41st Anniversary Special: The perils of privatization

Ronald Reagan started dismantling government 25 years ago, but his privatization legacy is alive and growing -- even in San Francisco

Click here for Amanda Witherell's exclusive interview with Columbia professor Elliott Sclar


Over the past few weeks almost every major news outlet in the country has reported on Blackwater, a private company the US government hired to do work in Iraq that was once the exclusive province of soldiers.

The deal hasn't gone so well: on Sept. 16, Blackwater guards opened fire and, according to the Iraqi government, shot 25 civilians. The incident set off an international furor and has brought into focus the breadth of the company's work for the US government. It's prompted an investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which showed that since 2001, Blackwater's federal contracts have increased 80,000 percent. It's revealed the massive pay inequalities between private security guards and US soldiers — the cost of one private guard could pay the salaries of six soldiers.

And it's raised a question that's critical to understanding how government increasingly works in the United States: should a private company be doing the work of the military?

Privatization of public services is all the rage in this country now, at all levels of government, from Washington DC to San Francisco. Supporters say the private sector can often work better and more efficiently than the old, bureaucratic, much-maligned government.

But Blackwater is a great example of the perils of privatization. And there are many more.


Over the past few decades governments at all levels in this country have been in a near-perpetual state of deficit. Taxes are way down from their historic post–World War II levels, and except for a brief period during the tech boom, there is rarely enough money for even basic social services.

"It's been a strategy since the '70s to, as Grover Norquist calls it, 'starve the beast,'<0x2009>" Robert Haaland, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, told us.

And because politicians, even Democrats, are terrified of tax hikes, they've been looking for more efficient ways to use the money they have. The magic bullet goes by many names — privatization, public-private partnerships, competitive outsourcing, creative financing solutions — but the basic idea is to allow the power of competition, set free in an unregulated market, to provide the public with the best services at the lowest cost.

"To do or to buy is the question that all governments face," says Ken Jacobs, director of UC Berkeley's Labor Center.

We've been buying. Since 2000, outsourcing of federal dollars has increased 100 percent, to $422 billion in taxpayer funds in 2006, according to a September study by the Washington DC US Public Interest Research Group. The US government is now the private sector's largest customer.

San Francisco may be known as one of the most progressive cities in the country, but this town has also been wooed by public-private partnerships with promises of improvements to the golf courses, construction of a new power plant, and funding for the many civic needs we have.


Cheerleaders for privatization look at someone like Nathaniel Ford, executive director of San Francisco's Metropolitan Transit Authority, and see everything that's wrong with the public sector. Ford's salary is nearly $300,000, plenty high enough to attract a talented leader. But the Muni system he runs keeps the average San Franciscan waiting on the corner in the morning, delivers that person to work at an unpredictable hour, and lurches them homeward every night aboard a standing-room-only bus.