Of all the photography that’s come across my screen this hurricane/earthquake month, this is the one (from Agence France-Presse) that most made me gape. This is your forest on a Cat. 5; just wind, but as the energy in a fluid flow goes up with the square of velocity, the 150mph wind that devastated Dominica (an island with a long hard-luck reputation in the Caribbean) didn’t just peel up some sheetmetal roofs, didn’t just tip over some trees, didn’t just break windows: it tore all the leaves off every tree on the island, including the wind-adapted palms, and then shredded the whole trees and dumped them into a flooding river, which left the pieces knee-deep on the street it inundated.
Tomorrow morning, congress will be back at work, with a dozen working days to knock off a list of tasks that would be daunting even without an infantile, grievance-besotted, Russia-crazed president throwing sand in the works, and even if its own managers didn’t have a Freedom Caucus of know-nothing ideologues hanging on its ankles, and even if Trump hadn’t just tossed it the anvil of immigration reform. Wow.
But that’s not all; this month only (but continuing for weeks and months of political hassle), you also get Harvey recovery, and wait, if you order now, and also if you don’t, you get two or even three additional exciting climate/weather events ! “Disturbance 1” is chugging west from near Cabo Verde at 10 mph with (at this writing) an 80% chance of getting organized within five days; “Disturbance 2” is brewing up exactly where Harvey started as a little baby orange X in the southern Gulf.
Irma is shaping up to be a very interesting event, as it is now drawing a bead on the east coast of Florida, likely to sail over warm water south of the Bahamas, turn right, and run north along the coast as a 3 or a 4. Of course these projections have a wide error band, but for now, let us reflect on what Neil Frank, the former director of the National Hurricane Center spent his career warning us of about just this storm.
(1) Evacuation routes in this region mostly run north and south; roads going inland (and you have to go a ways inland to be ahead of the storm surge) are basically narrow streets that peter out quickly among the alligators. If the storm is following the shore north from about Miami, driving along the coast is not going to help you much.
(2) Almost no-one living on this coast has ever experienced a major hurricane and has no idea what to expect. Since the last one, there’s been significant sea level rise, increased paved area, land subsidence, and lot more people. There is no real high ground in south Florida. Whole streets in Miami flood now just from a high tide.
(3) From Boca Raton south is a miles-long row of high-rise condominium towers lined up along the beach like dominoes, many taller than the space between them. They are built on sand under (i) Florida building codes and (ii) Florida local government administration. The former are not as insouciant and optimistic as the rules that put Houston under water last week, but close; the latter is not as corrupt as Louisiana’s, but, um…my father had an expression “as crooked as a dog’s hind leg” …
Frank used to predict that the storm surge will wash the sand out from under some or many of these buildings and they will tip over, perhaps into the condo tower next door. If evacuation doesn’t work, there will still be people in them.
(The governor overseeing this mess will be the deeply odious, reactionary, willfully ignorant, climate denier Rick Scott, who’s idea of Christian charity is drug tests for welfare recipients, and of responsive government is allowing Floridians to be sure their children don’t learn anything they don’t know, like evolution.)
Irma is due (according to current model runs) about next weekend; the other two, too early to tell. Oh yeah, Russiagate continues to slowly fulminate, and North Korea…oy.
The writer Saki, back at the beginning of the last century, said “the Balkans create more history than can be consumed locally.” I think current times create more news than society, or anyone in it, has the bandwidth to cope with. Or that the remaining adults in government can react to usefully.
Here’s a thought: as soon as we defeat Trumpcare, Democrats in both houses introduce Medicare Part M (for Middle-Aged), covering people ages 50-64.
A. It’s good politics:
1. These are the people who were going to be hit the hardest by Trumpcare premium increases. Offer them a better deal and they’ll support us–and people this age vote!
2. It sounds more moderate than Medicare for All, while also making a solid step closer to single-payer, which the Republicans have managed to make sound like pie-in-the-sky socialism with a side order of end-of-the-world.
