Can we agree that the Detroit water crisis is about more than just unpaid bills?

A few days ago, in the aftermath of a quick post about the ongoing water crisis in Detroit, a reader by the name of Anne left a comment suggesting that, to a large extent, non-profits working in the City were steering clear of the issue. As I read her comment, she seemed to be of the opinion that the current uproar over water shut-offs in Detroit was more the work of outsiders looking to “save” the City, who perhaps didn’t really grasp the fact that, for the most part, the individuals having their water cut off were people who hadn’t paid their bills for years, in spite of having the funds to do so. While she’s right, of course, that many who recently had their water service terminated were people that merely took advantage of a broken system, in which, for years, non-payment of water bills did not result in termination of service, I take some issue with her comments about how it’s not Detroit natives leading the charge. Having just attended the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, I can tell you with some degree of confidence that there’s a large and growing grassroots movement in the city pushing this forward.

If you have a moment, I’d suggest that you watch the following video, shot at the conference, featuring Abayomi Azikiwe of Moratorium Now!, Meredith Begin of Food and Water Watch, Monica Lewis-Patrick of We the People Detroit, Jean Ross of National Nurses United, and Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, who, by the way, was leading a petition drive in 2009 to “make water affordable and stop shutting off the water of low-income people” in Detroit. This session, titled Turn on the Water! How Locals are Fighting Back Against the Shutoffs, was moderated by Peter Hammer, the director of Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.

[Jump to 32:30.]

Speaking of comments left on this site in the wake of my last post on the Detroit water crisis, here are a few that I found interesting. I think, taken as a whole, they pretty well reflect the diversity of views people hold about the issue… And they remind me, once again, just how awesome of a readership that I have. [note: A few of these comments have been slightly edited in order to improve clarity.]


I don’t understand the strategy behind this movement/protest.

Where were the big national-attention-getting protests and Hollywood celebrities when Detroit/Michigan neighborhood were being picked clean by multinational banks and their predatory loan practices?

Or when Michigan legislators deliberately engineered policies that drove older Michigan cities like Detroit toward bankruptcy, privatization, and into the hands of “Emergency Managers?”

Or when tens of thousands of public workers — including police officers, firefighters, teachers, bus drivers, and office clerks — were being told “sorry,” but the pension and health care benefits for which they worked for 20, 25, 30 years … won’t be there for them when they retire?

While I’m sure there are many very poor people in Detroit who need/deserve help with paying their water bills, in this case it appears that many may have simply been strategically taking advantage of a system in which for many years on end there were little/no consequences for not paying.

So I would ask the people behind these protests: Who *should* pay the cost for the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to build and maintain a system capable of collecting, treating, and delivering billions of gallons water to millions of individual homes and businesses across a seven-county area?

I’m sure the organizers mean well, and I suspect much of this outrage is really aimed at the multinational banks, corporations, and governments that have put Detroit (and Michigan) citizens in such a dire predicament … but having this much energy and attention focused on the water issue — while ignoring or discounting the larger forces at play — seems like a tactical mistake.

And given metro Detroit’s already toxic landscape with regard to race, class, and geography, it is hard for me to imagine how having Hollywood celebrities descend from their private jets to lecture us all about how, for those living in the City of Detroit, water should be a “right” (presumably paid for by higher water rates on suburbanites) is really going to help.


From the Rustbelt Radical:

Detroit sits next on 20% of the world’s fresh water and has the third largest water supply system in the country, and yet thousands of its people are denied access to clean water. If that’s not a damning indictment of the capitalist model, than I don’t know what is.

Why not do what some places do that, by virtue of living in the land with all this oil, share that wealth in subsidies and investments in social services with residents? This water, owned by the citizens of Detroit, provides over 4 million people, largely in the suburbs with water. You would think it would be considered a huge asset of the city in its renewal. Instead of investing large amounts to identify and deal with the many redundant lines and services belonging to abandoned buildings, in order to restore some efficiency. No, the world of capital will not allow for that.

New Detroit chooses to increase rates 9% on rates that are already twice the national average on the people least able to pay ($75 a month when you live on less than $1000 is simply a hardship). And then, turn off the spigot on the poorest and most vulnerable; those behind for the measly amount of $15, or as also happened in many cases—those in good standing. All the while water runs in the street from innumerable breaks, water continues to flow to countless abandoned structures and businesses that owe 100s of thousands in debt to the Water Department aren’t touched. The golf clubs necessary to make the privatizations deals that are undoubtedly already being discussed still get theirs, $400,000 of debt or not.

But what’s not necessary to that deal, are all those black, and mostly poor, people that make up eighty-something percent of the City’s population. More than unnecessary, they are an impediment to be removed. Then the real ‘Development’ can commence.

Remember when we learned about the end of Reconstruction, the reintroduction of share cropping, the end of black elected officials and the rise of Jim Crow? Well, I think we are looking at something analogous here now. Black political power was exercised, for the first time since Reconstruction, in the mainly large, northern industrial, urban centers, backed up by municipal and other unions. With the disenfranchisement of a majority of Michigan’s black citizens, the ‘Right to Work’ enactments and the end of manufacturing and with it, any hope at bettering your position through work, we can add what amounts to forced removal of unwanted population from those cities, so that the land might be better used.

The end of the Second Reconstruction is happening now, in our cities, before our eyes; this time in the era of neo-liberalism, and of the first black President.


Elf, the water bills are already subsidized for poor people. They simply chose not to pay their bills because they knew it wouldn’t be shut off. Years and years of in paid bills. This is maddening. This isn’t someone behind $15 and a month late.

