The perils of privatization

The perils of privatization

Ronald Reagan started dismantling government 25 years ago, but his privatization legacy is alive and growing — even in San Francisco

Part of a special SFBG 41st anniversary report on privatization

By Amanda Witherell

Over the past few weeks almost every major news outlet in the country has reported on Blackwater, a private company the US government hired to do work in Iraq that was once the exclusive province of soldiers.

The deal hasn’t gone so well: on Sept. 16, Blackwater guards opened fire and, according to the Iraqi government, shot 25 civilians. The incident set off an international furor and has brought into focus the breadth of the company’s work for the US government. It’s prompted an investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which showed that since 2001, Blackwater’s federal contracts have increased 80,000 percent. It’s revealed the massive pay inequalities between private security guards and US soldiers — the cost of one private guard could pay the salaries of six soldiers.

And it’s raised a question that’s critical to understanding how government increasingly works in the United States: should a private company be doing the work of the military?

Privatization of public services is all the rage in this country now, at all levels of government, from Washington DC to San Francisco. Supporters say the private sector can often work better and more efficiently than the old, bureaucratic, much-maligned government.

But Blackwater is a great example of the perils of privatization. And there are many more.


Over the past few decades governments at all levels in this country have been in a near-perpetual state of deficit. Taxes are way down from their historic post–World War II levels, and except for a brief period during the tech boom, there is rarely enough money for even basic social services.

“It’s been a strategy since the ’70s to, as Grover Norquist calls it, ‘starve the beast,'<0x2009>” Robert Haaland, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, told us.

And because politicians, even Democrats, are terrified of tax hikes, they’ve been looking for more efficient ways to use the money they have. The magic bullet goes by many names — privatization, public-private partnerships, competitive outsourcing, creative financing solutions — but the basic idea is to allow the power of competition, set free in an unregulated market, to provide the public with the best services at the lowest cost.

“To do or to buy is the question that all governments face,” says Ken Jacobs, director of UC Berkeley’s Labor Center.

We’ve been buying. Since 2000, outsourcing of federal dollars has increased 100 percent, to $422 billion in taxpayer funds in 2006, according to a September study by the Washington DC US Public Interest Research Group. The US government is now the private sector’s largest customer.

San Francisco may be known as one of the most progressive cities in the country, but this town has also been wooed by public-private partnerships with promises of improvements to the golf courses, construction of a new power plant, and funding for the many civic needs we have.


Cheerleaders for privatization look at someone like Nathaniel Ford, executive director of San Francisco’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, and see everything that’s wrong with the public sector. Ford’s salary is nearly $300,000, plenty high enough to attract a talented leader. But the Muni system he runs keeps the average San Franciscan waiting on the corner in the morning, delivers that person to work at an unpredictable hour, and lurches them homeward every night aboard a standing-room-only bus. Nobody thinks Muni is performing well.

That makes the case for privatization seem almost appealing.

“The public has been schooled to think that government is the problem, not the solution,” Elliott Sclar, professor of economics at Columbia University, told us. In his 2000 book on privatization, You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatization (Cornell University), he writes, “American folk wisdom holds that, by and large, public service is uncaring, unbending, bureaucratic, and expensive, whereas competitively supplied private services such as FedEx are efficient and responsive.”

Competition, the privatizers say, drives innovation. Less red tape means more efficiency. A lack of unions and collective bargaining agreements translates to lower labor costs. Large-scale multinational operations can reduce redundancy and streamline their processes — all of which adds up to a lean-running machine.

But this country has a lot of experience with privatization, and the record isn’t good.

One hundred years ago private companies did a lot of what we now call government work. “Contracting out was the way American cities carried out their governmental business ever since they grew beyond their small village beginnings,” writes Moshe Adler, a Columbia professor of economics, in his 1999 paper The Origins of Governmental Production: Cleaning the Streets of New York by Contract During the 19th Century. At one time private companies provided firefighting, trash collection, and water supplies, to name just a few essential services.

But according to Adler, “By the end of the 19th century contracting out was a mature system that was already as good as it could possibly be. And it was precisely then that governmental production came to America. The realization that every possible improvement to contracting out had been tried led city after city to declare its failure.”

For example, the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires in San Francisco were what prodded the city to municipalize water service after the company charged with the task, Spring Valley Water, failed to deliver while the fires raged.

In Philadelphia as well as San Francisco, the business of firefighting was once very lucrative — for both the firefighting companies and the arsonists who were paid to set fires for the former to fight. And corruption was rampant. “Large amounts of public contracting out historically created lots of opportunities for fraud and nepotism,” Jacobs said.

So public agencies stepped in to provide basic services as cheaply and uniformly as possible. Towns and cities took on the tasks of security with police and firefighting, education with schools and libraries, and sanitation with trash collection and wastewater treatment. Nationally, the federal government improved roads and transit, enacted Social Security benefits, and established a National Park System, among many other things.