B. It’s good policy:
1. These are the sickest people in the Obamacare exchanges–move them out of the pools and premiums go down.
2. BUT they’re healthier than most people now on Medicare: put them into that risk pool and the premiums go down there, too.
DON’T believe Trump when he says Obamacare is collapsing.
DON’T believe pundits who say the Democrats have no platform/positions: this plus increased minimum wage plus let’s get out of Afghanistan is platform a-plenty.
The inferno in London is out, mainly because the entire flammable contents of the building have burned up. Fire hoses cannot deliver water to the upper floors of such buildings, and the ladders trucks can bring to the scene don’t reach nearly high enough. Many more deaths will be recorded–I expect a toll in the dozens–as the search for the missing continues. Police and fire brigades told people to stay in their flats and close their doors rather than escaping, and those people have been incinerated. As the structure of the building, whether concrete or steel framed, has certainly been compromised, possible collapse will make it impossible to search for bodies for quite a while. [update 14/VII: they are using drones! Nature imitating art; the Economist big drone wrapup was published last week.)
How is such a thing possible? Well, first we should note that dying in a fire is rare and getting more so in all industrialized countries: annual fire deaths per million in the US are only about 12, and remarkably, down by two-thirds since 1979. The UK is on a similar trend and about a third safer overall. We should also note, as more information about administrative and regulatory failures dribbles out, that this was housing for poor people.
The ways to avoid fire deaths are as follows:
- start fewer fires
- faster emergency response from fire brigades
- buildings that resist fire spread after ignition
- buildings that facilitate escape
- proper behavior by occupants
- better medical care for survivors
No. 1 is the biggie, and it has to do partly with electrical codes and enforcement, but progress in recent years has mainly to do with smoking, both less smoking overall and safer cigarettes. A third of residential fires used to be caused by cigarettes, usually dropped on upholstered furniture. Cigarettes used to be laced with enough saltpeter to keep them burning if not puffed on, so the tobacco company could sell another cigarette when one left in an ashtray consumed itself; at least in the US that’s no longer true. But fire can start in many ways; see 5. below.
No. 2 is occurring, because fewer fires mean engine and ladder companies are less busy, and because it’s politically difficult to close unnecessary fire stations. Nearly all engine and ladder sorties in the US now are actually medical calls.
No. 3 is a matter of codes and code enforcement: hour-ratings for partitions and doors, less flammable materials, UL listing for electrical components, etc. and honest, effective inspections to be sure that’s all happening. Otherwise known as job-killing regulatory government meddling in the free market, don’t you know. Here the US is disadvantaged by traditionally building with wood rather than masonry. It’s also a matter of the most reliable, proven, life- and building-saving technology, sprinkler systems; something the Grenfell Tower seems not to have had, even in the corridors and escape routes.
No. 4 involves a variety of features. Small things like an alarm system (have you checked the batteries in your smoke detectors lately?) and quick-release locks on the bars people in poor neighborhoods put on their first-floor windows matter. For larger buildings, it’s a matter of having two escape routes from every location, and one of these has to be protected from filling with the smoke that kills more people than heat and flame; an example is the exterior fire escape we see on older buildings. I was appalled to read in the Guardian that 1970’s high-rise UK buildings of the Grenfell era had “one escape stair which is not designed for a mass evacuation, but is designed for a small number of people to get out whose individual flats are on fire”. No; two stairs, and one has to be open to the outdoors (sometimes an interior “fire court” open to the sky) at every landing. When I was working in architects’ offices in the 70s and 80s, this was completely standard practice. It still is. If you live in a high-rise, do you know how to get to your fire stairs in the dark? If not, practice.
Twenty-four stories is a long way to walk down in the dark, afraid, aroused in the middle of the night from a sound sleep, in pajamas or nothing, especially with terrified little children. I would not live above the twelfth floor of any building. I wonder if the people enjoying the view from high up in the fifty-story condo buildings popping up in New York think about this.
