Tag Archives: North Carolina

Apparently, It Isn’t Just Flint

Water, water everywhere…but not a drop to drink.

For several months, headlines about Flint, Michigan have documented a failure of government that is truly unforgivable. Whatever one’s preferred ideology about the proper size or function of government, only the most extreme libertarians or anarchists would argue that government has no responsibility to provide and maintain essential infrastructure.

In the wake of these disclosures, there has been public outrage and condemnation leveled at Michigan Governor Snyder and his administration. That condemnation is deserved. The outrage has reflected a belief that the actions of the administration were “beyond the pale,” that they were a rare and unacceptable deviation from the most basic duties of governance.

Or so we would like to think.

Megan Davies, North Carolina’s chief epidemiologist, resigned this week in the latest bit of drama over drinking water safety — drama that involves the state’s biggest utility and the administration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Davies, who accused state officials of deliberately misleading residents, gives up her post of seven years and an $188,000 annual salary.

The story begins in 2014, when a Duke Energy power plant spilled 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River. The ash is a byproduct of burning coal, and it’s harmful to people and ecosystems, containing silica, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.

When the spill occurred, the state told residents that their well water was unsafe, and Duke Energy provided bottled water to those affected. When the state lifted that order, telling those in the area that the water was now safe to drink, a number of scientists working for the state criticized that move, insisting that the water was still unsafe. Davies has now resigned in protest.

There is still no order from the state requiring Duke Energy to clean up the coal ash deposits. This is corruption and it is potentially costing many lives and damaging the environment enormously.

For those of us who live in the Hoosier state, there’s similarly disquieting news closer to home. Think Progress recently reported that “An Indiana City is Poised to Become the Next Flint.”

In East Chicago, the problem is lead contamination in the soil.

Some environmental law experts say the national attention on Flint may have finally ignited action in East Chicago, where residents like Daniels finally learned the scope of the issues with their soil just two weeks ago. The EPA office responsible for East Chicago, Region 5, is the same one that oversaw Flint, Michigan’s contaminated water system.

But these are hardly the only communities with long-ignored contamination tucked into low-income neighborhoods.

The unfolding health emergency in East Chicago is a window into a larger environmental justice crisis playing out in neighborhoods across the country. And the historically minority, lower-income residents of the Calumet neighborhood will suffer the consequences.

Children exposed to lead at a young age can be left with severe brain damage, resulting in irreversible mental disorders, seizures, behavioral disorders like ADHD, and stunted educational growth.

These disclosures join a number of other signs that governments–especially at the state level–are not discharging their most basic responsibilities. In Indiana, unsafe bridges have also made the news. Nationally, Congress has yet to authorize funds for needed upgrades to the electrical grid. The neglected infrastructure list goes on.

A country that cannot maintain its infrastructure is a third-world country.

I can’t help thinking that this is what happens when a society’s dominant discourse constantly characterizes government as unnecessary, inept and corrupt. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When “good enough for government work” attitudes demean public service, government stops attracting the “best and brightest,” the people who want to serve, to make their communities better; instead, it becomes a refuge for second-raters seeking power or influence.

When I worked for the City of Indianapolis in the late 1970s, I was constantly impressed by the number of administration officials and municipal employees who cared deeply about doing a good job, who worked extra hours and took pride in improving their city.

At some point, when “government work” became a sneer, a lot of those civic-minded people left.

Instead, we have the Snyders, McCrorys and Pences.

States’ Rights. And Wrongs.

David Schultz is an academic colleague of mine, a Professor at Hamline University, who recently used his blog to raise an issue that is all too often ignored: the current operation of federalism.

“Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it” is an old adage that might apply to Republicans when they make calls for federalism and states’ rights.    When Republicans began advocating for more state power they probably never expected to get what they are seeing now–states pressuring one another on policy and human rights issues, and states doing things that the national government cannot do.  And when Democrats and Liberals cheer for state travel bans to punish states for bathroom bills, they too may be opening themselves up to the dangers of federalism.

As David points out, we usually see staunch defenses of “state’s rights” as Republican-speak for “we have the right to ignore parts of the constitution we don’t like.” State’s rights understood in that way have a sordid history. Theoretically, such local control would strengthen grass-roots democracy; in reality, the agenda of many of the champions of the “New Federalism” was to use states rights to weaken the national government and undo what they labeled “the liberal agenda.”

Did empowering the states allow North Carolina and Mississippi to enact anti-LGBT legislation? Did it lead to Indiana’s embarrassing anti-choice bill? Sure. But there are very few single-edged swords.