And then, about 30 years ago, the pendulum started to swing the other way. Driven by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, enacted in a massive policy shift by Ronald Reagan, proliferated by Grover Norquist and the neocon agenda, and fully appreciated by corporations and private companies, privatization came back.

In Reagan’s first term, he cut taxes 25 percent overall; the rich got a 40 percent cut. Domestic spending fell by half a trillion dollars in the 1980s, although any savings were countered by a rise in the defense budget.

Harvard economist Lawrence Summers, quoted in Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency (Johns Hopkins University), put it this way: “The Reagan budgets will influence the government for the rest of this century. Just as the Great Society left an imprint of Federal commitment to help the indigent and equality of opportunity, the Reagan budget deficits will leave an imprint of non-involvement.”

Such a massive realignment of money coupled with tax breaks too politically painful to reinstate led to a boom in the outsourcing of public services. Private companies began doing more municipal work, while nonprofit organizations tried to fill the gaps in funding for social services, welfare, housing, health care, and the environment.

The George W. Bush era has seen even more overt outsourcing. These days no-bid contracts are preferred, and at times government services are completely turned over to the private sector in “direct conversions,” and the public agency that once did the job is not allowed to compete to keep it. The Washington Post recently reported that no-bid government contracts have tripled in the past six years.

This doesn’t really sound like the competitive free market espoused by the theory of privatization.


To field-test the primacy of privatization, the Reagan administration sponsored a transportation experiment in the early ’80s: Miami’s Metro-Dade Transit Agency got to compete against Greyhound. The two providers were each given five comparable transit routes to manage over three years, and 80 new buses were bought with a $7.5 million grant from the federal government.

After 18 months 30 of the Greyhound buses were so badly damaged that they had to be permanently pulled from service. Passenger complaints on the Greyhound line were up 100 percent, and ridership was down 31 percent over the course of a year.

Why? There was no incentive in Greyhound’s contract to maintain the equipment or retain riders. The company’s only goal was to deliver the cheapest service possible.

The Miami transit contract could have contained clauses calling for regular inspections or guaranteed ridership, but that would have significantly increased the cost of the work — perhaps to the point where it would have been competitive with what the city provided.

That’s an important lesson in privatization politics: when you add the cost of adequately protecting the public’s interest and monitoring contract compliance, the private sector doesn’t look so efficient.

Which is why many say privatization only succeeds as a theory — and why, for all the problems with Muni, no private company is likely to be able to do a better job.

“Market fundamentalists present an idealized, simpleminded notion of competitive markets in which buyers and sellers have equal knowledge,” Sclar told us. “Anyone can be a buyer, anyone can be a seller, everyone can evaluate the quality of the good. In this never-never land, that’s often the way the case is made for privatization by this particular group of economists.”

In the real world a number of issues arise when a service goes private. “Accountability gets to be a really big problem,” Ellen Dannin, professor of law at Penn State University, said in an interview. “There are predictions about how much money will get saved through privatization, but no one ever goes back to check.”

The September study by the US Public Interest Research Group profiled several companies that do government work, including Bank of America, LexisNexis, ChoicePoint, KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown, and Root), General Electric, and Raytheon, and found instances of illegal behavior in all cases. There were often massive errors in the companies’ work.

Bank of America and LexisNexis had security breaches compromising the data of at least 1.5 million customers they were handling for the government. ChoicePoint allowed identity-theft scams amounting to more than $1 million in fraud. KBR overcharged the government millions of dollars for work in Iraq and Kuwait. GE made defective helicopter blades for the US military. Raytheon failed to fully test the systems of new aircraft. These companies are all still employed by the government.

When companies take over services that aren’t typically part of a competitive market, all sorts of unexpected problems occur. Jacobs points to the rash of contracting for busing services in cash-strapped school districts. Not only did costs eventually rise in many places, but when schools tried to go back to providing their own service, the skilled drivers who knew the routes, knew the kids, and were able to do much more than drive a bus were gone.

Sclar and Dannin agree that any service that lacks competition should be public. Sclar presented the example of electricity. “It’s a natural monopoly,” he said. “Essentially it’s either going to be a well-regulated industry or it’s got to be done publicly.”

Corporations exist to make money. And although graft, mismanagement, and scandal have always been present in City Halls around the country, in the end the legislative, judicial, and executive branches were not designed to generate profits. That alone means contracting out is financially dubious.

Hiring mercenaries is a classic example. “It costs the US government a lot more to hire contract employees as security guards in Iraq than to use American troops,” Walter Pincus wrote in an Oct. 1 article in the Washington Post. “It comes down to the simple business equation of every transaction requiring a profit.”

