Let's talk privatization.
I know this is not a thrilling topic. I recently wrote a book in which I tried to juice up the subject by suggesting that readers might want to imagine a privatizer as a cross between a pirate and a sanitizer — a guy with an eyepatch and a carpet steamer. This was a desperate attempt at, um, humorization. I am so ashamed.
In the dreary world of the real, privatization means turning over a government function to the private sector. It has such a long history that it's a wonder we still have any public sector left. The Ancient Greeks did it. The Han dynasty did it. Birds do it. Bees do it. Even Harvard Ph.D.s do it.
Let's do it. Let's privatize.
I have been thinking about this a lot, mainly because of a recent series of New York Times articles by Sam Dolnick, which examine the wondrous outcome of a pioneering effort by the state of New Jersey to privatize some of its prison functions, particularly a halfway house program for people on the way in or out of the criminal justice system. The program costs about half as much per inmate as a regular jail. This may be in part because the prisoners keep escaping. More than 5,000 have run, walked or wandered off since 2005. That placed a sometimes tragic burden on the victims of the crimes the escapees later committed, but it must have definitely reduced upkeep. Perhaps you could call it inmate self-privatization.
Politicians of both parties are privatization fans, although the Republicans are more so. Mitt Romney has flirted with the idea of privatizing veterans' health care. He goes steady with the Medicare privatization forces and is believed to be secretly married to the folks who want to privatize public education through the use of vouchers.
"When you work in the private sector and you have a competitor, you know if I don't treat the customer right, they're going to leave me and go somewhere else, so I'd better treat them right," Romney said in a round-table discussion with veterans in South Carolina. This is the exact road he was going down on the dreaded day when he said he enjoyed firing people.
In honor of the campaign season, maybe this is a good time to point out some examples of privatization disasters. Texas tried to turn eligibility screening for social services over to a private company, creating all sorts of messes until it gave up the experiment. The most apocryphal story involved a privately run call center that told applicants to send their documentation to a number that turned out to be the fax at a warehouse in Seattle.
The hottest new wrinkle for private companies eager to tap into public school funding is charter cyberschools. A study at the University of Colorado's National Education Policy Center found that only about a quarter met federal standards for academic progress.
Here in New York, we have been experiencing a long-running privatization adventure in which an attempt to streamline employee timekeeping that was supposed to have cost the city $63 million wound up with a slightly unsleek tab of $700 million.
John Donahue, the faculty chairman of the master's in public policy program at Harvard, says the best candidates for privatization are functions where performance is relatively easy to evaluate, like construction or food services. On the worst-case end, he points to "having mercenaries run your war for you," which we know something about, given the fact that our military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes involves more people working for private contractors than actual members of the military.
Republican governors are big privatization fans. (Did I mention that some years before he became governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie was a lobbyist for the company that's the biggest player in that halfway house system? Well, I have now.) Rick Perry tried to build a humongous highway through Texas in a public-private partnership that would have severed the state with a toll road as wide as four football fields.
He dropped the idea after his own political base revolted under the theory that the road was going to be part of a "NAFTA superhighway" that would strip the country of its sovereignty and turn us into citizens of the North American Union. Really, it's always something.
As to former Republican governors who would like to be Romney's running mate — there are no words for the privatization passion. Except those of Tim Pawlenty, who recently said that "if you can find a good or service on the Internet, then the federal government probably doesn't need to be doing it."
There are plenty of private prison operators on the Web, although they like to be called "re-entry services." Also mercenaries, although Academi, which used to be called Xe, which used to be called Blackwater, prefers the term "security solutions provider."
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rug cleaner.
New York Times News Service