Stuff Happened In Flint

by Neil H. Buchanan

Because of a one-off scheduling change, I have published two new Verdict columns this week.  I will discuss and expand upon today's new column (which focuses on labor unions) in a Dorf on Law post next Tuesday.  Today's post builds upon my Verdict column that was published two days ago, "Republicans Should Learn From Flint That Governing on the Cheap Costs Too Much," in which I respond to the penny-wise-pound-psychotic disaster in Flint, Michigan, where a Republican governor and state legislature have inflicted incalculable damage on the poor and mostly minority residents of a city of 100,000 people.

Once one emotionally processes the utter depravity of what happened in Flint, the story can be seen as an almost perfect example of what economists like me have been saying forever: The government has an important role to play in every economy, budget cuts can be disastrous, infrastructure spending is essential, investing in people pays off (and harming them costs too much), what happens to other people matters to all people, and on and on.  Were it not for the human consequences of what is still happening in Flint, most economists would be able to view the situation there almost with gratitude, simply because that one example captures so many important lessons.

Tuesday's Verdict column discusses many of those lessons in some detail.  In this post, however, I want to take a different angle on the Flint story, by placing it in the context of a few other, seemingly unrelated big news stories of the past few months.  The larger questions are: Does what happened in Flint "change everything"?  And if so, why does every big event not similarly change everything?

Some readers might recall the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last October -- although, given that it has been followed by so many more mass shootings, people could be forgiven if they have already forgotten about that particular tragedy.  (The body count in that one was 9.)  Shortly thereafter, Jeb Bush (who is, contrary to all evidence, still a presidential candidate) stepped into what his father would call "deep doodoo" by famously saying about the Oregon shooting, "Stuff happens."  The initial reaction to his phrasing was, appropriately enough, widespread revulsion.  People might not agree on the appropriate response to gun violence, but most people do respond badly to what appears to be callousness.

Bush reportedly refused to back down, saying that he had said what he meant, and then sarcastically saying: "'Things' happen all the time. 'Things,' is that better?"  No, that was not better, but he then actually did explain his point in a way that was not crazy.  Within a mire of classically mangled Bushian locution, he managed to say that "the impulse is to pass a law that deals with that unique event and the cumulative effect of this is in some cases, you don’t solve the problem by passing the law, and you’re imposing [burdens] on large numbers of people."  Boiled down to its essence, Bush's explanation was that every new piece of bad news does not necessarily call for a policy change, or even a reassessment of how we decide whether to make policy changes.

The technical term for this is "Bayesian updating," but the idea is very simple.  Every time we get new information -- if, to use one of Bush's examples from that same interview, a child drowns in a swimming pool -- we should update what we think about the probability of children drowning in swimming pools.  Maybe that update will not change much, or maybe it will change things a lot.  When the new information seems to change what we know about the world in a meaningful way, we should change our policies in response.

Bush was not wrong to say that "in some cases, you don’t solve the problem by passing the law," but it is not clear whether he meant that the law is not going to be effective because it is presumed to be poorly designed (which, given his anti-government ideology, might well be what he thinks) or that the new law is simply an overreaction to a problem that has some baseline probability that is not worth reducing below a certain level.  I will assume that he meant the latter, based on his overall comments.  In that light, he is simply saying something like what older parents have been saying to new parents for generations: You can't protect your kids from everything, so accept that life is full of risks that you cannot completely mitigate without harming your kids in other ways.

All of that is fair enough, which is why it was especially galling when Bush joined in the insane overreactions after the Paris terrorist attacks the following month.  Like all of his competitors in the Republican field, Bush engaged in just the kind of "everything is different now" reasoning that he decried after the Oregon shooting.  If only he had remembered the statement that his campaign issued after he was attacked for his "stuff happens" comment: "Taking shameless advantage of a horrific tragedy is wrong and only serves to prey on people's emotions."  Like, maybe, telling people that we should only let Christian refugees into the U.S.?

Other than rank hypocrisy, however, what else is going on here?  As it happens, I made something like Bush's argument at much greater length in a Verdict column (here) and a series of posts on this blog (here, here, and here) after the Paris attacks.  I argued that those attacks (and those in Beirut at around the same time, although those have not penetrated the public consciousness in the same way) did not really change anything and that we already knew that we were living in a world where that kind of thing has been possible.  Moreover, I argued that we already had in place the basic decision-making infrastructure that would allow the government to update those policies in sensible ways and that avoid overreaction.

In short, I have on a case-by-case basis made the following arguments: (1) Mass shootings call for changes in the way we deal with guns, but (2) the Paris attacks should not change the way we deal with possible acts of terrorism, but (3) the Flint situation shows why we should change our government spending policies.  Is there a way to make those assessments fit into a larger, consistent narrative?

The answer, I think, has to do with whether a particular event shows that we are doing something systematically wrong, and that there are plausible changes in policy that would address that error without unreasonable tradeoffs.  Bush thinks that the gun story is simple, because he takes the absolute position that every possible limitation on guns is infinitely unacceptable.  I think, instead, that the dreadful list of mass shootings suggests that we have been consistently failing to respond to a crisis that is only showing signs of getting worse.  Even though there is probably no way to reduce gun deaths to zero, experience in both the U.S. and abroad shows that it can be significantly reduced.  To use another of Bush's examples, even though we tolerate more than 30,000 automobile deaths per year, that does not mean that we should tolerate far more than that by repealing every auto safety law and regulation that has been passed in the last fifty years (or by refusing even to consider adopting new ones).

The Paris attacks, by contrast, simply seem to be one of the sadly inevitable -- but thankfully rare -- consequences of the current probabilities in the world.  There are (due in large part to another Bush's disastrous mistakes) more people in the world who are willing to kill westerners, and they have access to more weaponry than ever.  (We do not even need to get into the connection between guns and jihadist violence in the San Bernardino attacks.)  We already have invested huge sums in both military and law-enforcement resources to prevent and respond to the non-zero number of attacks that will surely happen.  We could do more, but nothing on offer from Jeb Bush or anyone else shows any promise of actually changing anything, much less doing so at an acceptable cost.

Finally, the Flint story is another example of an ongoing disaster that we should already have been trying to change, to everyone's benefit, but which only a dramatic story like lead-poisoned children can bring into focus.  Reports from national groups (including nonpartisan organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers) have been saying for years that there is a problem with the nation's infrastructure and that fixing it would be a win-win for the country.

To return to Jeb Bush's "stuff happens" comment, his campaign's response also included this: "It is sad and beyond craven that liberal Democrats, aided and abetted by some in the national media, would dishonestly take Governor Bush’s comments out of context in a cheap attempt to advance their political agenda in the wake of a tragedy."  Yes, if people are merely responding to a tragedy by laying blame and offering nothing that would improve the situation, that is beyond craven.  But when people are responding to yet another example of an ongoing tragedy that can readily be mitigated, that is responsible governance.