As Pincus details one of the many contracts between the security firm and the US, “Blackwater was a subcontractor to Regency, which was a subcontractor to another company, ESS, which was a subcontractor to Halliburton’s KBR subsidiary, the prime contractor for the Pentagon — and each company along the way was in the business to make a profit.”

Blackwater charged Regency between $815 and $1,075 per day per security operative. Regency turned around and charged ESS a slightly higher average of $1,100. After that, the costs dissolve into the enormous bill that KBR regularly hands the federal government.

When the US Army is paying the bill the costs are far lower. An unmarried sergeant earns less than $100 a day. If you’re married, it’s less than $200. If you’re Gen. David H. Petraeus, it’s about $500 — less than Blackwater’s lowest-paid workers.

Very little about the Blackwater contracts would be known by anyone outside the company if it weren’t for the federal investigation, since private businesses are not subject to the same public-records laws as the federal government. They don’t have to open their books or publicize the details of their bids and contracts, and they often fiercely lobby against any regulations requiring this, which leaves the door wide open for corruption — which is what brought sunshine laws to government in the first place.

Sclar said that when it’s a good call to contract out, corporations, private companies, and nonprofits should be required to abide by public-records laws in addition to adhering to a five-year wait for employees departing the public sector for the private. “I think transparency should always be the goal,” he said. “As much information as possible.” If a company doesn’t want to make its records public, he told us, “[it shouldn’t] go after public work.”


Privatization comes in many forms and emerges for what often seem like good reasons.

In the early 1980s gay men in San Francisco were starting to get sick and die in large numbers — and the federal government didn’t care. There was no government agency addressing the AIDS crisis and almost no government funding. So the community came together and created a network of nonprofits that funded services, education, and research.

“The AIDS Foundation was founded in response to the epidemic at a time when there wasn’t a response from the federal government,” Jeff Sheehy of the AIDS Research Center at UC San Francisco told us.

At first, activists all over the country praised the San Francisco model of AIDS services. Over time the nonprofits began to get government grants and contracts. But by the 1990s some realized that the nonprofit network was utterly lacking in public accountability. The same activists who had helped create the network had to struggle to get the organizations to hold public meetings, make records public, and answer community concerns.

That, Sheehy said, shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

“There isn’t that same degree of accountability that you would have” with the public sector, he told us. “SF General is not going to turn you away at the emergency room, but nonprofit hospitals are less and less interested in running ERs.”

Sheehy said he’s seen cases where difficult clients have been banned from accessing help from nonprofits. Unlike at public institutions, “the burden is not on the agency to provide the service. It is with the client to get along with the agency,” he said.

Sheehy outlines other issues: nonprofits run lean and are more apt to make cuts and resist unionization, which means workers are often paid less, there can be higher turnover, and upper management is often tasked with fundraising and grant writing and distanced from the fundamental work of the group. There’s no access to records or board meetings. “If service takes a sudden downward shift, what can you do?” Sheehy asks. “You can’t go to board meetings. You can’t access records. What’s your redress?”

And that perpetuates the problem of government not stepping up to the plate. More than half of the social services in San Francisco are run by nonprofits, a trend that isn’t abating.

“When the services are shifted from the public sector to the nonprofit sector,” Sheehy said, “that capacity is lost forever from government.”


When Dannin teaches her students about privatization, she uses the analogy of personal finance. “If I find my income does not meet my expenses, I can cut my expenses, but there are certain things I have to have,” she said. To meet those needs a person can get a second job. In the case of the government, it can raise taxes.

But “that is not an option governments see anymore,” she told us. “So the third option is to buy a lottery ticket — and that’s what privatization is.”

When a publicly owned road is leased for 99 years to a private company, the politician who cut the deal gets a huge chunk of cash up front to balance the local budget or meet another need. When the new owner of the road puts in a tollbooth to recoup costs, that’s the tax the politician, who may be long gone, refused to impose. What option does the voting driver have now?

Public goods, from which everyone presumably benefits, are frequently and easily falling out of the hands of government and into the hands of profit-driven companies. In New Orleans, charter schools have replaced all but four public schools. In about 15 municipalities public libraries are now managed by the privately owned Library Systems and Services. (In Jackson County, Ore., it’s being done for half the cost, but with half the staff and open half the hours.) At least 21 states are considering public-private partnerships to finance massive improvements to aging roads and bridges. User fees have increased in the national parks as rangers have been laid off and some of the work of park interpretation is picked up by private companies, as is the case with Alcatraz Island.

Dannin also asks her students to consider who really owns a job. The easy answer is the employer. “But there is another claimant of ownership of that job,” she says. “That is the public. Employers depend on roads for their employees to drive to work, a public education system to train their workers. They depend on housing, police, the court system, the system of laws. That is a huge amount of infrastructure we tend not to think about.

“We live within an ecosystem. We’re having a hard time seeing that ecosystem, that infrastructure that we’re all in. That’s what your taxes pay for.”

Originally published October 17, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian