41st Anniversary Special: The perils of privatization - Page 2

Ronald Reagan started dismantling government 25 years ago, but his privatization legacy is alive and growing -- even in San Francisco
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Nobody thinks Muni is performing well.

That makes the case for privatization seem almost appealing.

"The public has been schooled to think that government is the problem, not the solution," Elliott Sclar, professor of economics at Columbia University, told us. In his 2000 book on privatization, You Don't Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatization (Cornell University), he writes, "American folk wisdom holds that, by and large, public service is uncaring, unbending, bureaucratic, and expensive, whereas competitively supplied private services such as FedEx are efficient and responsive."

Competition, the privatizers say, drives innovation. Less red tape means more efficiency. A lack of unions and collective bargaining agreements translates to lower labor costs. Large-scale multinational operations can reduce redundancy and streamline their processes — all of which adds up to a lean-running machine.

But this country has a lot of experience with privatization, and the record isn't good.

One hundred years ago private companies did a lot of what we now call government work. "Contracting out was the way American cities carried out their governmental business ever since they grew beyond their small village beginnings," writes Moshe Adler, a Columbia professor of economics, in his 1999 paper The Origins of Governmental Production: Cleaning the Streets of New York by Contract During the 19th Century. At one time private companies provided firefighting, trash collection, and water supplies, to name just a few essential services.

But according to Adler, "By the end of the 19th century contracting out was a mature system that was already as good as it could possibly be. And it was precisely then that governmental production came to America. The realization that every possible improvement to contracting out had been tried led city after city to declare its failure."

For example, the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires in San Francisco were what prodded the city to municipalize water service after the company charged with the task, Spring Valley Water, failed to deliver while the fires raged.

In Philadelphia as well as San Francisco, the business of firefighting was once very lucrative — for both the firefighting companies and the arsonists who were paid to set fires for the former to fight. And corruption was rampant. "Large amounts of public contracting out historically created lots of opportunities for fraud and nepotism," Jacobs said.

So public agencies stepped in to provide basic services as cheaply and uniformly as possible. Towns and cities took on the tasks of security with police and firefighting, education with schools and libraries, and sanitation with trash collection and wastewater treatment. Nationally, the federal government improved roads and transit, enacted Social Security benefits, and established a National Park System, among many other things.

And then, about 30 years ago, the pendulum started to swing the other way. Driven by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, enacted in a massive policy shift by Ronald Reagan, proliferated by Grover Norquist and the neocon agenda, and fully appreciated by corporations and private companies, privatization came back.

In Reagan's first term, he cut taxes 25 percent overall; the rich got a 40 percent cut. Domestic spending fell by half a trillion dollars in the 1980s, although any savings were countered by a rise in the defense budget.

Harvard economist Lawrence Summers, quoted in Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency (Johns Hopkins University), put it this way: "The Reagan budgets will influence the government for the rest of this century.