Why the fuck are people rallying around people that refuse to pay their bills? This isn’t corporate greed. This isn’t people getting screwed by politicians. This is people trying to get something for free that costs billions of dollars. What the fuck is going on in this world?

Peter Larson:

I think that Detroit needs to make allowances for the very poor or come up with innovative ways to pay for water service so that the very poor can have access to it.

However, while access to clean water is a human right, there is nothing to suggest that access to water free of charge is a human right, which, more often than not, seems to be the underlying message.

Michigan may have plenty of fresh water, but it still costs money to pump it in, treat it and then deal with waste water.

It seems that people don’t realize this. Regardless of ideology, this is just a reality.I had to pay to get my well dug, the pump and to have a septic put in. Perhaps it was my human right to have that done for free?

Mark Maynard:

I’m still working through my thoughts on the matter. I’m by no means one of the most vocal on this subject. (I do not see how unlimited water can be delivered for free to all people.) With that said, though, I think the current situation we’re seeing unfold in Detroit is about more than just water. It’s about poverty, and a system in which the poor pay disproportionately more just to live. It’s just coming into sharp focus here, through the lens of water. I agree wholeheartedly that people who can pay their bills should pay them. I likewise agree that many people just haven’t paid for years because they knew they wouldn’t be shut off. (The last bill to get paid is likely the one that you don’t fear will be cut off.) I don’t think there’s any doubt, however, that many have been cut off who cannot afford to pay water bills that continue to rise. And I fear this is just the tip of the iceberg. With wages dropping faster and the cost of living is rising, it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing stories like this across the country.


You will never admit it, but its a lot more beneficial for someone making say $20k a year to not work at all. They’d have exactly the same lifestyle with government benefits. So tell me, why they should work?


Dan, they shouldn’t work. And they don’t. They can just go to one of countless Michigan Lawyers, who get them into the disability pipeline. Tens of thousands are lined up waiting to collect a free check.

And the parents just keep having more kids they can’t pay for or take care of, because they know they will get welfare. A water bill is just one example of the bigger problem of lack of personal responsibility.

You have one baby and need help? You should get welfare help. You have a second one? Done. No more money. The city is bankrupt. The state is pretty much bust too.

If you don’t agree that people should be personally responsible, then keep voting for socialism, and soon we’ll have 40% unemployment, just like Spain. Is that compassionate to vote for idiots that want to transform this country into Spain?

Pay your damn water bill people.

Peter Larson:

I’m certainly of the opinion that this situation is the result of a failure of governance. The Detroit City Government should have been proactive about collecting fees for water in the past, and their failure has come back to haunt them, though in a manner slightly different than one might otherwise expect. Failures of governance would usually mean that water service would benefit no one or exclude the poor from the beginning.

I am not very sympathetic here. Returning to a state of regular collections of fee for services does not constitute a human rights violation and, certainly, as I said before, there is no such thing as a “human right to free water” given the high costs of providing water services.

However, the protests are clearly about more than water and should be taken seriously. The water issue has merely served as a springboard for demonstrations regarding a long history of political and economic marginalization and poor city governance.

As for whether the poor pay more to live, they do. Payday loans are often the only banking services available to the poor, as regular banks and credit unions don’t usually offer liquid credit to people whose account balances are usually zero. Non-poor people have credit cards, also a service unavailable to the very poor. This is exactly why payday loan places are able to operate. And while it can be debated as to whether the poor need to have access to liquid credit at all, sudden expenses while living hand to mouth can surface at anytime in the form of disease, injury and car repairs.

It has been shown that prices for goods in poor areas are higher than in wealthy areas even in absolute terms. Detroit’s lack of a large grocery store, for example, forces people to buy food from convenience stores and small markets which are not able to buy good in bulk and pass savings on to customers so that households pay more for food than other places. While it can be argued that people could just visit a farmers market, many poor people work multiple jobs and require the convenience of 24 hour access to food, something a farmers market can’t provide.
From afar, it all seems simple. Having been poor for most of my life, I can tell you that it is not. Poverty is a complicated existence, it is expensive and full of volatilities.

Thom Elliott:

…but personal responsibility is the single most important existential criteria whatsoever, if these thousands of people in pure destitution cant pay their water bill, let ‘em die. The illiterate denizens of an apocalyptic postmodern ruin should be just like the heroic and spiritually pure corperate people who rule our plutocratic oligarcy. As you know our corperate overlords are just bastions of personal responsibility, and never require handouts…like the 110 billion dollars Fortune 500 companies have recieved in corperate welfare since 1976, which includes 13 billion dollars for Boeing, & over 1 billion for Berkshire Hathaway. We also must keep the billions of tax dollars flowing to Israel so they can have enough ammo to murder soccer-playing Palestinian children on beaches. These international corperations with assets in excess of 58B (Warren Buffet) actually need our welfare more then these lazy, good for nothing, socialist blacks, who probably should just be executed en masse for their lack of personal responsibility…

I’m very interested to know what ‘human rights’ even are… at all. If water is not a human right, when every man woman & child require water to live, & we are made of over 70% water, then what is a ‘human’ ‘right’? Are these solely what the technological fist of our twisted nihilisitic world deigns to contingently grant to us? Are rights somehow rooted in the disordered ratiocinations/incomplete project of the Enlightenment from 400 years ago? Are they intrinsic to being-human? Like a human being has apriori rights a fortiori? Or does the vengeful sky god of the US religious nihilists give them to us? Where do rights come from, and what are they?


Dan, you are living in the past. Able bodied males get no government assistance. With Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), women only receive assistance for a maxium of 4 years over the course of their lifetimes here in Michigan. I guess you have not noticed the explosion of begging on our streets. This last year I began seeing young able bodied woman at exit ramps begging for the first time.


