Monday, December 26, 2016

Drinking lead for the rich in Louisiana. A classic case of people voting against their own interests.

Above: During the 1930s and 40s, New Deal policymaker and New Deal workers engaged in thousands of waterworks projects all across the country. We're still using many of these projects today, well past their intended lifespan. Image from America Builds: The Record of PWA, 1939.

A Drinking Water Emergency in Louisiana

A few days ago, the mayor of St. Joseph, Louisiana, declared a health emergency because the town's drinking water was contaminated with lead. The problem stems from a 90-year-old drinking water system and/or the old plumbing in many of the town's homes. This is not a new problem for Louisiana. For example, back in August, NBC News reported high levels of lead in the New Orleans water system. And the problem is certainly not unique to Louisiana either. A recent Reuters investigation found that 3,000 areas across the U.S. have higher lead poisoning rates (from all sources, not just water) than Flint, Michigan. And the problem is probably far worse than that because, as Reuters points out, "millions of children" aren't even tested for lead poisoning.

Ignoring Warnings, and Voting Against Their Own Economic & Health Interests

But Louisiana is an interesting case study because, as a "red state," the people have (collectively) sided with the Republican principles of tax-breaks-for-the-wealthy and "limited government." They elected Republican Governor Bobby Jindal to be their governor from 2008-2016, they have a Republican-led legislature, and they voted for Donald Trump. And what do Jindal, the Louisiana State Legislature, and Donald Trump all have in common? They installed, or are promoting, tax-breaks-for-the-rich (see, for example, "Bobby Jindal's Anti-Tax Fervor May Have Destroyed Louisiana," ThinkProgress, March 7, 2016; "Trump Tax Plan Gives 47% Of Cuts To Richest 1%, New Analysis Finds," Forbes, October 11, 2016). 

And Louisiana voters have been voting for politicians who promote tax-cuts-for-the-wealthy despite the fact that the middle-class and poor in Louisiana pay a larger percentage of their income in taxes than wealthy residents do, and also despite the fact that Louisiana needs more revenue, not less, to fix their crumbling and poisonous infrastructure. In 2012-2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) warned Louisiana about its drinking water systems: 

"Louisiana’s potable water infrastructure is deteriorating at an alarming rate...  older lines result in leaks that ultimately cost the water system valuable revenue... Water wells are no longer pumping at their design
capacity and need rehabilitation... The operators of public water systems in small, rural areas are typically overwhelmed... Many do not have the manpower required to fix leaks, read water meters and operate the system at the same time. Other systems do not have adequately trained certified operators... Routine maintenance and rehabilitation projects must begin before it is too late. Louisiana’s water systems receive a D+ for Condition" ("2012 Report Card for Louisiana's Infrastructure," p. 43).

Further, the ASCE recommended that "Local leaders should lobby for additional state and federal funding. Infrastructure will continue to deteriorate without proper action" (p. 44).

Collectively, the voters and politicians of Louisiana ignored these warnings, continued to promote more tax cuts for the rich (through their voting behavior, or lack thereof), and are now being poisoned by lead. This is a classic case of voting against one's own economic & health interests. And it's happening all across the nation.

Things Were Different for Louisiana During the New Deal

An interesting article from the March 21, 1940 edition of The Monroe News-Star newspaper shows how infrastructure neglect doesn't have to be the norm (as it is today). The article outlines the accomplishments of the WPA in Louisiana, after 4 and 1/2 years of labor. With respect to waterworks...

"WPA built 54 new utility plants... This included... 14 sewage treatment plants, 34 pumping stations... and a water treatment plant with a capacity if 1,500,000 gallons per day... The construction of water mains and distribution lines totaled 181.4 miles... a total of 4,315 water consumer connections were installed. A further improvement in Louisiana water supply was the digging of 12 water wells, the construction of 12 storage tanks or standpipes, and one storage dam... WPA workers installed 18,837 sewerage service connections..." ("WPA Conducts Big Program").

And keep in mind that this was only a little over half-way through the WPA program and, moreover, there were several other New Deal programs that worked on Louisiana's infrastructure too, for example the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA).

Will We Return to the New Deal, Or Will We Continue to be Suckers for the Rich? 

We could replicate the New Deal experience (e.g., a new WPA), and fix our infrastructure, if we (a) stop worshiping the rich, (b) stop sticking our military noses in the affairs of every other country on the planet, and (c) start paying more attention to domestic problems (like millions of American children being poisoned by lead, as well as other filth, in our drinking water). Unfortunately, as I look around me, and as I read the news, it seems to me that a large percentage of Americans have learned nothing. And so, we'll most probably continue drinking lead (and other toxins) so that the rich can continue adding millions and billions to their already-bloated wealth.

Isn't that amazing?... that an entire culture, collectively speaking, would willingly poison itself to please the rich?

Think about this: If you were to tell a politician, or your average American citizen, or any number of think tanks, civic organizations, or media groups, "I think we should pay the unemployed to modernize our infrastructure," you be stared out like you're a weirdo, at best, and more likely laughed out of the room. You'd be told something along the lines of "That's pie-in-the-sky thinking." And yet, this nation has already paid the unemployed to modernize our infrastructure, and it worked spectacularly - as evidenced by the fact that we're still using many of those infrastructure projects today - even though they weren't intended to be used for this long. On the flip-side, our current public policy on infrastructure has resulted in millions of children being poisoned. Isn't it incredible that a proven public policy (the WPA) is considered ridiculous, but the current failed public policy (tax-breaks-for-the-rich & infrastructure neglect) continues on indefinitely, and is considered the more "serious" and "mature" way of thinking?

(Note: In 2011, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) put forth legislation to create a new WPA--to put the unemployed back to work, and to fix our infrastructure--but the legislation died in committee. Republicans failed to support it because it wasn't a tax cut for the rich; Lautenberg's fellow Democrats failed to support it because they had abandoned the New Deal a long time ago; President Obama failed to support it because he didn't see how it would please his corporate backers; and the people failed to support it because they were too busy on Facebook and their Smart Phones to even know it existed. But there are consequences for all this ignorance and apathy, such as broken water mains and poisoned children.)

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