41st Anniversary Special: The perils of privatization - Page 3

Ronald Reagan started dismantling government 25 years ago, but his privatization legacy is alive and growing -- even in San Francisco
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Just as the Great Society left an imprint of Federal commitment to help the indigent and equality of opportunity, the Reagan budget deficits will leave an imprint of non-involvement."

Such a massive realignment of money coupled with tax breaks too politically painful to reinstate led to a boom in the outsourcing of public services. Private companies began doing more municipal work, while nonprofit organizations tried to fill the gaps in funding for social services, welfare, housing, health care, and the environment.

The George W. Bush era has seen even more overt outsourcing. These days no-bid contracts are preferred, and at times government services are completely turned over to the private sector in "direct conversions," and the public agency that once did the job is not allowed to compete to keep it. The Washington Post recently reported that no-bid government contracts have tripled in the past six years.

This doesn't really sound like the competitive free market espoused by the theory of privatization.

FLUNKING THE TEST

To field-test the primacy of privatization, the Reagan administration sponsored a transportation experiment in the early '80s: Miami's Metro-Dade Transit Agency got to compete against Greyhound. The two providers were each given five comparable transit routes to manage over three years, and 80 new buses were bought with a $7.5 million grant from the federal government.

After 18 months 30 of the Greyhound buses were so badly damaged that they had to be permanently pulled from service. Passenger complaints on the Greyhound line were up 100 percent, and ridership was down 31 percent over the course of a year.

Why? There was no incentive in Greyhound's contract to maintain the equipment or retain riders. The company's only goal was to deliver the cheapest service possible.

The Miami transit contract could have contained clauses calling for regular inspections or guaranteed ridership, but that would have significantly increased the cost of the work — perhaps to the point where it would have been competitive with what the city provided.

That's an important lesson in privatization politics: when you add the cost of adequately protecting the public's interest and monitoring contract compliance, the private sector doesn't look so efficient.

Which is why many say privatization only succeeds as a theory — and why, for all the problems with Muni, no private company is likely to be able to do a better job.

"Market fundamentalists present an idealized, simpleminded notion of competitive markets in which buyers and sellers have equal knowledge," Sclar told us. "Anyone can be a buyer, anyone can be a seller, everyone can evaluate the quality of the good. In this never-never land, that's often the way the case is made for privatization by this particular group of economists."

In the real world a number of issues arise when a service goes private. "Accountability gets to be a really big problem," Ellen Dannin, professor of law at Penn State University, said in an interview. "There are predictions about how much money will get saved through privatization, but no one ever goes back to check."

The September study by the US Public Interest Research Group profiled several companies that do government work, including Bank of America, LexisNexis, ChoicePoint, KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown, and Root), General Electric, and Raytheon, and found instances of illegal behavior in all cases. There were often massive errors in the companies' work.

Bank of America and LexisNexis had security breaches compromising the data of at least 1.5 million customers they were handling for the government. ChoicePoint allowed identity-theft scams amounting to more than $1 million in fraud. KBR overcharged the government millions of dollars for work in Iraq and Kuwait. GE made defective helicopter blades for the US military.