Gotta say, it looks and feels like a pathology–this (highly engineered, heavily sponsored) turn toward anti-community in the guise of wanting “freedom.” It’s not natural! The people who pretend they got where they are on their own have invested so much in disliking others, sitting in judgment. If not for grants of a kind and pooled resources, would they have drinkable water, a highway to drive upon, a school, a library, a life? Funny (not funny!) how they keep track to make it look like they’re paying for things while others are not. A very unseemly construction. Gotta move beyond this willfully unwholesome era – we know it could be much better for many more people. So much work to do… not exactly simple work either.


The programs for poor people to help them pay for their water are inadequate. Water in the city of Detroit costs about double what it costs in Ypsilanti, partly due to things like older infrastructure and a large number of people not paying. Free water (up to a point) is a human right imho. The solution seems obvious to me. Socialize water and provide a certain amount per person free of charge and then charge a LOT for anything over that amount. Get the people who landscape or fill pools to subsidize everyone else.

And for those of you who have no compassion for your fellow human beings, look at it from a purely selfish angle. There are some serious diseases which can crop up if sanitation isn’t adequate. If there is one thing society should want to encourage, it is toilet flushing and hand washing. Just from the public health perspective…

I might also mention that the Palmer Park Golf Club in Detroit owes the city $200,000 in unpaid water bills. We also use a lot of water for things like baseball fields. Comerica park owes the city $55,000 for water. Hockey ice rinks apparently use $80,000 of water which has not been paid for. If we are going to have a discussion about deadbeats, perhaps we can start there?


Potable water to drink is a basic human right. That represents about 1% of the 100 gallons of water used by the average American. Flushing the toilet with clean water that is fit to drink is not not a human right.

I know I won’t convince all of you, but I do hope that at least some of you come away from this post recognizing, as I do now, that this is about more than just lazy Detroiters looking to game the system. This is about the rising cost of being poor in America. This is about the cost of living rising as wages fall. This is about the end of the American middle class. And Detroit is ground zero.

It’s worth pointing out that, after last week’s big protest in Detroit, and the letter from the United Nations, the City has issued a 15-day moratorium on water shutoffs. Furthermore, Canadians have begun smuggling water across the border for the people of Detroit and someone has launched a website where donors across the world can be matched up with Detroiters who need help in order to pay their water bills.

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  1. anonymous
    Posted July 27, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    On the website where you can pay the water bills of Detroiters, are you able to select the person you’ll be bailing out?

  2. Posted July 27, 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Interesting exchange.

  3. Posted July 27, 2014 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    If you only have a few minutes, be sure to watch the parts of the video where Abayomi Azikiwe (toward the beginning of the segment) and Maureen Taylor (at the end) speak.

  4. Toad Hall
    Posted July 28, 2014 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    All of the good comments have been taken.

  5. K2
    Posted July 28, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Water is the oil of the future .

  6. Meta
    Posted July 28, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink


    Thousands of Detroit residents are currently living without water. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) announced in March, and subsequently commenced, plans to cut off water for “homes with delinquent bills” at a rate of 3,000 homes per week. It recently tweeted, “If you’re stealing water, we’re coming after you”.

    By summer’s end, it is projected that DWSD will cut off the water services of 150,000 residents in total. Community leaders believe that as many as 300,000 Detroiters could be cut off from water access within a year.

    These figures are staggering, particularly in light of the city’s diminishing population of 700,000 residents. Therefore, according to projections, as much as 45 percent of the city’s residents could be without water in the near future. Although a 15-day moratorium was enacted on July 21, the cutoffs will be sure to continue without federal intervention.

    “Pay your bills” has become a common refrain from this crisis. Yet, 38 percent of Detroiters live below the poverty line, unemployment and under-employment is pervasive, while the price of water has skyrocketed 120 percent in 10 years. A diminished public transportation system exacerbates poverty and spatial segregation, and limits residents from finding – and keeping – gainful employment beyond city limits.

    The eastside of Detroit, which faces aggressive mass water cutoffs, highlights the cascade of challenges Detroit residents have to cope with while living without water. For the rapidly rising number of Detroiters cutoff from water on the city’s east end, purchasing water off the shelves is the only option.

    Yet, there are no grocery stores on the eastside, gas stations and liquor stores hold geographic monopolies over essential products. Disconnected, spatially segregated, and overwhelmingly poor, residents are compelled to consume what these businesses offer. With water becoming more scarce on merchant shelves, they have to live with little drinking, cooking and bathing water.

    Living in an urban water desert, residents of the eastside are already facing price gouging by local businesses. Some have had to resort to stealing water from the few operable fire hydrants, homes, and neighbourhood businesses in order to survive water shortages.

    In spirit and statistics, Detroit is still a black city. African-Americans comprise 83 percent of the city’s population. Therefore, the vast majority of those affected by the water cutoffs, and the perils they create, are black Detroiters.

    The acute and disproportionate impact on black residents may appear to be driven solely by economic factors. However, a native testimony illuminates that racism, and a vision for the city based partly on racial reformation, pumps current water politics. The aggressive water cutoffs may be part of the broader plan to shrink the physical size of the city, and compel residents of under-populated and “undesirable” sections of the city, such as the eastside, to move.

    The water crisis stops at 8 Mile – the iconised thoroughfare dividing black from white, wealthy from working class. Yet water still flows to many businesses located within the city that generally serve white and middle class patrons.

    Some of these businesses, including Detroit’s flagship golf course, Ford Field and Joe Louis Arena, home to the City’s NFL and NHL franchises, have not paid their water bills either, but they still receive water.

