government

Privatization Run Amok

Finally, a bit of great news:  California Governor Jerry Brown is courageously bucking a national trend by refusing to sell off state buildings and then lease them back.  This trend has been the budget subterfuge of choice among many of the nation's governors.  Lease-backs of state assets are a backdoor way of getting a quick hit of money for troubled state budgets (in California's case, $1.2 billion) while saddling future taxpayers with huge additional expenditures (in California, $6 billion over 35 years).

Yes, welcome to the next frontier in the business campaign against government.  First it was the fight against regulation and public-sector spending, both largely successful.  Now business is vying to own the equity assets of government through arcane lease-back and securitization deals. 

These strategies not only hurt us as taxpayers and citizens (through higher expenditures for less value, and through reduced public discretion over public assets).  They fling open the doors to all sorts of other investor schemes to buy and privatize public assets.  Next stop:  the withering of the State and the arrival of the Total Market Order.

In the early 1980s, Ralph Nader launched a new advocacy group called FANS, Fight to Advance the Nation's Sports, which aspired to address many of the social ills associated with professional sports. While some of his ideas were arguably misguided, such as trying to ban junk food sales at the ballpark, others were incredibly prescient. One idea was to stop taxpayer subsidies to the mega-stadiums that were being built for big-league baseball and football teams.

Essentially, wealthy team owners, who over lunch at their elite clubs would rail against socialistic intrusions on corporate America, invariably demanded that city governments subsidize the construction of lavish new sports palaces for their teams. Why? Because of all the civic pride and economic gain that they would allegedly stimulate.

And if the city didn't pony up? Well, team owners frequently threatened to move the teams elsewhere, leaving the citizenry without a football or baseball franchise. Owners fostered an ethic of "stadium envy" so that even cities with a flourishing, happy fan base felt compelling to build new stadiums, lest another city would arise and steal the team away.

The Enclosure of the Gulf of Mexico

The noxious gusher of oil flowing from one mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico is an unprecedented environmental disaster, no doubt about it. But will we learn the right lessons from it?

There are any number of narratives that are starting to take root, and all of them are true as far as they go: the incompetent and corrupt regulators at the Interior Department, the incompetence and arrogance of British Petroleum; the lackadaisical response by President Obama weeks after the spill began. The implication is that a different regulator, CEO or President would have done things differently.

Perhaps. But the real problem here is structural: There is no adequate governance structure for the commoners to protect their shared resource, the Gulf of Mexico, and all that depends upon it. These sorts of "accidents" are almost becoming routine: the Massey Energy coal mine disaster, the Toyota "stuck accelerator" safety hazard, the Wall Street abuses of derivative financial instruments.

When Art Worked

At a time when our national (and global) predicaments are seen mostly as a matter for economists and policy wonks to solve, historian Roger Kennedy comes forward to remind us of the critical role of art. Art is not just an aesthetic pleasure or indulgence, he insists; it is a way in which people makes sense of their problems. It is a way of re-imagining the common good.

Kennedy’s new book, When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art and Democracy, is a sumptuous immersion in the murals, music, paintings, photographs, posters, architecture, monuments, civic parks, books and travel guides, and countless other artifacts of public culture sponsored by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The glossy coffee-table book, published by Rizzoli, is illustrated with hundreds of stunning images selected by editor and designer David Larkin. (Full disclosure: I’ve enjoyed Kennedy’s hospitality on several wonderful occasions.)

The Corporate Enclosure of Democracy

Today the U.S. Supreme Court gave the go-ahead for corporations to enclose our democracy. The Court ruled that corporations must legally be considered “persons” who are thereby entitled to First Amendment rights. By this tortured logic, long-standing limits on corporate contributions to political campaigns constitute an unconstitutional infringement of free speech.

Funny, if corporations are persons, why don’t they have the same kind of affirmative moral and legal responsibilities that real people have?

The Court’s 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ratifies its previous holding that money is equivalent to speech. But now paid speech (on behalf of market interests) is privileged over people’s speech in electing our political leaders. “We the Corporations….” Corporations may now drown out the speech of real, live human beings for whom the First Amendment was designed. A copy of the decision can be read here.

A sweeping international treaty to regulate how knowledge and creativity may flow on the Internet is now being negotiated. Haven’t heard of it? Funny thing, that’s exactly what the backers of the treaty want. The film, music, publishing and information industries don’t want a public debate about the issues or an open debate in Congress. So they have been working hand-in-glove with the U.S. Trade Representative to move U.S. policymaking offshore and throw a dark cloak of secrecy around everything. The next stop: draconian penalties for anyone who is accused of violating copyright law.

Details about the treaty are murky. But the latest draft, according to a leak summarized on the Boing Boing website, would require:

Ending the Free Market Hoax

It’s a great victory for the commoners that our tax monies for student loans may soon go directly to students, via a U.S. Education Department program, rather than through banks. Yesterday, by a 253 to 171 margin, the House of Representatives voted to shift billions of dollars in college student loans to the Education Department. The move prevents Sallie Mae (the largest private corporation providing student loans) and banks from continuing to act as parasites on public resources and as predators of needy students.

The current system was instituted by Ronald Reagan, ostensibly to prevent government from stifling the innovation, efficiencies and other benefits of the so-called free market. Direct government lending to students was simply handed over to private banks. The result, as described here a few months ago, was a 35-year plunder of taxpayers and borrowers.

I’m all for the American people getting a fair return on any public assets that private businesses use to turn a profit. But what’s the deal with the new Interior Department regulations that require wildlife photographers and documentary filmmakers to pay a “location fee” in order to shoot inside national parks? As of May 15, new rules issued by the National Park Service will require “location fees for commercial filming and still photography” ranging from $150 to more than $500 per day. It’s a good thing that these rules were not around when Ansel Adams was memorializing the West. He probably could not have afforded the new fees, and we would all be the poorer.

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