But conversely, federalism also meant that states were freed up to act and do things they could not do before.  The concept of New Judicial Federalism, launched by a famous 1986 law review article by Supreme Court Justice Brennan, meant that state courts could draw on their constitutions to innovate.  And they have.  It was state courts that launched the gay rights movement, eventually pressuring the US Supreme Court to constitutionalize a right to same-sex marriage last year.  But states have also moved on marijuana legalization, health care reform, banning the death penalty, right to die legislation, minimum wage, and a host of other reforms that the federal government could not pass and which conservatives did not like.  Change is more often than not bottom up and not top down, and the federal courts have taken their cues from state courts to make doctrinal changes under federal law….

But now consider the reaction to the bathroom bills.  States, including Minnesota, have now imposed bans on non-essential travel to these states and are leading the way to encourage corporations and organizations to boycott these states.  Unleashing federalism means that states have the power to pressure one another to toe the policy line.  Doubtful this is what states’ rights advocates envisioned.

Our current understanding of federalism invites its invocation for less than noble reasons, and ultimately, that’s not good news for anyone, conservative or liberal. As David points out,

What if other states decide they do not like legislation in Colorado or Washington legalizing marijuana?  Or what if some states want to pressure another on tax, education, or other policies?  So far the new federalism boycotts have been launched to support liberal causes, but why not for conservative ones too?  Minnesota’s economic travel ban makes many Democrats feel politically smug but that tool can be used against them too.

This type of federalism runs very close to economic protectionism and parochialism that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause was meant to prevent.  The Constitutional framers of 1787 had seen the states discriminating against one another and part of the entire constitutional project was to bring economic and political unity to the country.  Federalism and states rights can as easily be symbolized by a burning cross as it can be by a burning joint. One’s rights should not depend on which state one lives in.

America is already far too fragmented. To the extent that federalism a/k/a “states rights” empowers both those who want to opt out of today’s America and those who want to marginalize the “opt-outers,” it may be time to rethink what “e pluribus unum” ought to look like.

Words Fail–Edition Number Zillion…

Every day, it seems, Americans are waking up to new expressions of punitive hatefulness erupting in state legislative chambers, mostly but certainly not exclusively in the South.

From The New Civil Rights Movement, we learn that

Led by Republican Speaker Tim Moore (photo), Republican House lawmakers in North Carolina have just passed a sweepingly broad anti-gay bill in a special session called just for this one bill. The bill will void all local nondiscrimination ordinances. It will also mandate that all public accommodations ordinances, all minimum wage ordinances, and all employment discrimination ordinances come only from the General Assembly – state lawmakers – effectively banning any localities from protecting citizens in any of these areas.

The bill, HB 2, passed by a huge margin, 83-24, after less than three hours of debate and just 30 minutes of public comment.

HB 2 now heads to the Senate, who will take it up immediately.

It is expected to pass and Governor Pat McCrory, who called for the bill, is fully expected to sign it.

So–as long as we are striking back at LGBT citizens who have had the nerve to demand equal treatment before the law and the right to use a gender-identity-appropriate bathroom–let’s also pile on and punish the working poor, minorities, women….It is really hard to fathom what could impel an elected official to vote for a measure this hateful.

It’s worth noting that this North Carolina eruption is yet another illustration of the growing divide between urban and rural Americans; this special legislative session is a response to the passage of a nondiscrimination measure in Charlotte. In North Carolina–like other states, including Indiana–rural areas wield disproportionate influence in the statehouse.

It may also be that these lawmakers feel free to act on their bigotries because they are confident they will not have to defend their votes in a democratic election. After all, it can’t be coincidental that North Carolina is the most gerrymandered state in the country, and is currently embroiled in litigation over that fact, and over the state’s other assaults on voting rights.

I refuse to believe that this measure is an accurate reflection of North Carolina voter sentiment. This despicable behavior is what you get when the legislators choose their voters, rather than the other way around.

If Evidence Mattered…

Despite the fact that he has no legal authority to do so, Governor Pence has doubled down on his rejection of Syrian refugees. He continues to insist that he is just concerned for the safety of Indiana residents.

Indiana’s Governor lives in a wholly fact-free zone, of course. Refugees are highly unlikely to pose a threat to Hoosiers. (Unrestricted access to guns, however, which he enthusiastically supports, represents a huge and demonstrable threat…).

Not only have refugees proven to be virtually all law-abiding, but the danger posed even by genuine, avowed jihadists is actually quite low. Per The New York Times:

Despite public anxiety about extremists inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the number of violent plots by such individuals has remained very low. Since 9/11, an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in an average of six terrorism-related plots against targets in the United States. Most were disrupted, but the 20 plots that were carried out accounted for 50 fatalities over the past 13 and a half years.

In contrast, right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities, according to a study by Arie Perliger, a professor at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. The toll has increased since the study was released in 2012.

Other data sets, using different definitions of political violence, tell comparable stories….