    Not far from these golf courses and stadiums are sights of Black and Brown Detroiters walking down major avenues, carrying water tanks atop their shoulders. These images, generally associated with life in war-torn and “distant, disenfranchised lands”, are becoming more and more common in Detroit.

    While largely framed as a symptom of Detroit’s impending death on the national media front, the water crisis is an unequivocally American emergency. Although residents of a city maligned as disconnected and deviant – Detroiters are still American citizens, guaranteed water provision by the United Nations and human rights law. Washington DC, while quick to respond to foreign concerns, has yet to act on Detroit.

    Detroit, and its water crisis, is far closer than we all think. Therefore, pushing Washington DC to act in the interests of Detroiters living without water right now will create the basis for government action when residents of New York and California and elsewhere are also threatened by a water crisis.

    Read more:

  7. Meta
    Posted July 28, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Water as the new oil, you say?

    From The Guardian.

    Companies proclaim water the next oil in a rush to turn resources into profit

    Mammoth companies are trying to collect water that all life needs and charge for it as they would for other natural resources

    “Is now the time to buy water?” enquired the email that showed up in my inbox earlier this week.

    Its authors weren’t worrying about my dehydration levels. Rather, they were urging me to think of water in quite a new way: as a commodity to invest in.

    Making money from water? Is this what Wall Street wants next?

    After spending nearly 30 years of my life writing about business and finance, including several years dedicated to the commodities market, the idea of treating water as a pure commodity – something to bought and sold on the open market by those in quest of a profit rather than trying to deliver it to their fellow citizens as a public service – made me pause.

    Sure, I’ve grown up surrounded by bottled mineral water – Evian, Volvic, Perrier, Pellegrino and even more chi-chi brands – but that has always existed alongside a robust municipal water system that delivers clean water to whatever home I’m occupying. All it takes is turning a tap. The cost of that water is fractions of a penny compared to designer bottled water.

    This summer, however, myriad business forces are combining to remind us that fresh water isn’t necessarily or automatically a free resource. It could all too easily end up becoming just another economic commodity.

    At the forefront of this firestorm is Peter Brabeck, chairman and former CEO of Nestle.

    In his view, citizens don’t have an automatic right to more than the water they require for mere “survival”, unless they can afford to pay for it. For context, the World Health Organization sets such “survival” consumption levels at a minimum of 20 liters a day for basic hygiene and food hygiene – higher, if you add laundry and bathing. If you’re reading this in the United States, the odds are that flushing your toilet consumes 50 liters of water a day.

    Read more:

  8. Lynne
    Posted July 28, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    The very idea of privatized water service scares the crap out of me.

  9. Anne
    Posted July 28, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Once again,if you really want to help low-income individuals pay their water bills in Detroit, you consider donating to a local nonprofit like WAVE

  10. Anonymous Mike
    Posted July 28, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I liked the part where Maureen Taylor warned that she was about to cross the non violence line.

  11. Posted July 28, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    “The very idea of privatized water service scares the crap out of me.”

    Obviously, public water provision has major problems as well. The history of publicly funded and managed services of all kinds are filled with a litany of documented problems. There is nothing at all to suggest that public provision is inherently better than private provision.

    I don’t think the discussion should be about public vs. private provision (which is really just another leg of the not productive discussions of markets vs. state in general), but rather good vs. bad provision.

  12. wobblie
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    Public or private water systems makes little or no difference. Water systems are “natural” monopolies and as such are rife with corruption, waste, and graft. They have little if any regard for their “customers”. Witness our YCUA ignoring the wishes of the community regarding solid waste disposal and instead of sensible and affordable solutions, we have an incinerator forced upon us.

  13. Lynne
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    The difference between private and public water to me is the motivation of those providing it. Private companies are motivated to make money. Public institutions are there to do what is best for the people. Now I will grant you that often those two things occur together in that a lot of the time a private firm will also provide what is best for the people however, as wobblie pointed out, water is a natural monopoly or at least water service is. We allow private companies to bottle water and sell it — no problem.

    Ok sure, lets talk about good vs bad water delivery. I define a good water delivery system as one which doesn’t allow thousands of my neighbors to become a public health risk by having their water turned off even for non payment. I don’t see how a private system will accomplish that.

  14. Posted July 29, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    “The difference between private and public water to me is the motivation of those providing it. Private companies are motivated to make money. Public institutions are there to do what is best for the people. ”

    Really? Do you really, truly believe this?

    I can think of many private companies whose greatest goal is to satisfy their customers. Making money for a lot of businesses is just a means to realize the above goal. Read Peter Drucker for a great treatment of the subject.

    While an extreme case, I live in a country (Kenya) where public institutions exist merely to enrich a small elite of corrupt officials. It’s awful. We have seen over and over again that, even within the United States government at any level, there are people who use institutions to enrich themselves and their cronies, without giving much care to the people who elected them to be there. The water issue in Detroit is a great example of this.

    The public vs. private debate doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Again, the argument should be about how to deliver services effectively, not who delivers it.

  15. Lynne
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I do believe that the primary purpose of a private firm is to make money unless it is a non profit organization. It has been my experience that when a private company has good customer service as one of it’s goals, it is because that approach causes them to make money, otherwise they would be a non profit. The thing is, we already know that non profits can help with the water situation but it is pretty evident that they aren’t going to solve the problem.

    Government corruption does suck and surprisingly governments in the USA (including Detroit) are much less corrupt than much of the rest of the world. Nevertheless, we can do better. The thing is, there is every reason to believe that the private corporations which would control the water are even more likely to be corrupt than the government! At least the people have some say in a democratic form of government. Since we’re humans, we will always have a problem with greedy individuals using institutions in order to advance themselves. This is a much worse problem in private institutions than it is in public ones, imho.