No. 5 includes some training (point the fire extinguisher at the base of the flames) and occasional drills, not filling your apartment with unnecessary inflammable stuff (what doomed the partiers at the Ghost Ship in Oakland), not storing the gasoline can for your lawn mower in the same room as a water heater, staying in the kitchen when you have a frying pan on the burner, and so on. And do you know where your kitchen fire extinguisher is, and how to use it, and have you checked the pressure gauge?
Where fire comes to your house from outside, as in Mediterranean climate landscapes that burn regularly and will do so more with climate change, you have to maintain what we call “defensible space” in California, and stay on top of it as grass and brush try to grow into it.
The Japanese have a long history of living close together in wood and paper houses, and cooking indoors on open charcoal fires, but their fire death record is not much different from other industrialized countries: this is assuredly the result of learning to respect fire, and that hibachi. It’s also socially unacceptable to have a fire in Japan, an expert in fire safety told me a few years back: if you do, even a small one, you probably have to leave your home and move to another city. The FEMA study linked above notes, interestingly, that incendiary suicides inflate Japanese figures.
Every catastrophe has multiple ’causes’, so there will be lots to learn about this one as the facts come in. Whatever they are, they will include irresponsible, probably corrupt, behavior by people who should have known better.
[update 14/VI] Useful stuff is beginning to come in. Aside from the other terrible mistakes and oversights, it appears the exterior cladding, a Chinese aluminum/polyethylene sandwich, is so flammable that testing in Australia was suspended after the first sample practically blew up in the lab. Here’s an excellent post-incident report from a very similar fire in Australia. It has everything: ignition by cigarette, overcrowded units, cladding carrying the fire up the outside of the building…but also working alarms, sprinklers, and proper fire stairs for evacuation. Deaths and injuries: 0.
Today’s New York Times has an op-ed piece extolling some of the virtues of the Republican plan for health insurance; one take-away from it (featured by the NYT) is that “5 percent of Americans generate more than 50 percent of health care expenses.”
So what? Before I retired in 2002, my medical expenses were minimal. Since then, however, I have had a number of medical problems. In other words, the smug feeling I used to have about others who populated the health care system has given way to the reality of (what I should have known, as a statistically savvy person) the difference between cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Cross-sectionally, 50 percent is pretty scary, unless you realize that that 50 percent is primarily populated by the likes (and age) of me. Longitudinally, however, the data may show a different story, with perhaps 10 percent of the population never having major problems throughout their life, and have paid (as insurance should) for the difficulties that they luckily never experienced.
The author of the op-ed noted that his 93-year-old father “just received a $50,000 catheter-inserted aortic valve, which was covered by Medicare.” Is he suggesting that his father should have just sucked it up and lived in pain or in a wheelchair for the next few years of his life? Doesn’t he realize that Medicare is just what he recommends, that his father and those like him are using Medicare to “save their own money for just this sort of rainy day,” with the proviso that we may not all need that umbrella? Insurance, whether for cars or homes or health, is meant to spread the risk.
This Monday the friends, colleagues, family, students, and disciples of Thomas C. Schelling gathered at the Kennedy School to honor his memory. The speakers included his eldest son (Andrew Schelling), the current dean of the school (Doug Elmendorf) two former deans (Graham Allison and David Ellwood), and an academic all-star cast including Mort Halperin, Richard Zeckhauser, and Glenn Loury. Somehow I was also asked to speak.
I didn’t speak from a text, but what follows is a version of what I said, “revised and extended,” just like the Congressional Record.
The dome of St. Paul’s cathedral marks the center of the City of London – a cathedral, and a city, both rebuilt after the Great Fire thanks largely to the energy and genius of Christopher Wren. On the floor directly below the dome appears Wren’s obituary, which concludes: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” – “If you’re looking for his monument, look around you.”
Here in the Forum of the Kennedy School, one can say the same thing of Thomas C. Schelling: his monument is all around you. Not the buildings, but the school itself as an institution, the idea it embodies, and all of us and all the others who came together around that idea are Schelling’s monument. The city of Cambridge, among many other cities, also forms part of that monument, since without Schelling’s wisdom about how to avoid nuclear war it might well be a heap of rubble glowing in the dark.