Meanwhile, terrorism of all forms has accounted for a tiny proportion of violence in America. There have been more than 215,000 murders in the United States since 9/11. For every person killed by Muslim extremists, there have been 4,300 homicides from other threats.

A colleague with whom I was discussing this data shared an interesting article from Slate about the venues supplying our home-grown terrorists. The article’s sub-head advised “Forget Syria. The most dangerous religious extremists are migrants from North and South Carolina.”

Today, Republican presidential candidates are climbing over one another in a race to block the entry of Syrian refugees. They’re doing this even though, among the nearly 800,000 refugees we’ve accepted since 9/11, not one has been convicted of—or has even been arrested for—plotting a terror attack in this country. (A few have been arrested for links to terrorism elsewhere.) Why do refugees have such a clean record? Because they have to go through an elaborate process: screening by U.N. evaluators, “biometric and biographic checks,” consultations with U.S. counterterrorism agencies, and an in-person interview with the Department of Homeland Security. On average, the process takes about a year and a half—or, in the case of Syrian refugees, about two years.

Terrorists from North Carolina encounter no such scrutiny. They just climb into their cars, cross the border, and proceed to Georgia, Kansas, or Colorado. They’re protected by Article IV of the Constitution, which, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, guarantees citizens “the right of free ingress into other States.” That’s why, among the 27 fatal terror attacks inflicted in this country since 9/11, 20 were committed by domestic right-wing extremists. (The other seven attacks were committed by domestic jihadists, not by foreign terrorist organizations.) Of the 77 people killed in these 27 incidents, two-thirds died at the hands of anti-abortion fanatics, “Christian Identity” zealots, white anti-Semites, or other right-wing militants.

The writer concluded by wondering “why, as we close our doors to refugees who have done us no harm, we pay so little attention to our enemies within.”

Let’s be candid, even if the Governor isn’t: it’s because we fear those who don’t look like “us.”

Prescriptions from the Doctor

It’s interesting that most of the public opposition to the Affordable Care Act has come from politicians–not infrequently, from politicians whose most generous donors have a vested interest in the medical status quo–and not from providers of medical care.

Perhaps we should listen to the people on the front lines–the doctors. This is from my cousin, a cardiologist whom I often quote here:

As a physician who had been in practice for many years, I remember the hardships suffered by many of my elderly patients prior to the initiation of Medicare in 1965. During that time, I was forced to sit painfully by as many unfortunate sufferers lamented that, even though they desperately needed to be hospitalized or needed expensive tests and additional services, they had only received small monthly social security payments with or without a small pension that barely sustained them at a subsistence level. In short, that situation afforded not only insufficient medical care, but threatened their financial security during those so-called “golden years.”

Then, in 1965, something abruptly and miraculously changed the landscape—the advent of Medicare. Suddenly our elderly could receive a standard level of medical care, which included, among others, diagnostic tests and hospitalizations. The financial burden was lifted from both the patients and us physicians, because we were no longer confronted with agonizing daily decisions about how we could provide decent medical care on a shoestring budget without threatening our patients’ health or survival.

He writes that two other doctors have recently weighed in via the New England Journal of Medicine (November 20, 2014). In “Civil Disobedience and Physicians—Protesting the Blockade of Medicaid,” C. van der Horst, MD, wrote that, when he anticipated passage of the Affordable Care Act, he thought he would no longer need to worry about patients’ affording necessary medications, preventive care services and hospitalizations.

But then van der Horst’s home State of North Carolina (like Indiana) blocked Medicaid expansion (even though, as it bears repeating, the federal government would pay 100% of the costs for the first 3 years and 90% thereafter). Over the protests of health care workers, teachers, union workers, immigrants, environmentalists, and people of all races and religions, North Carolina lawmakers have stubbornly refused to expand coverage.

The second article–written by Michael Stillman, MD–detailed the very different experience of Kentucky. Kentucky approved Medicaid expansion and “fundamentally altered our medical practice, allowing us to provide data-driven and thorough care without first considering our patients’ ability to pay” and giving 650,000 Kentuckians access to decent, comprehensive medical care. Most had previously lacked health insurance, had avoided routine preventive care—and worried that a medical emergency would leave them bankrupt. Medicaid expansion lightened their financial and emotional burden–and as a bonus, provided better physician education.  (Previously, doctors in training had become accustomed to offering substandard and incomplete care to indigent populations.) Now they are able to provide appropriate, evidence-based care.

As my cousin concludes:

This country will eventually—and inevitably—support decent medical care for all its constituents. Perhaps the process would be enhanced if our politicians were forced to spend time on the “front lines” of medical care in our clinics and hospitals and actually have dialog with those patients who are most vulnerable and under-served.

Listen to the doctor.