    But ok, how would privatizing water work? Would we pass laws which requires any company which supplies water to an area to supply it free to those who can’t pay? There is a huge public good (good health) to be had in making sure everyone has water. This is a public good that doesn’t go to a private firm and one that you lose if you allow private firms to decide not to provide someone water when they don’t pay. Private companies have very little incentive to make sure everyone has water. Hey, if some private firm has the people’s best interests in mind and is willing to do this as you suggest, then ok. I imagine that this firm also cans unicorn meat?

    I suppose a non-profit organization could do it but even then, I feel that water is so important that keeping control with the people makes sense.

  16. BrianB
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    KevynOrr hands the water dept over to mayor Duggan:

  17. Frosted Flakes
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink


    Although I think personal responsibility to chip in for ones own water use should be a huge part of this conversation, I must admit, I like the idea of providing a small set amount of water per person for free and then charging increasingly more as water usage per household goes up. It would encourage water conversation and would avoid the health risk that results from large numbers of people not bathing and not having flushing toilets. Of course, it is not difficult to imagine there might still be the problem of someone who uses water beyond the point that is free and still refuses to pay his/her bill for water. Do we shut the water off then? Isn’t the threat of turning the water off just a tool that tries to ensure that everyone (that can) chips in their fair share? How would we encourage people to take responsibility in such a model?

  18. Posted July 29, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    “Yes, I do believe that the primary purpose of a private firm is to make money unless it is a non profit organization.”

    Really? If a business’s only goal is to make money, it won’t last very long. If this is the case, why have a diversified economy? Do you really think that the Corner Brewery’s only goal is to make money?

    And you’re absolutely fooling yourself about non-profits.

    There are good businesses and bad businesses, just as there are good non-profits and really, really bad non-profits whose only goal is to grab donations to line the pockets of the people who run them.

    “I like the idea of providing a small set amount of water per person for free and then charging increasingly more as water usage per household goes up. ”

    Why? We charge for food. Why not charge for water? This brings up other issues as well. If the only people who pay for water are golf courses (as an extreme example), then the only people with the power to influence water delivery will be golf courses.

    I like this though, so I’ll run with it. Perhaps we give away some food and then if you eat more than a certain amount, you have to pay? This sounds like the Soviet!

    How about power? Free power for awhile, then you have to pay? Does that make any sense at all?

    Perhaps the readership of would have liked the Soviet. It certainly seems easier, doesn’t it.

  19. Posted July 29, 2014 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    “This is a public good that doesn’t go to a private firm and one that you lose if you allow private firms to decide not to provide someone water when they don’t pay.”

    First, government do cut people when they don’t pay. I don’t suppose you’ve ever had to pay property tax. If you don’t pay, they take your house away.

    “Private companies have very little incentive to make sure everyone has water. ”

    Neither does government. Have you been to Gaza?

  20. Frosted Flakes
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink


    I like Lynne’s idea of giving away a set amount of water to everyone for free and then to charge for use of water beyond that amount if the amount of freely given water is quite small. The average American household water use per capita is 100 gallons. That is way too much and everyone should be able to get by with a lot less than that. The trick would be to set the number of free gallons low enough so that it would be possible to get free water, for bare essentials, if the user was very very water conscious.1) It would incentivize water saving toilets, water saving shower heads, very short showers and reduce mindless waste (which accounts for a lot of water “usage”.2) Additionally, a little bit of free water each month would address the health hazard to everyone when large amounts of people, within one area, do not have sanitary conditions–fecal matter on the hands effects everyone–it needs to be reduced. Water is different than electricity and food in this sense because another persons poor sanitation hurts others through the spread of disease and illness. 3) A little bit of free water would spread good will and faith between people. It is my belief that the real crisis here is in people’s willingness to take responsibility and pay their fair share. Instead of feeling a duty to chip in one’s fair share, many people feel that other people owe them something for free. We are really in a bad place as a society. We need to deal with the psychological state that denies personal responsibility ACROSS ALL SOCIOECONOMIC STRATA as a fact of our culture. I maintain that water is already pretty damn cheap. So cheap it is almost free. If we can give away the Minimum amount for essential drinking and sanitation for free it will help a lot of people out, have an indirect benefit to all, and help squash the idea that those living in poverty are necessarily saintly victims and those living above the poverty are somehow exploitive devils. The demonization of successful people plays a huge role in creating the victim mindset in my opinion…The victim mindset shirks responsibility…my hope would be that receiving the necessary amount for free would minimize the demonization and increase the desire to dutifully pay ones fair share because the whole community really is sharing the same water system!!

  21. wobblie
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    water should be free and available to all. we live in the heart of the empire. Rome provided public fountains where the plebs could take all the water they needed free of charge. They provided free public baths (that included toilets, and all other essentials necessary for public hygiene. We plebs should demand no less from this empire.

  22. Frosted Flakes
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 10:04 pm | Permalink



  23. Posted July 30, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Peter, re “why provide some water for free, charge more as you use more” — while I hear some coming at this from a “human interest” perspective, I think there are good arguments for progressive water pricing as public policy.

    If pricing rises as you use more, it’s incentive to conserve water at an individual level, which not only reduces direct costs of bulk water purchase and energy used to treat water and sewage, but also, in aggregate, reduces fixed costs by allowing for construction and maintenance of smaller pipes, smaller treatment plants, smaller storage facilities, etc. (Some of these are slow changes, obviously, as you might not experience cost savings until the next time you replace the infrastructure 25-75 years from now.)

