Friday, August 8, 2014

Right to Water

A big question in Detroit recently is:  when should something be free and who should pay for it? 

This New York Times report is just one of many about protests about  “a move by the city’s Water Department to force tens of thousands of delinquent customers to pay up or face a cutoff in service.” The move to cut off service is drastic, but the Water Department believes it is the only way to motivate people to pay.  “About 92,000 customers are at risk of having service cut off, meaning they are at least 60 days past due or more than $150 behind.”  The LA Times reports that overall,  “the utility is currently owed $90 million from customers, and nearly half the city's 300,000 or so accounts are past due.”

Meanwhile the protesters are joined by the United Nations, in contending that access to clean water is a human right.  They believe it is a violation of international standards to shut off water when people are too poor to pay for it and when the shut offs may include the disabled and seniors.  Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) adds:  "We live near the Great Lakes, we have the greatest source of fresh water on Earth, and we still can't get water here."

Where do the UN, the MWRO and the rest of the protesters think the money is going to come from to pay for treating and testing the water and delivering it to the customers' houses?  Who pays the people who have to tear up the streets to repair the water mains that break or those who maintain the water towers?  Should the poor and the elderly be allowed to steal the water just because they live near a lake?  Should the cost of their water just be transferred to other people who can pay, assuming that if they can pay one water bill, they can afford to pay for two?  What message does this send to the elderly, on a fixed income, or the poor who are struggling but still paying their water bills, or to the rest of the customers?  Are they all fools for paying for what others consider their right?

This is classic magic-money-tree thinking.  Detroit is the largest city to go bankrupt, and there is no mystery about how it got that way.  It’s this very attitude, this entitlement culture, that forced the city into bankruptcy.  The city employees (as well as the employees of automakers and auto parts makers which dominate the area) felt they had a right to a guaranteed job with lifetime, top-of-the line health benefits and to a retirement before the age of 60.  They took this superior life style for granted until the system crashed and the automakers, eventually followed by the city, went into bankruptcy.  The politicians and executives made promises they couldn’t keep and no one questioned it.  Most of those politicians and executives were long gone before it inevitably became time to pay.  Everyone wanted to believe in the magic money tree, and they apparently haven't learned the lesson yet.

This is why economic understanding is critical.  Everyone goes along thinking that resources are unlimited, that we can buy today and not have to worry about paying tomorrow, that goods and services and other people’s work should be free to me while my wages should be higher to make it fair.  Trying to be generous today results in wide-ranging suffering tomorrow, and everyone acts surprised.  Those who call attention to reality are labeled greedy and heartless.

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