have found it a little creepy.

Still, Trump has been having a super week. Palin wasn’t even the high point. That came when Iowa’s six-term Republican governor, Terry Branstad, urged voters to reject Trump’s main competitor, Ted Cruz.

“Ted Cruz is ahead right now. But what we’re doing is, we’re trying to do is educate the people of Iowa. He is the biggest opponent of renewable fuels,” Branstad told a press conference.

“Renewable fuels” is code for the government ethanol program, which has been stupendously profitable for the Iowa corn industry. Cruz has broken one of the great traditions of the Iowa caucus (First in the Nation! Forever!), which is that every major presidential candidate falls down to worship Big Corn.

Iowa’s many, many corn farmers have always gotten lots of government aid — the Environmental Working Group says that between 1995 and 2012, they received more than $15 billion in subsidies. On top of that, we’ve got the ethanol program, which requires gasoline to be mixed with biofuel, usually corn. This causes corn prices to soar and creates environmental problems due to overplanting. “A triple-layer subsidy cake,” said Scott Faber of the E.W.G.

All this is the opposite of fiscal conservatism, but generally, politicians find a way to evolve on the subject when they get to Iowa. This year Cruz has hung tough. Perhaps it’s because he’s close to Big Oil, which wants the gas tanks for itself. But whatever the reason, he’s paying the price. A pro-ethanol group, which happens to be led by the governor’s son, ran a mess of ads against him. Cruz seemed to waver, then stiffened. Out charged Branstad with his warning. A popular governor’s antipathy could be a big deal.

Let’s take a minute to feel sympathy for Ted Cruz. Poor guy.

O.K., time’s up.

“Dear Friend,” wrote Cruz to his mailing list on Wednesday. “I literally have no time to explain. … The longest-serving Republican career politician in the nation and his politically connected family is coordinating with establishment politicians and super PACs to lead an 11th-hour attack against us and sink our campaign.”

Ted said he is responding with “everything I have.” But that would be much easier if he had another $265,000 in donations posthaste.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is supremely happy. “The governor just made a very big statement that was appreciated by many,” he told a gathering of — yes! — the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association before going on to announce that he was not only in favor of requiring corn in every tankful of gas, but he wanted to see the proportion go higher.

“As president I will encourage Congress to be cautious in attempting to … change any part of the R.F.S.,” he continued. That would be renewable fuel standard. Trump was reading this speech, which he claimed he had written himself. It was deep into ethanol-speak. All of you who think he’s still just a free spirit flying around the country saying whatever the hell comes into his mind, be aware. This is now an increasingly careful politician.

Cruz, he said, without actually mentioning any names, is a tool of the oil companies. “He goes wherever the votes are,” Trump said contemptuously.

None of that here, God knows.


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