As to the more local monument: Schelling did not re-form the Littauer School of Public Administration into the Kennedy School of Government all by himself. A whole catalogue of giants in that founding generation – Richard Neustadt, Francis Bator, Howard Raiffa, Fred Mosteller, Phil Heymann, and Edith Stokey – helped to start the work. The second and third generations, home-grown or recruited, who carried on the project here and elsewhere, included – in addition to those who have spoken here today – Mark Moore, Mike Spence, Mike O’Hare, Al Carnesale, Ronnie Heifetz, Bob Leone, Michael Nacht, Bill Hogan, Bill Clark, Dutch Leonard, and Ash Carter.
But though Schelling did not act alone, the power of his mind and the force of his personality were indispensable in convoking this community. To cite my own example among many: as a college senior, I was interrupted on my way to law school by reading “On the Ecology of Micromotives,” which introduced the “tipping” idea with its famous checkerboard model of how residential segregation could emerge, almost inevitably, in a population where everyone prefers integration but no one wants to be part of a small local minority. I went to Holland Hunter, the chair of the Haverford economics department and my mentor, and said “I have to learn how to do that.” Ho chuckled and said, “Well, Schelling teaches at the Kennedy School.” I said, “The where?” And I’ve never looked back.
Among the giants of his generation, Schelling was foremost in creating the idea of public policy analysis as a discipline of thought, distinct both from public administration and from the social sciences: a pragmatic discipline focused on the question “What course of action, in these circumstances, would best serve the public interest?”
Of course, Schelling wasn’t only a policy analyst: he was a social scientist of towering stature, the sort of person whose Nobel Prize led people to say not “Really?” but “About time!” Others today have mentioned his contribution to the understanding of strategic interaction, and the role his concepts of imperfect self-command and strategic self-management played in starting what became “behavioral economics.” But the Schelling idea that hit me hardest was the tipping model, and the more general principle of paying attention to the importance of positive feedbacks in the choice of problems to work on.
Reading Schelling on micromotives teaches you to avoid the Sisyphean problems – where, once you’ve pushed the stone up the hill, the power of negative feedback will roll that stone right back down over you on the way to its equilibrium – and to choose instead the exciting positive-feedback situations where a nudge might get the stone over the crest and moving of its own accord down to a much better place on the other slope, or the dangerous positive-feedback situations where a little effort in the right place and at the right moment might keep the stone from rolling irretrievably over the brink. All of my work on focused deterrence in law enforcement is the application of that bit of insight; the book that resulted forms part of Tom’s monument.
In the economics course Tom and Francis taught us as first-year MPP students, we learned many important things explicitly: for example, that an obviously pro-consumer ban on surcharges for using credit cards and an obviously anti-consumer ban on discounts for cash are, in fact and in truth, identical policies. That pointed to the general rule: Ignore the label on a policy, and ask instead about its results.
But Tom taught us even more vital things by his example:
- to use models without being used by them;
- to see the humor in serious situations, and look for the apparent paradox that might make sense of a situation and point toward a solution;
- to be prepared, and willing, to be surprised by the way the analysis comes out, or by the way the real-world situation stubbornly refuses to behave as the analysis says it ought to behave; and
- to embody clear thought in clear speech and clear writing.
Though he never would have put it in these terms, Tom taught us policy analysis not merely as a discipline in the academic sense but as a yoga, an intellectual and moral self-discipline requiring difficult feats of non-attachment: to self-interest, to group interest, to factional loyalty, to received opinion, to one’s own policy prejudices, and – most of all – to the need to have been right in one’s earlier views. No force in the world – not greed, not envy, not party spirit, not even cruelty – does as much damage as the inability to say, without too much discomfort, “I was completely wrong about that; good thing I’m smarter now.”
