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Issue #1732      May 25, 2016

Culture & Life

Not so rich after all

The USA is supposedly the richest country on Earth. That might depend however on how one defines “rich”. A country that cannot – or will not – provide affordable (let alone free) health care for its population is arguably not really rich. Neither is a country that cannot give its people universal, free education, or that cannot guarantee employment for all its citizens. Also fundamental to a definition of a rich country is whether it can provide its people with sufficient to eat and drink. The provision of fresh, clean drinking water is a basic requirement that many people – especially in poor countries – simply do not receive. And not just in poor countries.

“The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice”.

Take Flint, Michigan, in the US. Before General Motors closed production there a few years ago it was probably the biggest automobile manufacturing operation in the country, a huge complex of plants employing thousands of skilled workers. When GM transferred their operations to a state where the laws strongly favoured employers and prevented workers from organising effectively, the economy of Flint collapsed.

That didn’t worry GM, of course. What happened to the 100,000 people of the city that had been the centre of GM’s operations for decades was of no concern to the members of the GM board. The argument that it would boost profits was all that mattered to them. That their lowly employees actually had rights did not even occur to them (and if it had, would have been dismissed as irrelevant). That workers do have rights and that those rights are important is something those pesky Socialists are always banging on about. The GM board chose to ignore the matter of workers’ rights and to close their operations in Flint altogether.

One unlooked-for result of GM ceasing manufacturing in Flint was the conversion of Michael Moore, the editor of the local paper, into a political activist and filmmaker, radicalised as he confronted the reality of capitalism in all its ruthless inhumanity. At first he could not believe that a giant company like GM, an American institution, could simply walk away from its obligations to its employees and their families and to the community that depended on Flint for its livelihood. But he learned that they not only could but that they would. Like a shot. Without a backward glance. Chortling all the way to the bank.

Another unlooked-for consequence of the closure of GM in Flint, though not so immediate, was the mass poisoning of the city’s population. When the economy of Flint went down the tube, the city administration soon became bankrupt. That such a thing could even happen is a telling condemnation of the chaos of capitalism. It would be unthinkable in a rational, planned society where investment and people’s needs would be co-ordinated.

Incapable of maintaining automobile production in Flint or of substituting some alternative industry under the conditions of capitalism, the best the state government could do was to appoint a state official to manage Flint’s “fiscal crisis”. This official decided, in a move intended to save the city a relatively paltry $5 million over two years, to switch Flint’s drinking water supply from the Detroit city system to the heavily polluted Flint River.

So polluted is the water of the Flint River, it is actually designated as highly corrosive. Although US law requires that such water be treated before it is fed into the domestic water supply, this was not done (presumably on grounds of cost). After all, Flint is not exactly a rich city. Forty two percent of the people of Flint live below the poverty line. Racism might also have been a factor: 57 percent of Flint’s population are African-American, another 8 percent are Latino or of mixed race.

At least 8,000 homes in Flint are connected to the large main water pipes by small, aging lead pipes. Lead leaching out of the aging water pipes was added to the polluted water from the Flint River. Rhea Suh, president of the US environmental activist organisation the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), noted that “the result was that lead was piped into thousands of homes in Flint.

“Some 9,000 children were exposed to drinking water contaminated with toxic lead, which is especially dangerous to infants and young children. It can reduce intelligence, impair learning ability, and make it difficult for kids to control their impulses.”

The Flint water crisis erupted in 2014. Signs of trouble emerged within months, and by March 2015, the Flint City Council voted to return to buying water from Detroit. At the time, the emergency manager overruled the council, but since then the city has returned to the Detroit water system for its water supply. However, today, two years after the situation began, Ms Suh can observe that “the water in Flint, Michigan, is still unsafe to drink ... tap water is still contaminated with lead.”

“The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice”, the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force reported. The state government, however, seems to have decided on scapegoating: two state workers and a Flint city employee have been charged with criminal wrongdoing in the case, and more prosecutions are threatened.

The problem with lead in the US’s drinking water though, goes far beyond Flint. “Elevated levels of lead have been found in thousands of water systems across the country, including in North Carolina, Rhode Island, Mississippi, South Carolina, and even our nation’s capital”, says Reah Suh.

“Legislation in the US Senate that would provide emergency assistance for the people of Flint, including money to replace lead pipes, has been held up for months by a few intransigent Republicans. That goes beyond obstructionism; it’s a national disgrace. It’s time the people of Flint got the assistance they deserve.”

One can only agree. Under capitalism, however, even the provision of essential services is made conditional on a corporation making a profit. That doesn’t bode well for the unfortunate people of Flint.

Isn’t capitalism grand?

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