    [i]How about power? Free power for awhile, then you have to pay? Does that make any sense at all?[/i]

    Sure, same reasons as for water: higher rates for higher usage means higher infrastructure / peak operation costs on the part of the utility. DTE already has a tiered rate structure for kWhs used in a month for this reason. It doesn’t go down as far as free, and the tiering is fairly shallow — “first 17 kWh / day = 6.912 cents/kWh; additional kWh = 8.257 cents/kWh” (“supply” charges only). (They also have a senior citizen rate, which interestingly has a lower low rate but higher high rate.)

    I agree with your objections to the blanket stereotyping of public vs. private actors, but I don’t know why a progressive pricing system for utilities tweaks your Godwin straight to the Soviet. (Or whatever the Soviet equivalent of Godwin’s Law is…)

    Whether or not the bottom tier should be “free”, and how many / how steep the tiers should be are legitimate policy questions in my mind, but i’m interested in hearing why they’re not in yours.

  24. Posted July 30, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Murph, re: the Soviet, forgive the snark

    In the case of power, there are some localities which charge considerably higher rates for commercial vs. residential service.

    I don’t think that a fully progressive system makes a whole lot of sense, unless you have an interest in keeping usage low. But how would poor households keep track of water usage and how would they respond? Would they simply just bathe less? My gut says that poor people would end up paying the same amount as wealthier people since the number of showers doesn’t really have much to do with socio-economic status. It could be the case that poor households, having more children than wealthier households, might end up paying more.

    A flat rate for each household might make more sense, but I am of the opinion that everyone should be required to pay for service. For those households which simply cannot pay, welfare based programs which pay for service (similar to SNAP benefits which subsidize household food consumption) would be in order.

  25. Posted July 30, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Understand that much of my criticism has to do with the strange idea that there is a “human right to cost free water.”

    Many people and myself would argue that there is a right to access to food and shelter, but there is no right to cost free food and shelter. Those things have to be paid for. For those who cannot pay, we have welfare benefits to pick up the slack. Why should water be any different?

    I certainly recognize the debate regarding water in Detroit covers much more than current access to water, but it seems that others do not and are pulling the conversation into a territory that is wholly non-productive. We should be arguing over whether present day citizens need to bear the burden of past corruption and mismanagement instead.

  26. Frosted Flakes
    Posted July 30, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink


    “Would they simply bathe less?”

    In terms of cleanliness a 2 minute shower with a water saving head is just as good as a 15 minute shower with a conventional head. Turn the water off during the lather phase! Our needless over consumption of water is pure stupidity. The newer low flow toilets work great.

    I will put a bullet in my brain if one more person claims:” Free water is a human right”. This is a strange idea, as you say, and the foundation of a lazy argument for free water.

  27. Lynne
    Posted July 30, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Why is that? Human rights are entirely a human construct. We just make them up. There is no difference between saying “water is a human right” or “safety is a human right” or really that anything is a human right. You think that you have a human right not to be enslaved or murdered or whatever? Well, great, but that right is just as made up as a right to water and frankly, considering how necessary water is to life, I think an argument that access to drinking water should be more of a right than a freedom from human trafficking. I get it that isn’t the same thing as a right to have the water delivered to taps inside of one’s home. Still, as there are plenty of humans who think that water should be a right, enough that the concept really has a lot of main stream acceptance. Naturally, I hope for more since the only real way to make water a human right is to convince people that it should be. I don’t see how that makes arguments based on that premise “lazy”

    When I say that “water is a human right” it is so that you can know where I am coming from. I really do consider a minimum amount of water (enough to drink, cook, and bathe) to be a human right. I have a whole list of things I consider to be human rights but I get it that my list and yours might be different. Still, from a moral point of view, I consider thinking that water isn’t a right to be similar to thinking that not being enslaved isn’t a right. Our founding fathers certainly were of that bent. They actually considered the right to own a gun to be a greater right than water or not being enslaved! I think that is crazy, YMMV

  28. Posted July 30, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Peter, I think I agree with you on pretty much everything.

    I’ll add the note that I *do* think conservation/low usage is desirable, both because of the environmental impacts of water consumption and in the interest of infrastructure-level fiscal sustainability. And, much as there are various programs to weatherize low-income residents’ homes for energy efficiency, I’d personally want to see any progressive rate structure on water proactively offering low-flow fixtures and similar interventions to low-income residents.

  29. Posted July 30, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I also agree that low usage is desirable, I just don’t think that you can reduce usage through pricing structures (unless you target lawn watering, but it will be really difficult to parse out what is lawn watering and what is washing clothes for a 10 person household, in addition to the problems of how to deal with those who for those who can afford to pay for it).

    Requiring low flow fixtures would be a reasonable step, though the low level of new construction or renovation in a place like Detroit would complicate such an effort.

  30. wobblie
    Posted July 30, 2014 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Frosted Flakes, because of the rising number of homeless folks. Bathing is a chronic problem for the homeless. Free public baths would eliminate immediately many of the immediate difficulties of being homeless. It is becoming harder and harder to find public drinking fountains. When they built Ford Field, they built it with one drinking fountain (but a cup holder on the back of every seat to hold your paid for bottle of water).
    Since the new economic normal is based on the increasing impoverishment of the people, I am just selfishly thinking of myself and my eventual decline into the abyss of poverty.

