August 30, 2003
By Sandra E. Jewell
you heard the one about how your government will be put into
private hands? That's right. Privatization, known as "market
based government" by the Bush administration and "privateering"
by others, is well under way and is probably already a part
of your life.
Privatizing the government has been in the works for years
but until now mostly involved using business contractors for
things like building maintenance. No longer. President Bush
has decreed the immediate replacement of about half the federal
civilian work force with private sector employees, and that's
just the beginning. Coming soon, the same folks who brought
us corporate headquarters residing in offshore post office
boxes, endless financial scandals, big name bankruptcies,
and the expanding expatriation of American jobs will be providing
the air traffic controllers for your next flight, the computer
workers who keep tabs on your once-private social security
records, and much, much more. The private sector and the Bush
administration have big plans for us.
The general acceptance of the Bush administration's spin
that the work of government can be done by private parties
is an indictment of every high school American history class
taught. So called "big government" began it's rise
in the early 20th century as an antidote to the abuses and
excesses of big business, and, in the face of rising public
rebellion, helped to stabilize the capitalist democracy. The
numerous incidents of popular revolt that occurred around
that time are invisible in most history books.
Fast forward one century: Robber barons are amassing great
wealth, once again with the collusion of the government. This
time, instead of railroads, banks and oil, their path to riches
centers on unraveling the hard won gains in the living standards
of their employees.
The public sector, with its huge concentration of GNP and
its multibillion dollar budget, has been coveted by corporations
for a long time. Why shouldn't they, instead of the
public, be the beneficiary of all that treasure? Their lucky
break came with the adoption of GATS, NAFTA and IMF principles
as free trade articles of faith by those who get paid to govern
in the best interest of the taxpayer.
Predictably, the path from corporate profitability to the
hoped for unspeakable profitability is through the line of
least resistance, in this case that's the third world's most
vulnerable, who get to continue their subsistence level existence
but now at the largesse of the globe's major businesses. Corporations
justified their craving for global tariff-free access with
the mantra that this would raise living standards around the
world. Instead, they relentlessly dispatch jobs to the lowest
international bidder thereby causing waves of unemployment
and sometimes unrest not only in the United States but also
in Mexico, India and beyond, as jobs continue to migrate to
the next hot spot of microscopic wages and nonexistent worker
In think tanks, the media, policy papers and corporate reports,
expatriating jobs to maximize corporate profits is called
globalization. On the other side of the looking glass, in
unemployment offices where an increasing number of middle
class professionals turn up, it's called a few other things,
none of them printable. And when free trade principles are
applied to government, it's called privatization.
In this brave new world of private government it makes perfect
sense to the corporations who are its beneficiaries to transfer
public functions and tax dollars to the business sector and
away from public oversight and accountability. You may have
noticed that accountability is not a strong suit of corporations.
In fact, it's usually in direct conflict with business interests,
as convincingly demonstrated by the duplicity revealed in
the recent, costly corporate failures that helped scuttle
the stock market along with legions of pension plans.
The future of a privatized government is undeniably breath
taking. Let's say that the private sector succeeds in its
current effort to take over airport flight control operations.
Once in command they run their usual drill, maximizing profits
at the expense of the professional staff and dealing with
constant employee dissatisfaction. Suppose they find that
air traffic controllers in, say, China will accept low pay
and as a bonus are quite flexible about their living conditions.
The corporation then begins importing them on special visas,
as is currently done with information technology workers from
India, to fill jobs formerly occupied by those pesky US citizens.
Poor English? No problem. The goal was never air safety anyway.
At the point where foreign labor is used instead of American,
we have stepped beyond privatizing the government and into
the unfettered kingdom of globalization. Why, for example,
couldn't the hundreds of thousands of public school teachers
in all those cash strapped districts also be globalized? Once
the schools are privatized, an experiment now underway in
a number of locations, the low pay country of origin of the
teacher would be of no undue concern to the employer. Firefighters?
Police? The possibilities are limited only by the imagination.
You aren't xenophobic, are you?
There is another important advantage to corporations doing
public business: the cost overruns that can add significantly
to their bottom line. When built-in profit margins are deemed
too low, the corporation has a ready solution, tried and true,
compliments of contractor experience with the Department of
Defense. The business need only threaten to close down to
wrest a larger subsidy. If by this time the skeletal remnants
of a once-thriving government agency no longer has the capacity
to do the job itself, allowing the corporation to default
may not be a viable option. Costly taxpayer bailouts to meet
the price of corporate profit margins may well shadow our
With no long term experience, no contingency plan and no
solution for the accountability issue, the privatization of
the United States government is already well under way. Once
the bloodless corporate coup against the public sector is
finished, the remains of American democracy could be a shrouded
Sandy Jewell can be reached at email@example.com.