Thursday, January 28, 2016

Flint Michigan: Urban Disaster, or Just Good Corporate Governance?

Michigan Politicians
When Rick Snyder, Michigan's former CEO & self-professed 'Nerd' governor discovered that his personal decisions were directly responsible for turning Flint, Michigan's water supply into a toxic, lead-infused mess, he took immediate action (well…two years late), the same kind of immediate action that any powerful, effective CEO would take in such a situation:

He hired two new PR firms and conceded at a national press conference that the situation in Flint would "probably be a stain on (his) legacy."


Priorities, huh? Good thing he got right on that.

Actually, by revealing his priorities in such a bald and tone-deaf way, Governor Snyder unintentionally shone a surgical-wattage light on why good governance and good corporate management are not the same thing, nor should they be the same thing.

No matter how many political sound bytes we hear to the contrary, being a successful businessman is not a credential for being a decent public servant. 

It's worth doing a little thought experiment at this point:

Just imagine, if Rick Snyder could do this much violence to the people of Michigan in four years just by running it like an efficient corporation, what could Donald Trump do to the U.S. over the same period of time by applying the same methods?

If that thought doesn't scare the pants off you, keep reading.

The Rick Snyder Guide to Ridding Your State of Pesky Poor People

A lot of political progressives believe that corporations are immoral and evil, but corporations are not immoral by design. Corporations are amoral. The purpose of organizing a business as a corporation is not to create evil but to generate the most profit with the least liability. 

A corporation is essentially a profit-making machine. Should this machine end up taking harmful actions in the pursuit of profit, the individual people running the corporation can't be blamed because the corporation did the harm, not the people. The corporate structure protects the individuals running it. 

Corporations may or may not be required to redress those harmed by their actions, but often, even legal consequence turns out to be inconsequential. How badly was Wall Street harmed after nearly tanking the world economy? World Con? Dow Chemical?

You get my drift.

Corporations may do evil in the pursuit of profit, but that's more of a side effect, not an expressed intent. 

Running a government like a corporation therefore means valuing what and who is profitable above all else, and taking no personal responsibility for harmful outcomes in the process of applying those values. Rick Snyder is doing exactly that and he is doing it consistently and well.

Sadly, representative government gets in the way of efficient corporate management, especially when it comes to unprofitable segments of the governed. Immediately recognizing this troubling conflict of interest between government and good corporate management, Rick Snyder decided to simply wave the rights of citizens in poor cities and instead appoint his own city managers to take over and make all their decisions for them.

OK, the jury is still out on whether that is even constitutional (because so far there hasn't been a jury or a constitutional inquiry), but Snyder did it anyway. 

When a statewide ballot initiative calling for the repeal of the city manager provision passed overwhelmingly in the last election, Snyder and the GOP-controlled legislature changed a few phrases of the old law and simply reinstated it under a different name, immediately. 

So, if you live in Michigan and your city is poor, you have no rights. Sorry. 

This policy had far-reaching effects almost as soon as Snyder took office, and not just for cities.

School teachers instantly became the target of brutal cost/benefit analyses and many teaching positions were eliminated in poor cities and towns across Michigan. State employees similarly became the butt of severe ridicule and their access to unions, pensions, and decent wages was slashed. 

Benton Harbor, a city consisting pretty much entirely of desperately poor blacks had its local government shut down and taken over by a state-appointed city manager in 2008. That city manager decided that what would really help the poverty stricken people of Benton Harbor would be to sell their Lake Michigan access and empty land to a private developer. 

That developer is currently building an exclusive private golf resort with an expensive beachfront hotel on land that once belonged to the citizens of Benton Harbor. 

Benton Harbor's citizens will be priced out of that resort and that golf course. The likelihood that they will be employed in these exclusive developments is not looking good either. 

