Will We Learn the Right Lessons from Flint?

Inquiries triggered by the Flint, Michigan water crisis have turned up several unpleasant reminders that ideology is no substitute for managerial competence or public ethics.

The most offensive recent discovery was evidence that—at the same time state officials were assuring Flint residents that their water was safe—they were providing clean water to state workers. As the Detroit Free Press reports,

In January of 2015, when state officials were telling worried Flint residents their water was safe to drink, they also were arranging for coolers of purified water in Flint’s State Office Building so employees wouldn’t have to drink from the taps, according to state government e-mails released Thursday by the liberal group Progress Michigan.

A Jan. 7, 2015, notice from the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which oversees state office buildings, references a notice about a violation of drinking water standards that had recently been sent out by the City of Flint.

“While the City of Flint states that corrective actions are not necessary, DTMB is in the process of providing a water cooler on each occupied floor, positioned near the water fountain, so you can choose which water to drink,” said the notice.

Needless to say, residents of Flint did not get a similar choice.

Then there’s this…

In The Public Interest is a think-tank monitoring privatization in the U.S. The organization warns the public when poorly-conceived public-private “partnerships” threaten to enrich private contractors without serving the public interest, or when such arrangements lack sufficient oversight or accountability. According to its recent newsletter,

In February 2015, almost a full year before the news of widespread lead poisoning gained headlines, the world’s largest private water corporation, Veolia, deemed Flint’s water safe. They were hired by the city to assess water that many residents had been complaining about—a General Motors plant had even stopped using Flint’s water because it was rusting car parts.

Veolia, a French transnational corporation, deemed Flint’s water to be “in compliance with State and Federal regulations.” While they recommended small changes to improve water color and quality, their report didn’t mention lead.

The city paid Veola 40,000 for that advice. Apparently, state government lacked the expertise to assess either the water quality or Veola’s competence to test it.

Whether the Governor and/or his aides were criminally negligent is a determination for the courts. That they are responsible for incalculable damage is inarguable.

Let me be clear: I have a bias here. I teach in a school of public affairs, a school that operates on the belief that competent public management requires knowledge of public finance, an understanding of the policy process, and respect for democratic institutions, public law and public ethics. We offer rigorous courses in those and related subjects.

Contrary to what appears to be popular opinion, the average businessman or CEO cannot just waltz into a government office and do a credible job; very different constraints—both managerial and ethical— apply to public service. You cannot do what Governor Snyder did, and simply abort the democratic process, install your preferred puppet to manage political subdivisions in accordance with your preferred ideology, and “hire out” essential responsibilities.

When we elect people who don’t understand the difference between the public and private sectors, and don’t care to learn, we get Flint.


A Strange Kind of Socialism

The data shows that over the past year, the private sector has added 1.7 million jobs.  During that same period, the public sector has lost 404,000 jobs.

Constitution 101

A few years ago, the American Constitution Center conducted a poll to assess the country’s constitutional literacy, and drew a depressing conclusion: Americans revere the Constitution, but have virtually no idea what it says or means.

 If that conclusion seems a bit “over the top,” consider some of the more indignant reactions to two recent court opinions applying the religion clauses of the First Amendment. In a case close to home, Judge Sarah Evans Barker ruled that a public high school’s graduating class could not vote to have prayer at its official ceremony.  A decision with more national scope held that a Presidential designation of a Day of Prayer is improper. I found the homegrown case particularly ironic, since I invented a virtually identical fact situation a few years ago, and have been using it as part of my midterm exam. Unlike the school officials involved, my students almost always recognize that the issue is not whether students may pray, but whether the government can sponsor prayer.

In a recent column, Russ Pulliam declared that the founders did not want to eject religion from the public square. True. There is an important difference, however, between the public square and the public sector—a difference that evidently eludes many Americans.

There are two religion clauses in the First Amendment. One—the Establishment Clause—prohibits government from sponsoring, endorsing, favoring or otherwise getting involved with religion. The second—the Free Exercise Clause—forbids government from interfering with individuals’ voluntary expression of religion. Together, those clauses send a message to government: hands off.

If you want to take religion into the public square, you are absolutely free to do so. You can post religious verses on your house, wear tee shirts with religious messages, hand out religious handbills on the public streets, place religious messages in newspapers or magazines, or hold revivals in public parks. If you have the means, you can buy a television network and broadcast religious messages 24/7. You can engage in these and innumerable other religious activities in the public square and agencies of government will be constitutionally prohibited from interfering.

If, however, you want the public sector (government) to weigh in—if you want a publicly-owned building to post your bible verse, a government official to endorse or lead your prayer, or a legislative body to ensure that your neighbors are behaving in accordance with your religious beliefs, you have a constitutional problem, because the Establishment Clause prevents any group of citizens, no matter how numerous, from using the power of the state to impose their religious beliefs on other citizens.  Your neighbors cannot take a vote to make you an Episcopalian or a Baptist or a Muslim, and the senior class cannot vote to have an agency of government—the public schools—impose a religious observance on those attending the graduation ceremony.

We should all have learned the difference between the public sector and the public square in Government 101. Unfortunately, too many of us skipped class.