Outsource This

In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman explains how rightie “privatization” theories are compromising national security, and lots of other stuff.

For example, an article in Saturday’s New York Times describes how the Coast Guard has run a $17 billion modernization program: “Instead of managing the project itself, the Coast Guard hired Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, two of the nation’s largest military contractors, to plan, supervise and deliver the new vessels and helicopters.”

The result? Expensive ships that aren’t seaworthy. The Coast Guard ignored “repeated warnings from its own engineers that the boats and ships were poorly designed and perhaps unsafe,” while “the contractors failed to fulfill their obligation to make sure the government got the best price, frequently steering work to their subsidiaries or business partners instead of competitors.”

Here’s the story Professor Krugman cites. It explains that this screwup has seriously “compromised the Coast Guard’s ability to fulfill its mission, which greatly expanded after the 2001 attacks to include guarding the nation’s shores against terrorists.”

Professor Krugman continues,

In Afghanistan, the job of training a new police force was outsourced to DynCorp International, a private contractor, under very loose supervision: when conducting a recent review, auditors couldn’t even find a copy of DynCorp’s contract to see what it called for. And $1.1 billion later, Afghanistan still doesn’t have an effective police training program.

In July 2004, Government Executive magazine published an article titled “Outsourcing Iraq,” documenting how the U.S. occupation authorities had transferred responsibility for reconstruction to private contractors, with hardly any oversight. “The only plan,” it said, “appears to have been to let the private sector manage nation-building, mostly on their own.” We all know how that turned out.

And then there’s FEMA.

On the home front, the Bush administration outsourced many responsibilities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For example, the job of evacuating people from disaster areas was given to a trucking logistics firm, Landstar Express America. When Hurricane Katrina struck, Landstar didn’t even know where to get buses. According to Carey Limousine, which was eventually hired, Landstar “found us on the Web site.”

Brilliant. Now, note this:

It’s now clear that there’s a fundamental error in the antigovernment ideology embraced by today’s conservative movement. Conservatives look at the virtues of market competition and leap to the conclusion that private ownership, in itself, is some kind of magic elixir. But there’s no reason to assume that a private company hired to perform a public service will do better than people employed directly by the government.

You know that for years, one of the cornerstones of rightie civic religion is that private is always better than public. The rightie answer to all government problems has been (after cutting taxes) to first deregulate, then privatize. Righties have a pure and abiding faith that public bureaucracies are wasteful and stupid and corrupt, while private companies are efficient and competent and always do the job better, whatever that job is.

Personally, I suspect anyone who’s had a middle management position in any American company for more than ten minutes knows that’s a crock. But let’s go on …

It would be interesting to trace exactly how this bit of dogma came to be so rigidly fixed in the rightie brain. Certainly there’s been an anti-government streak in America since, well, the Revolution. But the traditional anti-government argument has been that government should have strict limits to its functions to keep it from becoming dictatorial, or too intrusive into people’s private business. And, of course, taking on more tasks also leads to more taxes. I postulate that the idea that government shouldn’t do stuff because it isn’t competent to do stuff is relatively recent — dating maybe from the 1960s, when memories of World War II were starting to fade. But by the 1980s St. Ronald’s axiom that government is not the solution, but the problem, was conventional wisdom. Ayn Rand contribution to the “private is better” myth, and the 1990s saw a full-blown “CEO as superman” cult. If anyone has any other ideas of where this nonsense originated, please speak up.

Professor Krugman tells us why some people love privatization:

In fact, the private company will almost surely do a worse job if its political connections insulate it from accountability — which has, of course, consistently been the case under Mr. Bush. The inspectors’ report on Afghanistan’s police conspicuously avoided assessing DynCorp’s performance; even as government auditors found fault with Landstar, the company received a plaque from the Department of Transportation honoring its hurricane relief efforts.

Underlying this lack of accountability are the real motives for turning government functions over to private companies, which have little to do with efficiency. To say the obvious: when you see a story about failed outsourcing, you can be sure that the company in question is a major contributor to the Republican Party, is run by people with strong G.O.P. connections, or both.

Another way that the Bush Administration “outsources” is to invite outside interests into government — for example, making the chief lobbyist of the beef industry chief of staff at the Agriculture Department. Or naming an executive with the National Food Processors Association to head the Food and Drug Administration. Eric Schlosser explains,

Since 2000, the fast-food and meatpacking industries have given about four-fifths of their political donations to Republican candidates for national office. In return, these industries have effectively been given control of the agencies created to regulate them.

Combine this trend with cutbacks in FDA budget and staff — gotta pay for those tax cuts for multimillionaires somehow — and the result a sharp increase in deaths by food poisoning, Schlosser says. See also this story in today’s Washington Post.

Last week the New York Times published a series of articles on the salvage effort that rebuilt the Pacific Fleet after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. These serve as a reminder of what government — transparent government, accountable government — can accomplish. Compare the work at Pearl Harbor one year after the attacks, as reported at the time by Robert Trumbell, to New Orleans today. And weep.

Professor Krugman:

So what happens now? The failure of privatization under the Bush administration offers a target-rich environment to newly empowered Congressional Democrats — and I say, let the subpoenas fly. Bear in mind that we’re not talking just about wasted money: contracting failures in Iraq helped us lose one war, similar failures in Afghanistan may help us lose another, and FEMA’s failures helped us lose a great American city.