  31. Frosted Flakes
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 6:48 am | Permalink


    It is annoying when I hear “water is a human a right” for different reasons depending on how it is used…In your case, you are using the term “right” as it applies to legal rights (as an agreed upon construct) rather than “natural rights”. If I understand you correctly, in the case of Detroit water shut offs, when you say “water is a human right” you really mean to say “it SHOULD be illegal for the water company to shut off someone’s water for non payment”. As it stands in reality the water company has the right to shut off the water for nonpayment. At best your usage is inaccurate. I called the claim the foundation of a lazy argument because it is not a premise at all as you suggest it is. Rather, you are simply repeating your conclusion. Why should the water company not have the right to shut off someone’s water, you say? Because the water company should not have the right to shut off someone’s water, you say. It is circular reasoning at best….However, I was not targeting you with my complaint because you offer a lot of other reasons for why the water company should not have the right to shutoff someone’s water and I appreciate your ideas otherwise and in general.

  32. Posted July 31, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    It is a bankrupt argument.

    Again, we should be discussing the more salient issue:

    Does the present day citizenry have to bear the financial burden of past corruption and mismanagement? If so, in what capacity? If not, who pays?

  33. Lynne
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    FF, Fair enough. I should use the word “should” more. There are no such things as “natural rights” imho. There are only things which morally should be legal rights. I don’t think my reasoning is the water dept shouldnt’ be allowed to turn off the water because the water dept shouldn’t be allowed to turn off the water. It is more that the water department shouldn’t be allowed to turn off the water because it is our moral obligation to make sure everyone has their basic needs met, including water. That is a separate argument from the other reason I don’t think the water should be turned off. The more selfish argument is that it is good for everyone’s health if everyone has enough water for basic sanitation. That argument is of course, entirely selfish.

    Peter, that is an interesting question. Should the present day citizenry have to bear the financial burden of past corruption and mismanagement? I can say from a personal point of view the fact that my parents, who are City of Detroit retirees, have been forced to pay quite a lot because of all of this pisses me off. And they are the lucky ones in that they have other sources of income besides the pension from the city so maybe it is ok that they have to pay. It is much less ok for someone whose pension is $20/k a year to absorb the loss in health care coverage and cost of living increases, never mind the actual reduction in pension. I definitely feel that the City employees and retirees are bearing too much of the burden.

    I also don’t think the present citizenry of the city of Detroit should be forced to pay for the mismanagement and corruption or even the racist white flight that totally screwed them. Since so many people outside of the city have contributed to its current state by leaving or by voting for people who enacted laws at the state level that had the effect of hurting the city much more than the mismanagement and corruption ever did, it seems perfectly fair to me to spread things out and have the citizenry of Michigan pay at least to the point of keeping retiree benefits intact. I am cool with totally screwing wall street. They knew the risks when they bought the bonds or insured the pension fund.

  34. jcp2
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink


    I don’t think it’s quite as easy to say “save the pensions, screw Wall Street.” The pensions and Wall Street are two faces of the same entity, as each pension fund is invested in stocks and bonds, and managed by somebody from Wall Street. The whole premise of pensions, which are essentially annuities, is that the actuarial assumptions made at the time of original pension promises completely fell apart, as demographic and economic trends evolved much quicker than anybody expected. Even in well managed companies or governmental entities, the spectre of looming retiree benefit costs is of significant concern.

    In addition, the cost of retiree medical benefits is, with the current health care market structure, an open ended financial liability, and cannot be responsibly underwritten in any type of way for a time frame decades into the future.

    Addressing both these issues is something that every developed country is facing, and nobody has done it successfully in the long run yet.

  35. Frosted Flakes
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink


    I FEEL the same moral obligation to help other people meet their basic needs. I like to think that it is pretty much a universal response to want to give a thirsty person water….The moral feeling is not nothing! The problem, for me, is that I also find it immoral to not want to contribute to the water system that ensures its functioning through monthly payments. Just as the body requires water to function the water department requires money to function. The real moral decisions occur in the assignment of who ought to be able to contribute to the water system and who ought to be the recipient of free service. There is no doubt that many disabled and/ or unfortunate people should get free water.

    I question the idea that scamming the system is rare. Scamming is rampant–you can bet on that. We are becoming significantly corrupt up and down all income levels. A lack of willingness to take personal responsibility. our psychological state needs to be considered when deciding on public policy.

    The water accounts were mismanaged. Aswrong as it is to prioritize your life in such a way that you are unable to pay your water bill for years; it is also wrong for the utility to smack people with a bill with years of accumulation and expect them to pay immediately. In my opinion, they should return water service to people who pay for the prior months service and they should require those people behind in their payments to pay double their future monthly bill until their balance is taken care of.

    Moving forward I like your idea of offering some water for free. It will save water and build good will and faith between people within a community. Also, I agree with you that there are good and selfish reasons to want your neighbors to have running water. Anyway, thanks for your input. I appreciate your ideas.

  36. Demetrius
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 7:30 pm | Permalink


    “Save the pensions, screw Wall Street.”

    There … I just said it.

    Actually, it was rather easy.

    The problem wasn’t that “actuarial assumptions fell apart,” or that “demographic and economic trends evolved too quickly.” The problem was that a bunch of well-connected insiders gamed the system to create a giant economic bubble — which inevitably burst.

    The perpetrators still haven’t punished, and likely never will … Worse yet, many ended up being bailed out by the U.S. Government — only adding insult to injury to the millions of working- and middle-class taxpayers who ended up watching their home values plummet, and their retirement savings evaporate, in the Great Recession that followed the crash of 2008.

  37. jcp2
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    You are correct. All those things happened. But to assume that it was the work of a few specific individuals, that, if brought to “justice”, would prevent this from happening again, is extremely naive. Replace these individuals with any individual that you choose would result in a similar result. In general, people behave the way they do in the the situations they are in because they are people, not because they are people that are more (immoral, evil, greedy, insert pejorative here) than you are. It is a systemic issue.

