Water by numbers By Shea Howell – Week 74 of the occupation

Thinking for ourselves

By Shea Howell

Water by numbers

Week 74 of the occupation

September 2, 2014


shea33The Detroit Bankruptcy trial is moving into its final stage. Beginning this week, Judge Steven Rhodes will decide if he will approve the plan offered by Emergency Manager Orr and his high priced law firm, Jones Day, to resolve the financial challenges of the city.


On the eve of the hearings, the EM Kevyn Orr held another round of closed door meetings. This time with Syncora Guarantee Inc, the bond insurers who are aggressively challenging anything that limits their claim on Detroit dollars. The sale of City Airport and all municipal buildings are reportedly “on the table.”


These deals are presented to the people as objective choices, dictated by the numbers and financial realities. Public comment and oversight are cast as unnecessary distractions.


All of us who care about a just future should be skeptical of this claim. Typically it is based on numbers offered up to justify giving away our public assets.


One of the best national experts on data interpretation, Nate Silver, recently commented about the slippery nature of numbers. He said:

“Data never has a virgin birth. It can be tempting to assume that the information contained in a spreadsheet or a database is pure or clean or beyond reproach. But this is almost never the case.”

Last week, echoing Silver’s comment, our own local numbers guy, Kurt Metzger, was compelled to comment on a Detroit Free Press story framing the Michigan economy as “coming back” under Governor Snyder. Metzger objected to the positively framed and sometimes outright incorrect data. He said, “There is a major problem, however, in that the data in three of the charts are INCORRECT or MISLEADING.  In each case, the correct data paint a much dimmer picture than what the article presents.”

Metzger demonstrates that the numbers do not show an economy in recovery, but one that is struggling. He says, “Not only have we not reached precession levels (for MHI), we have continued to drop every year between 2006 and 2011, just showing the first gain (statistically insignificant however) between 2011 and 2012.  We are now 13 percent below where we were in 2006!


Further, he notes, “It is obvious that poverty in Michigan in 2012 is much higher than the Free Press reports, just experiencing its first decrease (1/10 of a percentage point) in 2012. The chart in the article has poverty decreasing since 2009!


The numbers we chose to emphasize flow from the values we hold and the visions of the kind of society we want. By making decisions behind closed doors, based on data presented as open to only one interpretation, the EM blocks a deeper understanding of the issues we face. This secrecy eliminates the possibility of the kind of imaginative, creative solutions that emerge as people come together and struggle over real issues. It is the way to justify the claim that there is no alternative but to sell off, cut off, shut off, and privatize everything.

This is clearly seen in their approach to the water crisis. EM Orr and the Mayor want us to believe all is well. They refuse to address the systemic failure we are facing and they refuse to consider the Water Affordability Plan that would guarantee fresh, affordable, water for all. Here are some numbers they avoid:

More than 17,000 people have suffered from water shut offs this year.

40 commercial and industrial accounts have past-due accounts totaling $9.5 million. Homrich does not know how to shut them off.

Nearly 50% of the budget of the Water Department, $547million, pays Wall Street banks.

Water bills in Detroit have gone up nearly 120% in 10 years.

The city is paying more per year to Homrich to shut off water (5.7million for two years) than it has ever set aside in emergency fund to help people keep water on ($2 million).

These numbers force us to ask very different questions of ourselves and of the kind of city we want to become.