The Most Unforgivable Of Bush’s Legacies: The Privatization Of The Public Sector

by on Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 2:39 pm in Economy, Politics

Perhaps the most harmful of all of George W. Bush’s legacies — and there were many — was the gains he made in transforming our public sector into a private one that enriches itself off taxpayer dollars. After his unparalleled successes on this front, the conservative movement has once again made privatization the central component of its platform.

Just months before invading Iraq, Bush made a bold move to revolutionize the way the United States government runs its core responsibilities. He drafted a new order to begin outsourcing much of its essential functions to the private sector:

On November 19, 2002, the White House Office of Management and Budget placed a notice in the Federal Register proposing that 850,000 federal “Full-Time Equivalents” could just as well be performed by private companies. As the notice points out, those 850,000 amount to half the current federal workforce. The Administration told The Washington Post that it has a goal of reaching the 15 percent mark by September 30, 2003.

All federal agencies must now “justify, in writing, any designation of government personnel performing inherently government activities.” Other positions will then be considered potentially “commercial,” or “a recurring service that could be performed by the private sector.” These major changes took effect on May 29.

This effort ushered in an era of unprecedented profiteering by federal contractors. According to a 2011 POGO study, “approximately one-quarter of all discretionary spending now goes to service contractors,” and contractors now outnumber federal workers nearly 4 to 1:

Since 1999, the size of the federal employee workforce has remained relatively constant at about 2 million, while the contractor workforce has increased radically – from an estimated 4.4 million to 7.6 million in 2005.

Having chosen Halliburton’s CEO Dick Cheney as his Vice President, Bush & Co. set out to redefine what constituted ‘military personnel’. The Bush Administration outsourced a significant portion of U.S. military operations to for-profit corporations. They then bequeathed these war profiteers with two simultaneous wars worth hundreds of billions of dollars in no-bid contracts.

And despite a change in U.S. leadership in 2008, Obama has continued to follow Bush’s lead in privatizing the U.S. military. In fact, at the same time Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, he began to replace them with military contractors.

A new Time Magazine story reveals that today there are more for-profit contractors in Afghanistan than U.S. troops. The most recent quarterly contractor census report states there were a whopping 137,000 private contractors working for the Pentagon in Iraq, Afghanistan, and 18 other countries in the region. This number doesn’t even include all the thousands of for-profit contractors outsourced by the State Department. To give an example, the State Department is itself paying for approximately half of the 13,500 private contractors now serving in Iraq.

Moshe Schwartz, from the Congressional Research Service, told a congressional hearing last month:

According to DOD data, from FY2008-FY2011, contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan represented 52% of the total force, averaging 190,000 contractors to 175,000 uniformed personnel. Over the last five fiscal years, DOD obligations for contracts performed just in the Iraq and Afghanistan areas of operation ($132 billion) exceeded total contract obligations of any other U.S. federal agency. 

Privatization is sold to the American people under the pretense that for-profit corporations can perform these jobs cheaper and more efficiently than the government. This has panned out to be an absolute falsehood.

The POGO study revealed American taxpayers are paying a steep price for the outsourcing of government jobs to for-profit contractors:

[T]he government pays billions more annually in taxpayer dollars to hire contractors than it would to hire federal employees to perform comparable services. Specifically, POGO’s study shows that the federal government approves service contract billing rates – deemed fair and reasonable – that pay contractors 1.83 times more than the government pays federal employees in total compensation and more than 2 times the total compensation paid in the private sector for comparable services.

Yet, despite taxpayers being billed twice as much per-worker by these contractors, the actual workers themselves often make less in income than federal workers. The study suggested, as you may have guessed, this was due to corporate profits and executive compensation. 

Despite the fallacy in the underlying arguments for privatization, the current economic crisis coupled with huge state and federal deficits have now put privatization in play across the nation.   

One successful tactic conservatives have been using to engineer their privatization agenda is to champion legislation that imposes harsh measures on cherished public institutions, making them obscenely expensive, thereby ensuring their eventual failure.

It is a way of manufacturing a problem that can then be recast as ‘proof’ of government inefficiency — an unfair burden on our ‘overtaxed’ citizenry. In this way conservatives can claim the ‘high ground’ as if they are merely injecting ‘fiscal conservatism’ into the debate on runaway deficits — ones which they themselves manufactured.

Take Bush’s Medicare Modernization Act of 2003. It gave pharmaceutical corporations a free pass to loot Medicare, and with no offsetting tax hikes or spending cuts, thereby ensuring the program would become an instant drain on the national deficit:

The Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 offered prescription drug coverage, but exclusively through private companies. Bizarrely, it prohibited the government from negotiating price discounts from the drug companies. As a result, Medicare Part D drug prices are more than 80 percent higher than the prices negotiated by Medicaid and Veterans Affairs.

One important but obscure component of the Medicare Modernization Act will soon come to haunt us. And that is the creation of an arbitrary 45 percent general revenue cap, which, when reached, will trigger program cutbacks, higher premiums or further privatization. Medicare financing comes from various sources including general revenue, payroll taxes, trust fund interest, and beneficiary premiums. The cap has yet to kick in, but the drug company giveaway was funded mostly through general revenue, so it will come soon. 

And after years of corporate looting of the American taxpayers — enabled by these kinds of bills — the general consensus among our political elites now seems to be that we can no longer afford to maintain this hugely popular government program.

