Why do we have a problem? The answer is absurd.
I found a report, published in 2018 by the American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE), Michigan Section that’s quite revealing. In the report, the ASCE gave Michigan’s stormwater infrastructure a grade of D-. Somehow, a grade of D- seems like a veiled attempt at saving the state’s sense of self-esteem. It’s as if a grade school teacher, upon issuing a D-, would say to the student, “I should have failed you, but didn’t because I know you can do better.”
Indeed, those of us who call Michigan home can do better. Sadly, we seem incapable of figuring out how. Michigan’s stormwater infrastructure problems have been well known for decades, and they’ve only become much worse, rather than better. Now, with climate change upon us, we seem to be looking around and never looking up.
Established in 1852, the ASCE is the nation’s oldest engineering society. Societies such as ASCE (e.g., SAE, ISO, ACS, etc.) are vestiges of the guild system. When we jumped into capitalism and the factory system, we managed to nearly do away with the social capital the guilds provided. The history here is a bit complex, but the one thing that came of the guild system is what we call professional societies. The mission of these organizations is the advancement of their respective professions. Today, many of the folks who make up these organizations volunteer their time; they do the work simply for the love of it.
One of the most important things humans bring to the system is insight and creativity, without which, we wouldn’t evolve, innovate, or move on from where we are. These are living things; they’re unpredictable and uniquely human. To advance thinking and professions takes insight and creativity, and for the most part, these things are born of a love for the work. There are no axes to grind, bosses to answer or funders to please. There’s just a desire to advance the art. So, in that sense, we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the ASCE’s assessment of Michigan’s stormwater infrastructure.
Among the issues highlighted in the report, one stands out as perhaps the most absurd. The report reads: “Michigan is far behind its neighbors in the development of enterprise funds (i.e., “utilities”) for municipal stormwater systems. This is largely due to legal precedent (Bolt v Lansing and Jackson County v City of Jackson) where stormwater utilities have been deemed ‘illegal taxes’ under the Headlee Amendment of Michigan’s Constitution. This has prevented the spread of stormwater utilities in Michigan.” “Enterprise funds” are cooperative, regional entities. In other words, they represent a saner approach to managing the commons. Yet, for some arcane reason, we seem hamstrung by what David Graeber would probably have called a bulls#*t job. These are jobs that employ folks but don’t add value.
A very well-researched study by the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, gets to the heart of the absurdity. “Measuring Water and Sewer Service Affordability” relates an in-depth study of the inequities associated with how we fund water and sewer services.
The authors write, “Targeted policy alternatives for addressing unaffordability in Michigan should consider what has been described as a restrictive legal environment.” If this seems Orwellian, it is. “A restrictive legal environment”, at least, in this case, is a grotesque monster; it does little more than foster litigation that goes nowhere. The authors highlight the ill effects of the Headlee Amendment on moving toward a more equitably funded water and sewer system in Michigan: “A Michigan Constitutional Amendment and a State Supreme Court case interpreting it… found that in some utility charges, the utility categorized as user fees were illegal taxes. However, there is disagreement among experts and practitioners about how this decision could apply in the context of water affordability policies and institutional practices throughout the state. More restrictive interpretations of the Headlee/Bolt case are not settled law as demonstrated by a number of cases brought against townships in circuit court, which have had mixed results.” Why do we get “mixed results?” Why do these things remain law that is “not settled?” The Headlee Amendment was approved in 1978, that’s almost fifty years ago, yet we haven’t figured out how it applies in these instances?
Here’s the problem. Litigating over what constitutes a fee versus a tax is absurd. May he rest in peace, but wherever he’s perched, I’d bet Graeber is laughing. This sort of litigation is work that has net zero value. It may pay a salary that affords a nice house, car, and maybe private school for the kids, but it does not advance the common good. That we cannot find a way to get past these things and start working cooperatively, especially here in Southeast Michigan, is a problem we must overcome sooner rather than later. And when we do, we need to apply the concept of progressive taxation. In other words, we need to find a way to tax such that we move toward the ideal best described as: “From those according to ability, to those according to need.”
The sad reality is that we live surrounded by 20% of Earth’s freshwater. With every passing year, we dump ever-increasing quantities of combined sewage into this precious ecosystem. We need to come to grips with reality. That we so cavalierly stand by while such a precious thing is destroyed, and do so because we cannot figure out how to levy a tax, is not only absurd, it’s a crime against humanity.