Thursday, July 13, 2017

Thanks to tax cuts for the rich... there are now brain-eating amoebas in our drinking water

Above: A water tower and purification system in Mandeville, Louisiana, built by the WPA, 1936-1937. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: A closer look at the WPA-built water purification system at the base of the tower. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

New Dealers understood the value of clean drinking water

Between 1935 and 1943, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) installed thousands of miles of new water lines and built or repaired hundreds of water treatment plants. Harold Ickes and his Public Works Administration (PWA) funded many large waterworks projects across America too, during that same general time frame, and warned us to always be careful with our drinking water:

"Water is life. Apparently this fundamental fact must be learned on the battlefront of experience again and again. When this lesson is forgotten, even for a moment, the consequences are immediate and disastrous. A brief lapse in maintaining the purity of a water supply occurred in 1928 in Olean, N.Y., a town with a population of 21,000. Typhoid germs rode into the Olean homes through the water pipes. Two hundred and thirty-eight cases of the disease resulted. Twenty-one people died... To prevent similar disasters, engineers everywhere to whom the Nation has entrusted the purity of its water supply must be eternally vigilant" (America Builds: The Record of PWA, 1939, pp. 169-170).

We didn't listen... as the children of Flint, Michigan, and millions of other children across the United States can attest to, after they've consumed lead-contaminated water for years.

Above: "Water Carrier," a lithograph by Nina Ullberg (1901-1993), created while she was in a New Deal art program (probably the WPA's Federal Art Project), 1937. Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and David Wood.

Brain-eating amoebas, and other contaminants, in Louisiana's deteriorating and under-maintained drinking water infrastructure

Recently, we've heard that there is a brain-eating amoeba in some of Louisiana's drinking water. But hey, don't worry, as long as you don't get any in your nose, you'll be a-okay! Question: What happens if you're drinking some water, and someone tells a joke, and you laugh so hard the water comes out your nose? Well, I guess you'll be laughing yourself to death. Or what if you're taking a shower, and some water accidentally splashes in your nose? Ooops. ("Brain-Eating Amoeba Found In Louisiana Tap Water; People Warned To Avoid Water In Nose," Huffington Post, July 2, 2017)

Louisiana has been warned about its drinking water. In 2012, the American Society of Civil Engineers said that Louisiana's "aging and deteriorating water supply and treatment and distribution systems are not capable of providing potable water for future, and in some cases, current demands. Better planning and more funding are key elements to providing Louisiana with a safe supply of drinking water in the future" (emphasis added). Louisiana does not seem to have taken the ASCE's recommendations too seriously, as the following news reports highlight:

August 2014: "Brain-eating amoeba now in Louisiana drinking water," Washington Post.

December 2016: "Louisiana Declares Public Health Emergency Surrounding Small Town’s Drinking Water," (lead contamination) KTLA 5 News.  

Indeed, instead of taking the ASCE's recommendations seriously, Louisiana policymakers seems to have doubled-down on neglect. In 2017, the ASCE downgraded Louisiana's drinking water system from a C- to a D-, noting: "some areas struggle to meet potable water demands due to aging and deteriorating water systems, as well as threats to water quality... Approximately 58% of water systems in Louisiana are over 50 years old, creating potential for more frequent system breakdowns and need for repair and replacement of components. In serious cases, deteriorating systems can result in public safety issues such as those in the rural town of St. Joseph, LA [where lead and copper contamination was found]. It's critical for the state of Louisiana to increase funding and raise the grade of its drinking water infrastructure" (emphasis added).

Question: Given America's now world-famous neglect of its infrastructure and public health (see, e.g., "Metro Draws Global Sympathy: Transit agency's woes serve as cautionary tale on the international stage," Express [sub-publication of the Washington Post], June 5, 2017), do we really think Louisiana's drinking water system is the only system where the brain-eating amoeba has taken up residence?

Above: "Drinking Boy," a sculpture by William Zorach (1887-1966), created while he was in the WPA, ca. 1935-1942. On the issues of clean water, infrastructure, and the various New Deal work programs, President Franklin Roosevelt said, "Unprecedented advances in cleaning up our streams have been made possible by the public works and work-relief programs during the past six years... more progress has been made in abatement of municipal waste during that period than during the entire twenty-five years preceding, chiefly as a result of Federal financial stimulation... great improvement in the Nation's basic assets of water has been incident to the fight against unemployment." Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and the Colorado University Art Museum.

Voting against our own health

Three months ago, Louisiana journalist Mark Ballard wrote about the state's wide-ranging drinking water problems. He explained that the main issue is funding, and the inability of Louisianans to afford maintenance and improvements. A microbiologist he interviewed said, "the real issue is in the municipal/community water systems that simply don't have the resources. As many as 300 communities cannot afford to maintain and improve their water systems" ("Across Louisiana, crumbling infrastructure threatens small town water supplies," The Advocate, April 8, 2017).

