The Weekender: What Happens When Money is Top of Mind

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The narrative of the 2016 Presidential race in the United States has been that the problems in America can only be solved by people how have had no previous dalliance in the political class, at least on the Republican side. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Florina have all, to varying degrees, enjoyed success with voters looking for an outsider to tell Washington what to do. This populist movement has somehow managed to tie itself to people that have a lot of money and in the is imbued the hope that they can restore balance to the world, and it’s working so well, they’re apparently giving it a try here in Canada. 

As we discussed on the show this past week, the possibility’s been raised that businessman and aquatic life enthusiast Kevin O’Leary might enter the Conservative leadership race. O’Leary, having seemingly gone his entire life without affiliating himself politically, now wants to lead Canada’s Official Opposition and take them to electoral victory (and the Prime Minister’s Office) in 2019. Time will tell if his intentions are legitimate or just a passing lark, but he’s already running second to Peter MacKay in polls.

Laying aside the fact that O’Leary’s claim to fame is going yelling at inventors on Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank, and yelling at Amanda Lang on BNN and CBC, and let’s also forget that (like Trump) his business acumen is actually kind of questionable, we live in a country where there’s no litmus test for running for office; if you’re a citizen you can do it. So what quality does O’Leary think go into making a good prime minister? What is his litmus test?

“If you are going to run for leadership in any party, whether municipal as a mayor or provincial as a premier or the prime minister of the country, you shouldn’t be allowed to unless you’ve at least made payroll in a business for at least two years that has $5 million in sales,” O’Leary said in an interview Thursday.

“Otherwise, you are completely oblivious to the challenges that the most important sector has in our country: those business leaders that create private sector jobs. And that’s why our policies are broken, because most of our leaders have never had any experience running a business.”

That’s what O’Leary said while talking to the Toronto Star last week, and in one swift movement, he disqualified pretty much every prime minister that’s ever sat in office in Canada, for better or worse. This idea though, that government should run like a business, and hence a business person should run it, is part of the appeal of the Trump phenomenon, which is probably why Trump, a billionaire, has managed to effectively bench the Republican establishment in the eyes of voters.

The idea that government should run like a business is also at the heart of another story in the news this week, a much more dire and immediate one, the Flint water crisis. Of the many victims of austerity, the 12,000 people in Flint, Michigan affected by lead poisoning are the most recent. A near-lethal combination of managerial impotence, institutional frugality, and jurisdictional ass-covering resulted in the fateful decision for Flint to get its tap water from the Flint River, poisoned after decades of farm run-off, industrial pollution, and the dumping of sewage. That corrosive stew started literally eating away the lead pipes, already near the end of their life, in Flint, and there are now doubts that those residents will ever be able to drink water safely out of the tap again.

How did it come to this? Well, it’s a terribly kept secret that Flint’s been hit hard by globalization. It was 27 years ago that Michael Moore made Flint the poster child victim of outsourcing with Roger & Me, and with a population of just over 90,000 people, 40 per cent of whom live under the poverty line, Flint remains one of the poorest places in the United States. It’s not uncommon for the poor to be ignored by the political machine, and in the case of Flint there was the added drama of Michigan’s statewide budget crunch that was one of the many dominoes that fell after the 2008 economic crash.

This particular problem began when decisions in Flint were taken out of the hands of elected officials and put in the hands of so-called “emergency managers”, political appointees who take over local governments in the event of a financial emergency. Much of Michigan was in receivership, and numerous municipalities were in the same boat as Flint, but unlike other municipalities in Michigan, the office of Flint’s emergency manager changed hands five times in three-and-a-half years.

In the midst of people passing through that revolving door, a proposed new pipeline deal from Lake Huron was approved to send water to Flint and several surrounding communities. Detroit, through, which Flint had been receiving its tap water from for years, terminated their deal with Flint, which left the city without a source of tap water for three years till the new pipeline’s completion. So instead of working out a deal with Detroit, Snyder and his managers decided to take water from the Flint River, which represented a savings of over $1 million per year.

By 2014, there were already indications that there was a problem with Flint’s water, but recently released emails show that politician’s in Gov. Rick Snyder’s office were more concerned that this was the work of some “anti-everything group” turning the situation into a “political football.” But the rumblings got louder. General Motors, who actually still has a plant in Flint, complained in October 2014 that the local water might corrode their parts and managed to negotiate their own access to Detroit water.

By January of 2015, the University of Michigan-Flint found high lead levels in water on campus. By February, homes tested in Flint were found to have seven-times the permissible levels of lead according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. The Flint city council implored the emergency manager to go back to getting the city’s water from Detroit, and Detroit even offered waive re-connection fees, but the emergency manager’s office refused. Why? Because it would cost too much.

In a final insult, it’s been learned that many in authority understood just how corrosive the Flint River was, and that 2011 study indicated that the river would have to be treated with an anti-corrosive agent in order to eliminate 90 per cent of the potential health problems. The cost of that agent? $100 per day. Since that faithful decision, $4 million has been spent renovating the Flint water plant to treat Flint River water, $12 million was spent to re-connect Flint’s taps to Detroit this past October, $1.5 billion will be needed to repair or replace Flint’s corroded pipes, and who knows how many dollars will be spent on the pain and suffering for the estimated 12,000 people that have been affected by lead poisoning, and possible cases of Legionnaires’ disease.

That’s what happens when you treat government like a business. In an effort to save $5 million dollars, hundreds of millions more will have to be spent to fix a situation that should have never happened in the first place. Many people complain about the deliberative pace of the government, how slow they act to approve what seems like the simplest things, but this is why. When you’re in government, you’re supposed to act in the best interest of the people, and that means taking into account all the possibilities for good and ill, and not just on the singular bottom line cost.

When your in business, all you’re concerned about is profit, so that’s what you focus on. How many times has the mad scramble for more money resulted in errors, if not outright tragedy, in recent years? If you want to bring economical shrewdness, negotiating savvy, and fiscal responsibility to political office, those are good qualities to have, but in the end we have to keep in mind that governing’s about people, and that there are times when they matter more than money.

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