    Pensions are promises. A promise is only as good as the party making the promise. Promises can be broken.

    A house’s intrinsic value is providing safety and shelter. Residential housing values beyond that are speculative. Speculation leads to bubbles.

    A better answer would be to screw pensions and screw Wall Street. A lot of the benefits that Americans have experienced in the post war period has been because of comparative advantage. It really boosts up a nation when all viable economic competitors have been set back 30-40 years through war and destruction. Now that advantage is disappearing. We need a new model going forward, one that is not dependent on individual moral actors, but one that takes into account what being human is all about.

  38. Posted August 1, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I don’t know much about public sector hiring and benefits, but I always wonder why people assume that agreements on public sector pension packages were entered into altruistically?

    People race to defend public sector pensions, but what if the contracts were negotiated in a manner that was detrimental to the long term fiscal health of the state?

    It’s more of an ideological issue than a practical one, but It could be argued that governments answer to the public, not public sector unions and when the interests of the public differ from the interests of the union, government has no choice but to side with the former.

    I’m not suggesting that I am in favor of cutting pensions (I don’t have enough information to make that judgement for all scenarios), but I do wonder why people accept that pensions are fair to the populace without question.

    A destructive promise may not be worth keeping.

  39. Lynne
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Frosted Flakes, I can disagree with any of that. I too believe that those who can pay should pay. The problem as I see is largely that there are a lot of people who legitimately can’t pay but who people think should be able to. I think I read recently that 40% of the households in Detroit are below the poverty line. I am willing to bet that a very good number of those whose water is being shut up are in that boat and a significant number of those above the poverty line are barely above it. One of the reasons I like the idea of providing the first bit of water for free for everyone is that it eliminates the guesswork about who can pay and who can’t. Those who can will pay a slightly higher tax rate so they will pay.

    Demetrius, exactly! As a nation, we failed to properly regulate our financial markets and therefore imho, we have an obligation to keep the promises we make.

    Peter, just curious. Are you suggesting that the city of Detroit management deliberately negotiated contracts which were detrimental to the long term health of the state? I strongly disagree although I suppose that I should mention that my father’s job with the city was as a labor negotiator. He’s one of guys who negotiated those contracts on the management side. I am not sure why anyone would think that those contacts are detrimental to the state though. All I see is the money getting funneled to the top while the people at the bottom are fighting over the scraps. There is no reason why we can’t honor public pensions. We have the money. We would just rather build hockey stadiums and bombs I guess.

  40. Demetrius
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    @ Lynne

    “There is no reason why we can’t honor public pensions. We have the money. We would just rather build hockey stadiums and bombs I guess.”


  41. Frosted Flakes
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Yes Lynne, giving a small amount (to cover basic necessities) of water away for free (to everyone) would eliminate the guesswork with regard to who does and does not receive subsidies and reduce the mindless consumption. I love it.

  42. Jcp2
    Posted August 1, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Would this water be delivered to the household by plumbing, by container, by truck, or would there be a central source for the local community.

  43. Posted August 2, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    I keep going back to the “Flint for sale” picture.

    I admit I know little about Flint’s current state, but as one of the most blighted and fiscally troubled cities in the country, does it make sense to preserve a status quo which isn’t doing anyone (outside of a few pensioners) any favors at all?

    A generalization, but what I’m hearing on this blog, even from Mark himself, is that the status quo is acceptable, even if detrimental to everyone. People here might be more conservative than right wingers.

    This is troubling to me.

  44. Demetrius
    Posted August 2, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    @ Peter Larson

    I’m troubled as well. Troubled that some here seem to be so quick to dismiss the rights of “a few pensioners” as unimportant in the overall context of re-shaping cities such as Detroit and Flint.

    There is no question that Detroit and Flint were both epically mismanaged, and that many pensions were negotiated (and promised) based on unrealistic projections. But let’s look at the bigger picture …

    When two of the giant corporations that once provided the majority jobs and taxes that were the lifeblood of both Detroit and Flint (General Motors and Chrysler) were struggling financially, both were given generous government (TAXPAYER) bailouts and/or provided opportunities to shed expensive and under-performing facilities (and people) via bankruptcy; and today they are once again successful companies making record profits.

    Meanwhile, powerful Wall Street banks (and even local outfits like “Quicken”) were allowed to aggressively push no-interest, low-interest, “liar” loans designed to take advantage of struggling homeowners desperate to keep their homes amid falling wages and scarce job opportunities — resulting in an inevitable real estate bubble, and contraction, that only accelerated the decline in property values and tax values, and neighborhood decline. Yet, these, too, were given massive government (TAXPAYER) bailouts, and today, most of them are more powerful — and profitable — than ever before.

    Yet, apparently, these “few pensioners” (many of whom worked hard for many years answering telephones, filling out forms, patching potholes, and even protecting our streets and fighting fires) — all for the promise a modest pension to live on during their retirement years — aren’t worthy of our help, and should instead meekly accept their meager fate for the benefit of the “greater good?”

    And even stranger, those seeking to stand up for these folks are somehow, covertly, “more conservative than right wingers?”

  45. Meta
    Posted August 4, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Snyder is more generous when it comes to Ohioans who need water.

    Gov. Rick Snyder said today that state agencies are ready to help southeastern Michigan residents and communities affected by a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that is affecting their water and water across the state line in Toledo, Ohio.

    More than 11,000 households in southeastern Michigan that draw water from the South County Water System in Monroe County remain under a water advisory, including Bedford, Erie and LaSalle townships and Luna Pier.

    Snyder said Michigan officials haven’t received requests for help, but said the state will do all it can to minimize impacts to citizens and communities.

    Read more:

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