A ‘Grand Bargain’ — supported by Obama — must now be struck that will make painful but ‘necessary’ changes to the program. These ‘pains’ will undoubtedly be imposed on our senior citizens, living on fixed income — never the profiteers. And this forthcoming ‘Grand Bargain’ will only degrade Medicare benefits in a way that will chip away at the program’s popularity, and before long it will become ‘necessary’ and perhaps more politically feasible to completely overhaul it into a voucher program, which will further enrich price-gouging healthcare corporations.

A similar measure was passed to ‘manufacture a default‘ of the U.S. Postal Service. It mandated that USPS — the only self-funding government program — begin pre-funding benefits of future retirees up to 75 years in advance. This is “a burden no other government agency or private company bears.” And low and behold, one of the key architects in manufacturing the USPS crisis, Peter Orszag – from the Neoliberal-Rubinite wing of the Democratic establishment — now insists the USPS should be privatized.

In some ways, this is not dissimilar to the looting and bankrupting of small businesses by the mafia. As portrayed in the movie Goodfellas, members of the Lucchese crime family muscled a foothold into a neighborhood restaurant. The first thing they did was max out the restaurants’ available credit (with no intentions of repaying it) by ordering truck-loads of liquor and goods — not to be sold in the restaurant, but instead carried out the backdoor and sold elsewhere. Once the restaurant had been bled dry of all its credit and goodwill, they proceeded to torch the building and profit further from the owner-on-record’s insurance payout.

Another tactic conservatives have long used is based upon Milton Friedman’s infamous shock doctrine blueprints, as was meticulously documented in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. A conservative Louisiana legislature capitalized on the shock and horror generated by hurricane Katrina’s destruction by quickly seizing and then privatizing New Orleans’ public school system when the residents were too shell-shocked to know what was happening:

While many in New Orleans have waited two years for recovery, the restructuring of its schools seemed to happen overnight.

Not long after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans two years ago, the Louisiana legislature cleared the way for the state to assume control of 107 out of 128 schools in the Orleans district. Immediately, the state began converting many of its newly acquired schools to charter schools–publicly funded schools run by for-profit or nonprofit groups that operate by a “charter,” or contract. One result is that the number of unionized teachers dropped from about 4700 to 500.

Corporate investors are literally salivating at the profit-potential in privatizing public school systems. The U.S. currently spends more than $500 Billion in K-12 education, and the “entire education sector, including college and mid-career training, represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, more than the energy or technology sectors.” More and more private for-profit management companies, across the nation, are being granted full control of public schools to then be funded by public tax dollars.

Privatizing prison systems is another growing industry in the U.S., a country that accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, but incarcerates 25% of the the world’s prisoners. Louisiana — as it did for privatizing public-education — happened to be one of the original pioneers in privatizing prison systems. In the early 1990s, due to recessionary budget constraints, the conservative legislature allowed the very ones entrusted to fill the prisons — the Sheriffs themselves — to become prison owners and to profit from maintaining low prison cell vacancies. Not surprisingly, Louisiana now imprisons more of its residents than any other legal jurisdiction in the entire world. 

Similar efforts to privatize public works have continued across the nation, and across every public sector from toll roads (where toll rates instantly skyrocket after the transfer) to water infrastructure. Florida Governor Rick Scott — aligned with the Tea Party — has been one of the most aggressive in championing this agenda, as he has pushed to privatize the state’s Medicaid program, its public schools and its prisons

It should probably come as little surprise that upon reflecting back on his Presidency in 2010, Bush revealed his biggest policy failure was his inability to privatize social security.

Privatization ultimately leads to a deterioration in the quality of life of a nation’s citizenry. After all, these goods and services had been placed under the custody of the government for very good reasons. Often they were deemed too vital to the overall welfare of the general public (i.e. education, police forces, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, military, water, roads, regulatory agencies) to be put into the hands of corporations whose only mission is to maximize profits.

Often it is due to a uniquely inefficient marketplace, such as a marketplace with insufficient competition where price-gouging is all but guaranteed (e.g. unregulated monopolistic utility companies could charge whatever they want).

Other times it is due to inherent conflicts-of-interests, such as when Sheriffs or judges are permitted to own prisons with a profit-incentive to keep them full — i.e. an incentive to arrest a lot of citizens and keep them locked up indefinitely.

What is most alarming about what is happening is that some of it is virtually irreversible.

Sure, the government can always stop outsourcing its core responsibilities to contractors, but when you’ve outsourced your essential government functions, you ultimately outsource your own expertise and talent pool to others, thereby making yourself dependent upon them.

And just try and re-Nationalize public assets — local utility companies, water works, roads, prisons, school systems, the USPS, etc. — after they’ve been sold off to private investors. In Capitalist nations such as the U.S., that gets branded as a ‘government takeover’ or even a ‘Socialist revolution’, and Wall Street, which pulls the levers in Washington, would likely threaten the country with a flight of investment capital.

Or try to achieve what FDR did, but in today’s political climate where moneyed interests own our politicians: try and recreate new Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid programs should the current ones become privatized or dissolved.

Privatization tends to occur when governments find themselves in desperate economic climates. Profit-drooling vultures begin to circle these governments’ highly valuable assets — potential cash cows that are vital to the public interest — and due to political cronyism, they can often be had on the cheap. It is how oligarchs solidify their control over, and their exploitation of, the general public.

The United States now finds itself in one of these moments, and Neoliberals are determined to pick its bones clean.

UPDATE:

From Salon (THURSDAY, OCT 11, 2012) on the privatization of regulatory agencies, in this case the FDA: 

“According to an investigation from Bloomberg Markets magazine released Thursday, the growing privatization of food inspection has led to severe failures in oversight and has caused millions of Americans to fall sick” [and many to die]. [...]

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