While the residents of Flint, Michigan continue to suffer from the lack of clean water caused by the incompetence and greed of Governor Rick Snyder’s administration, as well as its complete disregard for human life and basic democracy, former House Republican and now talk show host Joe Scarborough earlier this week abused his “journalistic” pulpit of the Morning Joe show to blame the federal government for the poisoning of Flint’s children and families. He let Snyder off the hook for the possibly criminal negligence in knowingly allowing poisoned water to flow through the household taps of Flint’s residents. It’s hard to imagine greater chutzpah or political hypocrisy.
I don’t mean to over-emphasize the power of the smug Scarborough’s political voice or his cultural authority. Rather I want to analyze his political tact of blaming the federal government (implicitly meaning the Obama administration) for problems created and worsened by years of Republicans’ obstruction, and also their policies enacted as assaults on people’s basic rights and well-being.
This tactic is representative of the GOP’s tendency to reduce government revenue, usually through tax breaks for corporations and the wealthiest citizens, undermining government’s ability to serve its citizens, and then blame the government for not working effectively and for being too big, even as they shrink it and weaken it.
Here’s what happened on Morning Joe. After letting Snyder ramble on expressing pride for his addressing the water problem in Flint and blaming everyone under the sun but himself for the damage inflicted on Flint’s people, Scarborough turned to his guest Jeffrey Sachs, renowned economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, a leading intellect in the fight to end poverty. Before Snyder’s interview, the two had been discussing the need for government investment in infrastructure. Turning to Sachs, Scarborough shifted focus off Snyder, saying he would the leave the judgment of Snyder to history, but that he wanted to discuss the issue of infrastructure spending. “Washington DC chokes off infrastructure money, chokes off spending money,” he complained, and then invoked the Hurricane Katrina disaster as the result of the federal government’s refusal to invest in infrastructure.
Most generally, Scarborough’s hypocrisy lies in the fact that he repeatedly touts himself as a conservative, railing against big government, tax-and-spend liberals, deficits, and the like. And yet in this instance, he is quick to, if not absolve, at least deflect attention from Snyder and his management of Michigan, and blame “Washington, D.C.,” not even being honest about the fact that it has been congressional republicans who support tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy and reduced spending and who have historically blocked infrastructure spending bills.
Last March, for example, Senate Republicans blocked an amendment to the 2016 budget proposal, introduced by Bernie Sanders, which would have provided 478 billion dollars for infrastructure spending. According to Eric Pianin, reporting for The Fiscal Times, “Hundreds of billions in new spending would have been offset by closing a number of corporate tax breaks that allow some major companies to escape paying taxes or stash profits overseas. But Republicans objected and said a large tax increase on business was not the right economic plan.”
Scarborough blames the federal government—coded as ‘Washington, D.C.”– for refusing to fund infrastructure spending, refusing to identify Republicans as the obstacle, so he can keep alive the ideological narratives that big government is the problem and that the federal government needs to cede power to the states.
More specifically, Scarborough’s hypocrisy rests in his ignorance of or dishonesty about who is really responsible for the poisoning of Flint’s people.
First, while Scarborough turns the conversation away from Snyder’s tyranny and disregard for the lives of the working-class, the poor, and people of color to the federal government’s lack of infrastructure spending, it is not at all the case that the chief problem in Flint was one of infrastructure. Jesse Jackson, for example, has reported that when General Motors complained to state officials that the water being newly supplied from the Flint River was corroding auto parts in its factory, Snyder’s team restored the automaker’s hook up to the water delivered from Lake Huron, while continuing to insist water from the Flint River was safe.
When it came to GM, the infrastructure seemed just fine. They could just get hooked up again to clean water. But when it comes to the largely African American and much less affluent Flint population, suddenly it’s a matter of infrastructure? Come on, Mister Morning Joe, drink some coffee and wake up.
Moreover, as is widely known and as any responsible journalist should know, the problem didn’t begin with the pipes themselves but with the fact that the water was not treated, as is typical practice, with the necessary additives to prevent the water from corroding the pipes and hence leaching lead into the water.
Was this failure to properly treat the water the fault of Washington, D.C., of our overly big democracy? Once again, Joe, the answer is no.
In fact, quite the opposite, the fault rests in the suspension of democracy in Flint and the establishment of tyrannical rule. After Snyder’s election, he passed a law with the legislature authorizing the state to intervene in local units of government experiencing “financial emergencies,” as determined by the state, and remove authority from democratically elected representatives. In Flint’s case, Snyder installed an emergency manager, Darnell Finley, who made the decision, under the auspices of Snyder’s office, to refuse Detroit water services in March 2014 and tap into the waters of the Flint River, widely known to be polluted.
Was the poisoning of the people a consequence of “choked off” federal spending on infrastructure? Again, sorry, Joe. The problem begins at the state level with, once again, Snyder’s mismanagement and tyranny. When he took office, he gave sizable tax breaks to corporations and the rich. Switching water services was supposed to be a cost-saving measure, part of the overall effort to make up for the revenues lost from the tax cuts.
It seems Republicans don’t even believe their own baloney about tax cuts paying for themselves.
Counter to the typical story Republicans peddle, exemplified in Scarborough’s GOP-driven “journalism,” the problem has nothing to do with Washington, D.C. “choking off” infrastructure spending.
The problems lay in Snyder’s tax cuts, his own “choking off” of spending, and his betrayal of democracy in installing an “emergency manager” (read: authoritarian dictator) who did not represent the interests, or even remotely care about, the people of Flint.
Sachs responded to Scarborough by correcting him, reminding him that Snyder campaigned on a platform of cutting taxes, not infrastructure investment. He scolded Scarborough that Snyder’s behavior is the culmination of an anti-government agenda that has been going on for thirty years, starving the government and inflicting social decay on the American people in the name of lowering taxes on the wealthy.
Flint’s tragic example warns what happens when we as a people fall prey to the seduction of tax cuts and don’t understand that taxes are actually investments in our well-being. Moreover, studies show that infrastructure investment, such as that being proposed by Bernie Sanders now, in addition to ensuring people’s well-being by providing amenities such as clean water, also improves the nation’s financial well-being, expands employment, and raises median incomes.
I don’t mean to pick on Scarborough as an individual, as smug and irresponsible as he is, but to highlight the dangers of this typical republican storytelling.
Say it ain’t so, Joe.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.