41st Anniversary Special: The perils of privatization - Page 4

Ronald Reagan started dismantling government 25 years ago, but his privatization legacy is alive and growing -- even in San Francisco
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Raytheon failed to fully test the systems of new aircraft. These companies are all still employed by the government.

When companies take over services that aren't typically part of a competitive market, all sorts of unexpected problems occur. Jacobs points to the rash of contracting for busing services in cash-strapped school districts. Not only did costs eventually rise in many places, but when schools tried to go back to providing their own service, the skilled drivers who knew the routes, knew the kids, and were able to do much more than drive a bus were gone.

Sclar and Dannin agree that any service that lacks competition should be public. Sclar presented the example of electricity. "It's a natural monopoly," he said. "Essentially it's either going to be a well-regulated industry or it's got to be done publicly."

Corporations exist to make money. And although graft, mismanagement, and scandal have always been present in City Halls around the country, in the end the legislative, judicial, and executive branches were not designed to generate profits. That alone means contracting out is financially dubious.

Hiring mercenaries is a classic example. "It costs the US government a lot more to hire contract employees as security guards in Iraq than to use American troops," Walter Pincus wrote in an Oct. 1 article in the Washington Post. "It comes down to the simple business equation of every transaction requiring a profit."

As Pincus details one of the many contracts between the security firm and the US, "Blackwater was a subcontractor to Regency, which was a subcontractor to another company, ESS, which was a subcontractor to Halliburton's KBR subsidiary, the prime contractor for the Pentagon — and each company along the way was in the business to make a profit."

Blackwater charged Regency between $815 and $1,075 per day per security operative. Regency turned around and charged ESS a slightly higher average of $1,100. After that, the costs dissolve into the enormous bill that KBR regularly hands the federal government.

When the US Army is paying the bill the costs are far lower. An unmarried sergeant earns less than $100 a day. If you're married, it's less than $200. If you're Gen. David H. Petraeus, it's about $500 — less than Blackwater's lowest-paid workers.

Very little about the Blackwater contracts would be known by anyone outside the company if it weren't for the federal investigation, since private businesses are not subject to the same public-records laws as the federal government. They don't have to open their books or publicize the details of their bids and contracts, and they often fiercely lobby against any regulations requiring this, which leaves the door wide open for corruption — which is what brought sunshine laws to government in the first place.

Sclar said that when it's a good call to contract out, corporations, private companies, and nonprofits should be required to abide by public-records laws in addition to adhering to a five-year wait for employees departing the public sector for the private. "I think transparency should always be the goal," he said. "As much information as possible." If a company doesn't want to make its records public, he told us, "[it shouldn't] go after public work."

THE AIDS LESSON

Privatization comes in many forms and emerges for what often seem like good reasons.

In the early 1980s gay men in San Francisco were starting to get sick and die in large numbers — and the federal government didn't care. There was no government agency addressing the AIDS crisis and almost no government funding.