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.
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.