Everything must go: Selling off—and selling out—the public sector


On an evening in August of 2007, the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed and thirteen people died. The little cracks and other problems government officials knew about but had been slow to fix, combined with a design flaw that had gone unnoticed, grew too severe; under the weight of rush-hour traffic and about three hundred tons of construction equipment, the whole thing went down into the Mississippi River. Most people died because they suffered blunt force trauma. One man died because the delivery truck he was driving caught fire and dangled from the broken concrete as he remained trapped inside. Firefighters retrieved his burnt corpse some hours later.

The collapse brought to the surface a fact that was clear to anyone who cared to look around: our national infrastructure is in deadly bad shape. For a brief time, there was a lot of discussion about it. But then, about a year later, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and global markets crashed and people lost their jobs and their homes, and the notion that a major bridge could break was no longer very shocking. It was relegated to that mishmash of other sad and terrible facts everyone hates, yet in practice accepts—as if one of the most visible and fundamental roles of the government, to provide reliable “public works,” was no longer a baseline expectation of American life. And maybe it wasn’t: despite the crushing fallout of the private sector’s biggest failure since the Great Depression, in which private mortgage companies and complex Wall Street investment schemes were directly responsible for a nationwide wave of foreclosures, a decades-long effort to “re-invent government” by turning toward private enterprise rolled forward. In fact, it wasn’t long before some champions of “privatizing” government functions incorporated the Interstate 35W bridge into their long list of reasons why the public sector must be saved from itself. The savior, they said, should be big business.

That’s been the mantra under Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and, at first, Obama. Now privatization has found its most obvious champion in Donald Trump, a man operating under the delusion that a nation can and should be run as a business.

Trump’s control of the executive branch means that all the usual anti-government ideologues have been able to propose their usual pet projects with even more success. When the administration released its proposed budget for 2019, the libertarian Cato Institute approvingly observed plans for “privatizing federal assets such as airports, air traffic control, and electricity facilities.” Citing several possible targets for “potential divestiture” named in the budget—including Washington’s Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport—a Cato writer noted, “These reform ideas are straight out of Cato’s playbook.”

Privatization has found its most obvious champion in Donald Trump, a man operating under the delusion that a nation can and should be run as a business.

Trump’s 2020 budget is laced through with references to “leveraging the private sector” and “increasing the private sector’s role,” in ways that would affect national forests, schools, infrastructure, the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system, and federal food stamps. It proposes to sell publicly owned electricity assets (such as those of the Tennessee Valley Authority) because “the private sector is best suited to own and operate electricity transmission assets.” It requests authority to “incentivize the private sector to fill the defense financing gap”—that is, give handouts to Raytheon and the like—“so that America can still be the defense supplier of choice for partner countries for which loans are not the best option.” It says we need a long-term bill to address our highways because that’s where most transportation-related fatalities happen, and because it would provide “certainty to America’s state, local, and private partners, so they can plan and invest in projects with confidence.”

And why stop at America? The Trump administration wants corporate interests to privatize Palestine so it can “integrate with neighboring economies.” Hell, why stop at Earth? The International Space Station is open for business too.

The Incredible Shrinking Plan

Selling off public assets and contracting out basic government functions has never been a cause driven by strong popular sentiment. When George W. Bush announced, days after his reelection in 2004, that he would use his “political capital” to push for the privatization of Social Security, it wasn’t due to an outcry demanding an alternative system of private-sector retirement accounts. Bush took his ideas on the road in early 2005, but the response was so underwhelming that the plan was never even introduced in Congress and died a quiet death.

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