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The public cost of privatization

AS BIG DIG holes leak taxpayer dollars by the gallon, as Halliburton overbills the Pentagon by millions, as Enron CEOs go to jail for defrauding stockholders, and as HMOs provide less and less health care for higher and higher fees, it is time to reexamine that great myth spawned by the Reagan revolution: the myth of privatization.

For too long, Republicans have been able to promote, unchallenged, the notion that the private sector can deliver goods and even public services more efficiently, more cheaply, and better.

"Privatization" has meant a variety of things: from giving corporations taxpayer money with little government oversight, as in the Big Dig, to turning public schools into for-profit charters, to forcing community colleges like my own to rely less on state funding and more on private fund-raising, including raising student fees in order to survive. Whatever its form, privatization is based on the general concept that business is good, government is bad.

In the presidential debates, George W. Bush was proud to claim (falsely) that Senator John Kerry wanted to impose "another big government healthcare program, like in France or Canada." Never mind that countries with national health plans like Canada, France, and England, wouldn't dream of trading their free universal coverage, with all its imperfections, for our system, where millions lack any healthcare at all.

Never mind that Social Security is actually solvent and supporting millions of Americans. Since President Bush is now recommending that we privatize Social Security, we need to be clear on the realities. Although it faces challenges from the baby boomer generation, Social Security has always been self-sustaining and has actually been tapped as a source of revenue for other government programs.

Never mind that my own community college, even with slashed funding, manages to provide a quality education, raise money, and stay within budget. Never mind a recent federal study showing that in Texas, 98 percent of the public schools met state performance standards while only 66 percent of charter schools did. "Privatization" is ideology, not fact.

Consider the Big Dig as a poster child for what happens when "big government" steps aside. Years ago, when it was reported that Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff both executed and monitored the preliminary design of the Big Dig, my alarm bells rang. With little interest in reining in costs, the price of the Big Dig escalated by billions, creating the greatest overruns in the history of US public works. Now we hear that the project itself may be seriously flawed.

How did this occur? There may be blame enough to go around, but let us remember, a series of Republican governors -- Weld, Cellucci, and Swift, all firm believers in privatization -- allowed Bechtel to run its own show. When two members of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, Jordan Levy and Christy Mihos, protested, Governor Swift moved to fire them.

In short, the Big Dig is a classic example of private corporations abusing public funds for private profit. This occurs all the time with military procurement. Yet now, when politicians choose to vote against overpriced military equipment or the faulty missile defense program, they are branded as antidefense or even unpatriotic.

We are now facing the largest deficit in our nation's history, in part driven by tax cuts, in part by the open-ended war in Iraq. Large corporations like Bechtel are grabbing a "piece of the pie" in what will be a protracted, expensive task of reconstructing a country we are spending billions to bomb. Meanwhile, our president warns that Social Security is in trouble, and we need to "reform" it.

But in all these matters, who will pay and who will profit? Does privatization really deliver better goods and services at lower cost, or does it just transfer public wealth into private pockets? Are we gradually eliminating all public services, replacing them with a system of pay-as-you-go benefits that serve only the wealthy?

Although America is a capitalist country, we have accepted, since the New Deal and even before, government's role in reining in corporate excess and taking care of the needy. Most Americans believe that Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, and child labor laws are beneficial, although all were instituted against the opposition of big business. Now the Bush administration, closely allied with major oil, defense, and drug companies and with control of Congress, appears bent on privatizing the entire country. We can only wonder, what will happen to us then?

Susan Jhirad is chairwoman of the English Department at North Shore Community College. 

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