By his example, Tom also taught us to pursue questions not for their abstract interest but for their practical significance. He was disappointed when I chose to write my dissertation on cannabis policy – where I was convinced I could see the right answer – rather than on cocaine policy, where the stakes were much higher but the right set of policies seemed much harder to find.
That principle led him to choose smoking as the new focus of his attention once his insights about preventing nuclear war had largely been incorporated into the thinking of decision-makers. Tobacco wasn’t a “Schellingesque” problem, ready to fall apart at the touch of a brilliant insight. There is no analogy in tobacco policy to second-strike capacity or focal points or the threat that leaves something to chance. No, Tom chose tobacco simply because it was and is the leading preventable cause of death in the developed world, and a growing problem in the developing world, with tens of millions of lives at stake, and he was convinced that thinking hard about it would help point policy in the right direction.
The same was true of global warming. As Tom freely acknowledged, economic and strategic analysis were only two among the two dozen disciplines needed to address that question. He picked it up not because he saw the answer but because the problem was interesting and hard, and because the consequences of getting it wrong – either ruinously over-investing in fending off what might be a phantom threat, or under-investing and failing to control warming before it becomes self-sustaining, or combining the two errors by adopting expensive but ineffective control policies – might be so disastrous.
In both of those cases, he demonstrated his willingness to follow the analysis where it led, even if it led him away from his old allies. With respect to tobacco, he followed Nietzsche’s advice to “depart from one’s cause when it triumphs.” Having labored mightily to put the health harms of smoking front and center in policy discourse and to break the political power of the tobacco industry, and having helped demonstrate the futility of low-tar-and-nicotine cigarettes as harm-reduction measures, Tom later formed part of a distinct minority willing to speak out against what had become a rigid tobacco-control orthodoxy on behalf of the less dangerous non-combustion forms of nicotine administration, including “vaping.”
On global warming, he started out in the camp of the skeptics: not skeptical about the human contribution to climate change, but somewhat skeptical about what seemed alarmist views of how bad things might get and deeply skeptical both about the capacity of initiatives such as the Kyoto Protocol to control the problem and about the feasibility, constrained by international politics, of mounting the massive coordinated effort that might be required to keep greenhouse-gas levels below what some climate scientists regarded as intolerably dangerous levels. He hoped that geoengineering approaches and measures to adapt to whatever climate change did occur might reduce the magnitude of the required economic adjustments.
But as the temperature data continued to come in, and as sailboats began to ply the Northwest Passage through waters once utterly ice-locked, Tom parted company with the “Copenhagen Consensus” group and started to call for more vigorous action, on the theory that changes in relative prices – especially if phased in – were likely to be easier adjust to than rising sea levels and shifting and rainfall patterns.
From the outside, it was hard to see the influence Tom Schelling wielded over those of us who followed him, without ever handing out orders. Once, in a conversation with Mark Moore about something Mark wanted me to do or not to do, contrary to my inclination – I can no longer remember the original topic, about which Mark was probably right – I defended my intentions by saying, “Mark, you don’t understand; I always wanted to be Tom Schelling when I grew up.” He replied, “What you don’t understand is that everyone in this building wants to grow up to be Tom Schelling.”
Well, Tom is no longer with us, and neither is that unforgettable smile. So it’s time for the rest of us to grow up and get back to building the monument.
Here’s an earlier tribute to Schelling, from the memorial service at the University of Maryland.
Schelling’s most famous book, and the one most likely to be read 500 years from now, is The Strategy of Conflict. Micromotives and Macrobehavior is a similarly stunning achievement, centering around “tipping” phenomena. The best introduction to Schelling’s thought for the non-specialist is probably the collection of essays called Choice and Consequence; the two essays on “self-command” reflect his role in founding behavioral economics.
Three big lessons from this catastrophe.
First, think before you wish for ‘job-killing, economy-crushing regulations’ to be swept away. Fire and housing codes would have saved
33 36 young lives here if they had been enforced; an enormous fire in Cambridge the same day killed no-one, partly because there weren’t as many people crammed into one space, partly because the eleven old buildings involved met codes, or close, and had many ways out, partly because they weren’t full of paint thinner and the kind of flammables artists use at work.
