When we blame Michigan Governor Rick Snyder as an individual for what happened in Flint, we risk missing a bigger problem: Snyder is but one representative of the ideology that pervades our political culture.
Looking back, the 2010 gubernatorial campaign reads almost like something a novice storyteller might make up as the exposition to a tragedy whose climax is the Flint water crisis. The Democrats offered up Lansing mayor Virg Bernero, a friend of unions, auto bailouts, urban centers, and cooperation between cities who proudly sported the title “America’s angriest mayor.”
Republican Rick Snyder, on the other hand, ran as “one tough nerd.” He was just what America has been trained to love: a businessman. He was a venture capitalist and private sector chief executive. His LinkedIn profile in January 2016 buzzes with his corporate values:
In his inaugural address, [Snyder] described his vision for reinventing Michigan by creating more and better jobs, revitalizing the educational system, and revamping government to focus on providing excellent service to its customers, the state’s 10 million people. […] He describes his approach as “Relentless Positive Action.” That means solve a problem with no credit or blame and then move on to the next one.
Bringing that business executive’s approach to government has produced impressive results. With Snyder’s leadership, the state has eliminated its $1.5 billion structural deficit and produced four balanced budgets without any accounting gimmicks. The state’s “rainy day” fund has gone from nearly zero to a balance of more than $500 million. The state also has repealed the job-killing Michigan Business Tax and replaced it with a Corporate Income Tax that reduced the state tax burden on job providers by at least 80 percent.
Personally, when I read that line in boldface (emphasis mine), I’m reminded of Comcast customer service.
The problem with running a state like a business is that government is not a for-profit enterprise. Clean drinking water costs money, and when you reduce the state tax burden on “job providers” (as opposed to the wealth creators, i.e., the employees) by 80 percent, you’re going to have less money for clean drinking water. And K-12 and college education. And fixing potholes. And public well-being in general.
Supporters of the status quo tend to reserve the term “ideology” for their critics, implying that idealists who oppose them have concocted fanciful schemes that, alas, just don’t adhere to reality. The problem is that today’s political mainstream—so often educated, like Snyder, at the nation’s business schools—has an ideology, too. It’s one that, like all ideologies, attempts to simplify and make sense of the workings of our hugely complex society. The problem is that Snyder and the political mainstream don’t recognize that they’re embracing not reality, but ideology, and can’t see its limits until it’s too late.
Snyder’s not a comic book supervillain. He probably sincerely believed he was helping people. (I’m not saying that to excuse him, by the way; the phrase “banality of evil” comes to mind.) But in his world, the population’s well being was supposed to grow out of cutting costs, and when it didn’t, his administration didn’t know what to do. Claiming otherwise, after all, makes you part of what one of Snyder’s top aides called the “anti-everything group,” which seems to be a term for troublesome people, like doctors, who value the wrong things, like health. Finally, though, Snyder himself seemed to grasp the nebulous edge of his problem:
Mr. Snyder acknowledged failures on the state’s part. “If you look at it, it was people being much too technical, not having the culture of asking the common-sense questions, and then the tone of how things were done,” he said.
Common sense indeed. Sadly, whatever useful insights it might provide private sector CEOs, the ideology instilled in MBA graduates will not guide a governor, mayor, or president to decisions in the people’s interest. Meanwhile, fiery populist Virg Bernero has forged cooperation between cities on municipal services and business development, allowing them to share tax revenues. He’s considering running for a fourth term in Lansing, while Karen Weaver of Flint has replaced him as America’s angriest mayor.