And maybe, just maybe, the abject failure of this administration’s efforts to outsource essential functions to the private sector will diminish the antigovernment prejudice created by decades of right-wing propaganda.

I’m not saying the private sector isn’t better than government at some things — production, distribution, and sale of consumer goods, for example. Pitting the public against the private sector is, IMO, another of the false dichotomies to which righties seem susceptible. Public and private sectors should work to support each other, not supplant each other.

In any event, the Right’s antigovernment prejudice clearly isn’t making government better. We need to replace the antigovernment bias with a simple truth: The nation will have as good a government as We, the People, are determined to have.

Katrina’s Children

If indeed the GOP had hoped post-Katrina New Orleans would be whiter (and redder) than pre-Katrina New Orleans, it seems they hoped in vain. Eduardo Porter writes in today’s New York Times that the mostly Latino illegal immigrant community in New Orleans is growing fast.

First came the storm. Then came the workers. Now comes the baby boom.

In the latest twist to the demographic transformation of New Orleans since it was swamped by Hurricane Katrina last year, hundreds of babies are being born to Latino immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, who flocked to the city to toil on its reconstruction.

The throng of babies gurgling in the handful of operational maternity wards here has come as a big surprise — and a financial strain — to this historically black and white city, which before the hurricane had only a small Latino community and virtually no experience of illegal immigration. …

… There has been a small Latino population in New Orleans for several decades, mostly Hondurans who came after Hurricane Mitch battered Central America in 1998. But that population has started to grow.

According to the Louisiana Health and Population Survey, released in November, the number of Latinos living in households in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes has increased by about 10,000 since 2004, to 60,000, even as the total population has fallen by about a quarter, to roughly 625,000.

Last summer, researchers at Tulane University estimated that there were 5,000 to 7,000 illegal Latino workers in Orleans Parish alone, excluding nonworking relatives. But some community workers estimate that tens of thousands have arrived since the storm.

Immigrants can be seen working on roofs, installing Sheetrock and laying tile all over town, from the up-market Lakeview neighborhood in the west to East New Orleans. At the Lowe’s home improvement store in the city’s Bywater neighborhood, clusters of day laborers mill about in the parking lot every morning, waiting for jobs.

A year ago reports came out that the federal contractors the Bush Administration favored with lucrative contracts were recruiting illegals to do the work, and paying them near-slave wages. In the December 18, 2005, Washington Post, Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote,

The come-on was irresistible: Hop in the truck. Go to New Orleans. Make a pile of cash.

Arturo jumped at it. Since that day when he left Houston, more than two months ago, he has slept on the floors of moldy houses, idled endlessly at day-laborer pickup stops and second-guessed himself nearly every minute. …

… Arturo, a dour Mexican from Michoacan who did not want to disclose his last name for fear of deportation, stands at the nexus of the post-Hurricane Katrina labor crisis in New Orleans. A city desperate for workers is filling with desperate workers who either cannot find jobs or whose conditions are so miserable, and whose salaries are so low, that they become discouraged and leave.

Our President keeps telling us these are jobs “our people” won’t do … um, wait a minute, here …

At a New Orleans town hall meeting in Atlanta, displaced black civil rights activist Carl Galmon complained: “They’re bringing in foreign workers from South America, Central America and Mexico, paying them $5 an hour sometimes for 80 hours a week. They are undercutting the American labor force in New Orleans.”…

…For those who find work, conditions can be abominable, with laborers such as Rico Barrios and his wife, Guadalupe Garcia, slashing through the cough-inducing mold on walls in flooded Lakeview with only thin masks to shield their lungs, even though she is pregnant. “It’s hard,” said Barrios, who is from Mexico City, his face glistening with sweat.

This doesn’t have anything to do with jobs “our people” won’t do. It has to do with work “our federal contractors” don’t want to pay for.

David Sirota has a relevant post today at Huffington Post

… employers are using immigration and temporary visa programs to short circuit the labor market. The rules of supply and demand that corporations tell us we must never mess with are only applicable when those rules help corporations – but when they begin helping ordinary workers, the supply (in this case, of labor) must be artificially rigged to keep wages down.

It isn’t just wages that are affected. In New Orleans, the baby boom among illegals is swamping the hospitals and health care system generally. Of course, the mothers have no money, no health insurance, and they are barred from most government assistance. The few clinics that will provide free prenatal care to illegal immigrants are overloaded. So many mothers get no prenatal care; they don’t see a doctor until they go into labor. Emergency rooms have to take them at that point. After the babies are born the mothers hesitate to ask for assistance for the babies (who are citizens) because the mothers fear being arrested.

After Katrina there was talk about the inequality and poverty the storm had exposed. Even the President, in his famous Jackson Square speech of September 15, 2005, spoke of the “lessons” of Katrina and the problems of poverty —

When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there’s also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created.

Is it possible that Bush actually believed this when he said it?

I realize there is fault to be found in all levels of government, but — damn, this is just bleeped up.

I’m speed-blogging today during jury recesses, so if the post is incoherent in spots — well, I know you’ll add corrections to the comments.