But here's the curious thing: Louisianans elected Republican Bobby Jindal to be their governor from 2008 to 2016. Jindal, like most Republicans, handed out tax breaks to the rich like candy (see, e.g., "Bobby Jindal’s Anti-Tax Fervor May Have Destroyed Louisiana," ThinkProgress, May 7, 2016). Louisianans also backed Donald Trump, and now President Trump's budget calls for cuts to infrastructure funding for rural areas (like much of Louisiana), including cuts to drinking water infrastructure (see, e.g., "Heavy cuts to rural development and infrastructure in latest Trump budget," Washington Post, May 23, 2017.) 

Louisiana is also a red state, which means they generally favor Republicans. And their two Republican U.S. Senators, and their five Republican Representatives (they only have one Democratic congressman, U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond, 2nd District), are working hard to scale back Medicaid in order to give tax breaks to the wealthy. And we can be sure that these seven men will also be working hard to give even more tax breaks to the wealthy when the issue of "tax reform" comes up later this year. No matter how devastating those cuts will be to the nation's infrastructure, they won't be able to stop themselves from doing it, because (a) they're beholden to their wealthy donors, (b) Louisiana voters won't hold them accountable, and (c) it's in their nature.

As if all this were not bad enough, in 2013 it was reported that "The poor in Louisiana pay twice as much of their income in state and local taxes as do the rich." This type of problem is exacerbated by right-wing policies. When Republicans cut taxes for the rich at the federal level, the revenue burden will inevitably fall on the middle-class and poor at the state & local level, in the form of regressive taxes, tolls, fees, fines, and utility rates (see my blog post here for a more in-depth discussion on this phenomenon.) 

Drowning Government (i.e., We the People) in the Bathtub vs. Investing in Infrastructure and Public Health

Above: "Construction Workers," an etching and aquatint by Hugh P. Botts (1903-1964), created while he was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, ca. 1935-1939. Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and Baltimore Museum of Art.

Grover Norquist, America's preeminent tax cut nut, and the man who famously declared, "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub," recently said that newly proposed tax increases on super-wealthy Americans was, "a cruel joke on middle income people." His rationale was that tax increases would cause the the rich to kill jobs for the middle-class. It seems Norquist has been insulated in his billionaire-funded office for so long, that he can't see what's happened all across America over the past many decades. 

You see, the rich have received tax gifts from their political & policy puppets (like Norquist) for a very long time now - in the form of tax rate cuts; preferential treatment for their investment (i.e., unearned) income; generous mortgage interest tax deductions, for up to two homes; tax loopholes; tax shelters; tax credits; tax deductions; tax gimmicks; and secretive offshore tax havens that our corporate-bought federal government doesn't seem overly concerned about. Thanks to these and other public policies the rich are now enjoying record wealth.

And so, what have the rich done with all those tax favors and all that record wealth? Created millions of awesome jobs, like manna from Heaven? Sadly, no. They've shipped jobs overseas; stagnated wages here at home; cut back on job benefits; engaged in relentless attacks on the social safety net (so that the workers they lay off will have tremendous difficulty receiving adequate help); committed record-setting fraud; and mired their fellow Americans in merciless debt.

If Norquist believes that tax-cuts-for-the-rich, and greater wealth for the rich, has aided America's working class, he's either a man who's completely oblivious to reality... or a lunatic.  

In any event, there's another way - a way that worked: During the 1930s and early 1940s, the New Deal funded thousands of infrastructure and service projects across America. For example, in Louisiana, the WPA performed 4,500 miles of road work, 2,000 bridge projects, 1,800 public building projects, over 200 park, playground, and athletic field projects, nearly 800 miles of water and sewer lines, and much more (Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, pp. 134-136).

Doesn't that sound better than tax cuts for the rich, crumbling infrastructure, and brain-eating amoebas in our drinking water?

And how do we know it worked? Because thousands of New Deal projects are still in use today, 80 years later (often well past their intended lifespan), as documented by the Living New Deal.

Oh, and by the way, the New Deal was funded, in part, by higher taxes on the wealthy. 

Unfortunately, the voting habits of Louisiana and other red states, as well as the modern Democratic Party's enslavement to Corporate America, ensures that there will not be another New Deal, and thus no major infrastructure improvements, during our lifetime. Instead, expect more children to ingest lead (a neurotoxin), more children to die from brain-eating amoebas, more people to die from Legionnaires' disease, more water main breaks, and so on. The American public has made its decision (through voting or apathy) and the verdict is in: Tax breaks for the wealthy (to be used to purchase more private jets, more private compounds, and more private islands) is more important than American infrastructure and public health.

Isn't that amazing?

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