Second, primary responsibility obviously rests with the owner and the building manager. But this was an implementation/management failure, not a policy failure: Oakland’s codes are entirely adequate to prevent this kind of thing, but they weren’t effectively used, whether because California has crippled its local governments financially by Proposition 13 and other short-sighted tax choices, or because the enforcement function in Oakland was incompetent or feckless.
The inspector who visited this deathtrap on Nov. 18 was “unable to gain access” and apparently the matter dropped there. It’s possible California needs some new legislation. For example, I have no trouble with the idea that the owner of anything larger than a single-family house has a duty to make himself (or a subordinate or attorney with the keys) reachable for purposes of inspection access within 48 hours of any safety-related complaint the city chooses to act on. If he doesn’t open the building for the inspector, the inspector can admit himself, by force if necessary, during business hours.
Berkeley had a similar episode a decade ago, which unfolded quite differently because the city kept after the landlord. No fire, no deaths, no tragedy…
…but a bunch of artists out on the street. Third, the housing/workspace crisis for artists in happening cities is real (not to mention for teachers, students, civil servants, and every kind of poor person). The resistance to cleaning up the Drayage building came from the tenants whose safety was the point of the enforcement action, and they correctly understood that they had no workable options; things are worse for artists now. Running around rousting artists from improvised housing and homeless from tent camps won’t fix this. Unless we make it easier to build, confront NIMBYism, and shovel out more housing supply–yes, including subsidized live-work spaces–we will have nightmares like the Ghost Ship and homeless camps under freeway ramps. People who can’t afford housing, whose price (in the Bay Area, and other places) has sailed into a completely unattainable stratosphere, will live somewhere, and that somewhere will be inhumane, intolerable, and dangerous in so many ways.
Berkeley’s miserable sequence of sexual harassment cases continues: this week it embarrassed our men’s basketball team, as we fired an assistant coach for abusing a reporter in an episode that included a kidnapping and threats to damage her career — the day we were accepted into the national tournament with a very flattering #4 seed. So in a calendar year, we’ve lost a distinguished chemist’s service as Vice Chancellor for Research, a top astronomer has left the campus entirely, a law school dean has resigned, and an otherwise (apparently) effective coach was fired. At last report, we have 26 more sexual harassment cases in the pipeline.
The president of the university and our chancellor and provost are all over this, of course, and in an email to everyone, the two campus officials “acknowledge that some recent decisions in cases of sexual misconduct have exacerbated these concerns, and…profoundly regret any and all errors of judgment on our part.” The president is setting up a panel to review all sanctions imposed on senior university leaders, presumably to make them tougher in cases like Choudhry’s; the chancellor is standing a similar body up for Berkeley. Our state-mandated biennial two-hour on-line training, (which didn’t prevent the 30 current cases), is being revised, and spread out to cover all employees, including student employees. As the expanded reach does not include all students, who were the victims of the egregious Marcy case and many others, it is presumably directed at potential perpetrators and not victims; a big mistake.
Unfortunately, I think the leadership response to date–mainly asserting concern, sitting us down for more training, and cranking up the punishment for perps–is poorly-designed, even though the last part, on the evidence of the Marcy and Choudhry cases, is overdue. Continue Reading…
Among the regrettable contributions of my institution to a national conversation about sex and gender in the workplace are two recent WTF?? black eyes. Last fall we learned of a Nobel-Prize-short-list astronomer trashing his career, and his female students’, while his colleagues enabled him over a decade.
I ended that post with
The chancellor and provost are working on “different and better options for discipline of faculty.” OK, but if they aren’t also working in different and better ways to acculturate, teach, and guide faculty (yes, and randy frat boys), they will leave a lot of value on the table and set us up for the next humiliating and tragic episode.
