The unfolding water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is deeply horrifying. The city’s residents, including children, have been drinking water contaminated with toxic levels of lead. The public health disaster there is a cautionary tale of what happens when politicians who elevate economic expediency above all else are elected to public office.
Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is a venture capitalist turned politician. He ran as an outsider, a self-proclaimed “tough nerd,” touting his success in the business world and vowing “to bring a new style of leadership … new ideas and new results” to the state government.
The allure of outsider and anti-establishment candidates is central to the 2016 presidential contest. As Snyder did, businessman turned Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump is running on being a successful entrepreneur who gets things done, whether that is building a golf course in Scotland or a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
As with Trumpism, a populist politics that dismisses politicians as all talk no action, much of Snyder’s political rhetoric revolves around action and getting things done. “I get up every day, no blame. I never blame anyone, don’t take credit,” Snyder said in 2012. “I’m hired to solve problems.”
The slogan on his website reads, “Reinventing Michigan: Getting it right. Getting it done.” His rhetoric follows what the scholar Steven B. Katz calls the “ethic of expediency,” which maintains the efficient means to an end constitute a moral good. “To some extent,” Katz wrote in a 1992 article for the journal College English, “expediency is the ‘moral’ basis of many decisions/actions in our society that sometimes harm human welfare or imperil human life.”
Snyder’s focus is not on the social consequences of what he wants to get done or why but rather on the act of doing. He sums up his political philosophy with the phrase “relentless positive action.” His actions may have been relentless, but their outcomes have been devastating for public health and safety.
Early in his tenure, he approved two bills that gave him the power to appoint emergency managers to cities and school districts in financial crisis. The handpicked managers had “the power to cancel or renegotiate city contracts, liquidate assets, suspend local government, unilaterally draft policy and even disincorporate,” according to Vox.
In 2013 the state-appointed emergency manager decided to temporarily switch Flint’s water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in order to save the city money over the two years that it would take for a new water system to be built in Genesee County, which includes Flint.
The decision was made solely on the basis of economic expediency, glossing over concerns that the highly polluted river would be difficult to treat. The corrosive water was not properly treated, also likely for financial reasons. Snyder’s administration initially responded to concerns about the lead content of the water by dismissing the reports, attacking those raising them and blaming local officials for the problem. (The Flint City Council did not approve the switch to Flint River water.) “From the very beginning,” Brandon Dillon, the chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said on Jan. 19, Snyder’s “style of governance has been to put the bottom line over what’s in the best interest of health and safety.”
Now that ignoring the problem is no longer a viable option, Snyder’s response emphasizes the promise of “taking actions” over moral accountability. One of those actions includes hiring two public relations firms to help his office manage the crisis.
“I’m sorry, and I will fix it,” he said in his State of the State address on Jan. 19. “Government failed you — federal, state and local leaders — by breaking the trust you place in us.” Yet he missed an opportunity to acknowledge the economic and human costs of his decision to appoint emergency managers in Flint and other predominantly African-American communities. As voting in the presidential nominating contests draws closer, American voters must consider the lessons from Snyder’s rise and the ensuing public health debacle in Michigan. In a jacked-up version of Snyder’s “get ’er done” rhetoric, Trump writes in his latest book, “Crippled America,” that the country needs a “leadership that can deal with our mess and begin to apply practical solutions to our problems … We need to outline common-sense policies and then knock some heads together if necessary to make them work.”
He packages even his racist proposals, including a database of Muslim Americans, as common-sense policies based on “good management procedures.” His incendiary rhetoric might be an extreme example of political expediency, but he is far from alone.
Many of his fellow Republican candidates — both Washington insiders and outsider — also emphasize expediency. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz promises to “shrink the size and power of the federal government by every and any means possible” if he is elected president. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina bills herself as “a problem solver, with a track record to prove it.”
In a speech at the Detroit Economic Club in August, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio praised Snyder’s “pro-growth, pro-business leadership,” saying the powers that be in Washington, D.C., should “learn what this city already has” and embrace the governor’s action- and reform-centered style of governing. (Rubio should visit the Detroit public schools, which have deteriorated under emergency manager control to the point that teachers have been staging sickouts in protest of hazardous conditions.)
Rubio is right insofar as America can learn from the political situation in Michigan. Voters should be suspicious of candidates who make vague promises to take action and get quick results, using every means at their disposal. The ability to get things done is not a moral good in and of itself. When the ethic of expediency takes hold and the means is more important than the ends it is intended to serve, the results can be catastrophic.
In Flint, switching to the Flint River for its water would have saved the city about $5 million over two years. By contrast, the costs of the water crisis are estimated at $45 million and rising, to say nothing of the long-term health effects and emotional trauma that Flint residents will be coping with for generations.
The lessons from Flint are clear: We need politicians who have the competence, training, empathy and desire to not only take action but also take time to deliberate whether those actions would be in the best interests of the people whom they swear to protect and serve.