Back before the days when we thought corporations and governments were the same thing, that used to be called a 'land grab'. Now it's just an example of maximizing your profit margin: giving to the profitable the spoils of the profit-less

No one should be surprised that Rick Snyder's city managers are people he knew from his CEO days, his friends and cronies and familiars. The fact that his CEO days were at Gateway, that 90's computer retailer that sold desktop PCs packed in witty cow boxes seems not to matter. 

Gateway is long gone, sold to China, and the cow box thing was kind of stupid. 

The point is, if you are a CEO of something, even outsourced cow boxes, people figure you know what you are doing, even if all you know how to do is delegate and hire PR firms.

Maybe we need to start examining this government=business equation more critically.

Eat the Poor

Have you noticed that, except for random general complaints against food stamp recipients, no one talks about poverty anymore? 

Most Americans today think of themselves as "middle class", and this seems to be so whether they make $12,000/year or $120,000 or $400,000; whether they are employed, between jobs, retired, or other; whether they live in shared efficiency apartments or trailers or gated communities. 

The reason everyone has decided to be middle class these days is that we've pretty much accepted the proposition that poverty is shameful.

We don't talk about poverty, and we most especially don't talk about our own poverty, because we feel ashamed. Good hard working people are rewarded with wealth, right? So if you don't have enough, you must not be enough.

This shaming of the poor is great for rich people and even better for corporations. You don't have to pay people well or treat people well if they have already proven their unworthiness by having no money. 

When a government-run-like-a-corporation steals land from the poor, or takes away their rights to representative government, or poisons their water to save a paltry amount of money then refuses to repair the damage done, no guilt or liability is admitted, because these people, these poor people, are not profitable concerns. They have no wealth, they generate no profit. 

And what's more, most of them are black.

Swift's Modest Proposal doesn't read as satire in such a world, it reads as a poor business plan, since even the corporate elite have a negative reaction to consuming cooked babies. 

Why should they have to consider such a thing?

They can afford that  $45/pound steak and the right wine to go with it. 

And the poor?

Never mind cake: Let them drink the water in Flint.

As Flint Goes, So Goes the Nation

I live in West Michigan, roughly 130 miles southwest of Flint. The city where I live is also an aging industrial center that has recently seen jobs dry up and blow away, specifically northward, to the GOP-leaning city of Grand Rapids. 

It is another unintended artifact of corporate governance that the cities most likely to be unprofitable are also the ones most likely to vote Democratic: Flint, Detroit, Kalamazoo.

I retired at 62 when I could no longer get a decent job to save my life, and that makes me just another unprofitable person in an unprofitable city in Michigan, but that, for me, was an upgrade, since before that I lived in Indiana. 

A couple years ago, the worst inland oil spill of all time happened where I live now, and not long after a half-assed clean up effort, the corporation responsible for that spill hired a PR firm to make TV spots about how the oil spill actually made the rivers and wilderness areas better than before. 

Nothing like a buttload of sticky, toxic, tar sand oil spilled all over field and stream to improve the beauty of nature, huh?

America has become increasingly corporate over the last three decades, and that corporatization has mostly benefited the super-rich, who are now the super-duper-rich and getting richer by minute. 

The rest of us, not so much.

Millions of middle class people are falling into poverty, while clinging to the middle class title to cushion the anger and shame. 

I didn't like working for corporations, and I like being governed by them even less. All over the U.S., infrastructure is crumbling at an astonishing rate. In some places, like Flint MI, that decay is helped along by callous GOP governors. In others, like Porter Ranch CA, amoral corporations who only care about money neglect toxic situations of their own making. 

In still other places, like San Francisco, the new techie elite are pushing people out of their own neighborhoods and turning entire cities into expensive Whole Foods-Starbucks-Sushi-bar meccas accessible only to young hip millionaires. 

The midwest may be on the crest of this new and destructive wave, but it's what's on the menu for everyone who didn't inherit a whole lot of Benjamins. If that seems like a good thing to you, by all means, continue carrying on as if you are perfectly safe and everything is fine. 

If not, you might want to think about making some noise. 

Like, now.