Needed: a campaign against privatization

It's time to declare war
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EDITORIAL It's time for San Francisco to declare war on privatization.

The local threat is very real: as we reported in last week's special anniversary issue, Mayor Gavin Newsom's administration has moved to turn over a long list of city services — from housing for the mentally ill to the operation of the public golf courses — to the private sector. Should this happen, if history is any guide, the city would wind up losing millions, the quality of services would decline, and the economy would suffer as hundreds of well-paid, unionized employees lost their jobs.

Equally important, the public would lose control over the institutions that were and are created and run for its benefit.

Privatization is a recipe for corruption. There always has been and always will be some level of graft, corruption, and incompetence in government operations; there will always be the occasional city employee who sleeps on the job, fudges time cards, doesn't do the job right, and somehow manages to avoid being fired. But that sort of small-time problem amounts to peanuts in comparison to what happens when large amounts of public money are turned over to the private sector.

Private companies are out to make profits — and for the most part they keep their finances secret. Many of the worst scandals in American history have involved kickbacks, backroom deals, and bribery aimed at sending taxpayer dollars into the coffers of big contractors, and these continue today. And the argument that the private sector is more efficient often turns out to be utterly false; the absolute worst waste of money in the nation's health care system, for example, is the phenomenal overhead involved in private insurance plans. As much as 30¢ of every dollar spent on private-sector health care goes to administrative overhead and profit. The public Medicare system operates on about 5 percent overhead.

Of course, the public has no way of keeping track of where most of the private health care money goes; the insurance companies keep that information to themselves. So do most other private contractors that take public money. And even if you don't like the way the system is managed, you don't have much choice — insurance executives aren't elected by anyone and aren't accountable to the community.

San Francisco has a history of allowing private operators to take over public resources, and the results have been almost universally bad. One of the reasons the 1906 earthquake caused such devastation was that the private Spring Valley Water Co. — looking only for quick profits and not at long-term maintenance or service — failed to keep its pipes in good repair. When the city really needed water, to put out the postquake fires, it wasn't available. That fiasco led city officials to develop a municipal water system, which now delivers some of the best, cleanest, and cheapest water in the country.

Of course, Congress gave San Francisco the right to build that water system, which uses a dam in Yosemite National Park, only on the condition that it also develop public electric power. Instead, in the greatest privatization scandal in the history of urban America, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. wound up initially controlling much of the output of the dam, and it still controls the city's electric grid. The result: some of the highest electric rates in the nation and terrible, unreliable service.

San Francisco officials led the way to the privatization of the Presidio, turning over a national park to an unaccountable quasi-private board that operates as a real estate developer. The results: A giant commercial office complex, built with a $60 million tax break. Plans for high-end condos.