Needed: a campaign against privatization

Editorial: San Francisco ought to be a place where a major movement to take back the public sector is born and thrives.

EDITORIAL Of all the cities in the United States, San Francisco ought to be most aware of the perils of privatization. Much of the city burned down in 1906 in part because the private Spring Valley Water Co. hadn't kept up its lines and thus was unable to provide enough water for firefighting. A few years later, in one of the greatest privatization scandals in American history, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. stole what was supposed to be the city's publicly owned electricity, costing the local coffers untold hundreds of millions over the past 80 years.

This is a city that votes 80 percent Democratic and has always opposed the Ronald Reagan–George H.W. Bush–George W. Bush agenda. A large part of the local economy depends on public employment (the city, the state, the federal government, and the University of California are by far the largest employers in town, dwarfing any of the biggest private-sector companies).

And yet Mayor Gavin Newsom, who likes to say he's a progressive, is pushing an astonishing package of privatization measures that would shift public property, resources, and infrastructure into the hands of for-profit businesses. He's talking about privatizing the golf courses, some city parks, and even Camp Mather. He's promoting a tidal-energy deal that would give PG&E control of the power generated in a public waterway. He hasn't lifted a finger to stop the ongoing PG&E–Raker Act scandal. And he's determined to hand over a key part of the city's future infrastructure to Google and EarthLink (see Editor's Notes, p. 1).

This nonsense has to stop.

It's hard to fight privatization battle by battle. Every single effort is a tough campaign in itself; the companies that want to make money off San Francisco's public assets typically have plenty of cash to throw around. They're slick and sophisticated, hire good lobbyists, and generally get excellent press from the local dailies. And it works: even board president Aaron Peskin, who generally knows better, is now talking about accepting the private wi-fi deal.

So what this city needs is a unified, organized campaign against privatization.

When Reagan arrived in the White House in 1981, the single biggest item on the agenda of his political backers was an attack on the public sector. The way the right-wingers saw it, government took money from the rich and gave it to the less well-off. Government regulated business activity, costing major corporations a lot of money. Government — "the beast," they called it — had to be beaten back, demonized, and starved.

So the Reaganites used their top-rate public relations machine to make the public sector appear riddled with waste and fraud. They cut taxes, ran up record (for the time) deficits, and forced Congress to eliminate a lot of social programs. More and more of what the government once did was turned over to the private sector — the way the radical right liked it.

That political agenda still rules Washington, D.C., where even a fair amount of the war in Iraq has been privatized, turned over to contractors who are making huge profits while Iraqi and American kids die.

The attack on government has worked so well that even a very modest plan by Bill Clinton to create a national health care system was killed by the insurance industry.

But privatization doesn't work. Private-sector companies and even nonprofits don't have to comply with open-records laws and can spend money (including taxpayers') with only limited accountability. Most private companies are about making money first and serving the public second; that means when private operators take over public services, the prices go up, worker pay goes down (and unions are often booted out), and the quality of the delivery tanks. Look at the real estate development nightmare that has become the privatized Presidio.