Well, dang: it’s not even spring break, and here it is, moved up the the decanal level! Last summer, this wound up in the lap of the provost, who decided the dean’s future career prospects were his main concern, and a ten percent, one-year pay cut plus instructions to get counseling and write an apology letter to the victim would be just the thing, all unfolding in secrecy. I don’t know whether I’m more appalled by the actual disciplinary decision or the radiant incompetence of a senior campus administrator believing he was going to keep this out of the press after the Marcy episode, in a world of social media.
The noise on campus now comprises demands for Provost Steele to resign. I am not generally in favor of firing people when they make a mistake, but this is now a pattern of malpractice by Steele; one could cynically say, as Talleyrand might have but actually didn’t, “it’s worse than a crime; it is a blunder”. His initial decision might as well be an open letter to women on campus telling them “if powerful people around here mistreat you, we will protect them and punish you if you complain”. Alarmingly, the chancellor doesn’t seem to understand how damaging having Steele hanging around his neck is, and they issued a pathetically mealy-mouthed joint statement that “the initial decision not to remove the dean from his position is the subject of legitimate criticism”, being framed as we speak to hang in the Museum of Rhetorical Weaseling next to “mistakes were made”. Things are not looking up.
I’m not sure Choudhry needs to resign his faculty position (he has resigned as dean), but his (so far) apparent lack of contrition may be a sign that he just shouldn’t have a job where he has to interact with women. Firing a tenured professor is a really big deal with all sorts of procedural protections involving the whole faculty and many steps and checks. That’s probably a good thing, but the astronomy faculty and students effectively fired Marcy by publicly saying they didn’t want to have him around any more. The law school already has a war criminal (John Yoo) on its faculty, whose colleagues are apparently fine with that despite Botero’s Abu Ghreib paintings hanging in the dean’s office suite, so maybe they have some work to do in the courage and collegiality department. How are they actually treating Choudhry in corridors and common rooms?
Thirty years ago [sic], I was visiting the drinking water treatment plant of Cambridge, Mass, and noticed a wonderful little Rube Goldberg contraption that dribbled a white powder onto a small turntable, from which an oscillating arm with a little scraper attached pushed intermittent tablespoonsful into the water flowing past in a flume underneath. “What’s that?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s lime. We put it in to correct the pH [acidity], so the water doesn’t dissolve lead out of the pipes and solder joints.”
Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan elected in the 2010 state-level GOP wave that also washed the unspeakable Scott Walker and Sam Brownback onto local beaches, is having a terrible time in the last couple of weeks with this Flint water fuss.
Snyder’s big governing idea was to take over management of failing cities and towns in Michigan from their elected officials, and to have his political cronies, hard-headed CPAs like himself who understand that government is the problem, run things, and to stop running things that cost any money. In Flint, his local catspaw realized that big money could be saved [oops; just wait for the lawsuits to unfold] by switching the water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River, and the Snyder people had already so thoroughly protected Michiganders from the ravages of government that none of the remaining environmental or utility officials in the state knew the slightest thing about water or plumbing.
What this did was to poison 100,000 people with a chronic neurotoxin, lead dissolved out of old pipes by river water that is slightly acidic, like most Northeast surface streams. A local pediatrician with a foreign name, and a smartass pointy-head professor from Virginia, tried to get Snyder’s gang’s attention, but of course they failed for about a year, because seriously, how many of those poor people stuck in Flint would vote Republican or contribute to GOP campaigns anyway? So the poisoning went on, until the inexcusably sentimental and unrealistic lefty agitator Rachel Maddow made it a national story. Along the way, it appears they saved $100 per day by omitting the gadget described above.
Oh yes, Snyder is also just finding out about a year-long Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, that’s killed ten people so far, that might have something to do with this. Snyder’s people were apparently trained to protect him from bad news; his chief of staff is all bent out of shape about blaming people for stuff, obviously a good fit with his boss.
It’s still going on, and what struck me today is Snyder’s complete ideological collapse and hypocrisy: he wants the federal government to come in and fix things for him. and he wants to deliver the whole stinking mess he made back to…Flint’s elected officials! Have we ever seen such a perfect storm of incompetence, cruelty, cowardice and cynicism?