Thirty years ago [sic], I was visiting the drinking water treatment plant of Cambridge, Mass, and noticed a wonderful little Rube Goldberg contraption that dribbled a white powder onto a small turntable, from which an oscillating arm with a little scraper attached pushed intermittent tablespoonsful into the water flowing past in a flume underneath.  “What’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s lime. We put it in to correct the pH [acidity], so the water doesn’t dissolve lead out of the pipes and solder joints.”

Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan elected in the 2010 state-level GOP wave that also washed the unspeakable Scott Walker and Sam Brownback onto local beaches, is having a terrible time in the last couple of weeks with this Flint water fuss.

Snyder’s big governing idea was to take over management of failing cities and towns in Michigan from their elected officials, and to have his political cronies, hard-headed CPAs like himself who understand that government is the problem, run things, and to stop running things that cost any money. In Flint, his local catspaw realized that big money could be saved [oops; just wait for the lawsuits to unfold] by switching the water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River, and the Snyder people had already so thoroughly protected Michiganders from the ravages of government that none of the remaining environmental or utility officials in the state knew the slightest thing about water or plumbing.

What this did was to poison 100,000 people with a chronic neurotoxin, lead dissolved out of old pipes by river water that is slightly acidic, like most Northeast surface streams. A local pediatrician with a foreign name, and a smartass pointy-head professor from Virginia, tried to get Snyder’s gang’s attention, but of course they failed for about a year, because seriously, how many of those poor people stuck in Flint would vote Republican or contribute to GOP campaigns anyway? So the poisoning went on, until the inexcusably sentimental and unrealistic lefty agitator Rachel Maddow made it a national story. Along the way, it appears they saved $100 per day by omitting the gadget described above.

Oh yes, Snyder is also just finding out about a year-long Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, that’s killed ten people so far, that might have something to do with this. Snyder’s people were apparently trained to protect him from bad news; his chief of staff is all bent out of shape about blaming people for stuff, obviously a good fit with his boss.

It’s still going on, and what struck me today is Snyder’s complete ideological collapse and hypocrisy: he wants the federal government to come in and fix things for him. and he wants to deliver the whole stinking mess he made back to…Flint’s elected officials! Have we ever seen such a perfect storm of incompetence, cruelty, cowardice and cynicism?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.