While the tragedy of Flint’s poison pipes has shocked the public, the political drama unfolding in the backdrop may be a prelude to even more self-inflicted destruction through a one-two punch of austerity and privatization.
That’s why libertarian and far-right think tanks are joining the media scrum along with liberal critics, as they lament the pathetic state of Flint’s government. Government-led disaster, to be sure, should outrage the public—the question is where to target the rage. The cruel calculation of risking public health to choose a “cheaper” source of water is less a product of bureaucratic incompetence than of a corporate mindset that monetizes human welfare.
Flint’s crisis follows a global pattern of public resources’ falling prey to a profit mentality, which is why the poorest people pay more for water. In “underdeveloped” regions, multinational firms swoop in to capture the local market for water services—sometimes bankrolled by World Bank development schemes. Often this purported market-driven modernization leads to either unaffordable, unsustainable rates for residents, or to chronic neglect, pollution, and attendant public-health risks. Corporate Accountability International (CAI) has reported on the case of Manila, where a private provider has plagued locals with massive rate hikes and inadequate and substandard infrastructure.
Now even in “First World” cities like Flint, austerity and privatization are parallel assaults on the commons. Jesse Bragg of CAI says via e-mail, “More and more, cities are being run like businesses, which often means unequal distribution of services and cuts for low-income communities.” Under the neoliberal development model, he adds, ratepayers are saddled with direct costs for the whole infrastructure, including treatment and maintenance functions that might otherwise be provided by long-term government investment.
The nickel-and-diming of Flint continues even after the exposure of the city’s mass poisoning. Ratepayers have actually been charged for toxic water, under the doubly ironic threat that their dollars are now needed to finance the repairs that the city requires to make the pipes safe again.