If you needed a new stove or refrigerator, you wouldn’t give the keys to your kitchen to Olive Garden, then pay them to let you eat. You’d be opening your wallet for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of logic Donald Trump and his party are using to give away our shared wealth.
Privatization – the transfer of government-owned resources to private interests – is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Governments use it to get an expense item off their books, but citizens often find themselves saddled with all sorts of additional costs for years to come. It's mostly deficit hawks who oppose any kind of spending by government who praise this kind of move.
Billions of dollars worth of U.S. railroads, highways, buildings, and other public assets have already been turned over to the private sector in recent decades, permanently depriving the public of its ownership rights. Any revenues they produce now go their new private owners, who are far less responsive than democratically elected governments.
Privatization plays a central role in the plans Trump unveiled during his “infrastructure week,” which more Americans may remember as “Comey testimony week.” Yet despite the phony signing ceremonies, Trump’s much-promised “trillion-dollar” infrastructure program is nowhere in sight: the plan actually includes only $200 billion in federal spending, while the balance would come, theoretically, from state coffers and other unspecified sources, including “corporations.”
Worse, the $200 billion headline appears to be a typical Trump con job. An analysis from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office shows that Trump’s budget proposal also cuts $206 billion from existing programs, meaning he's offering our country's infrastructure a net loss , not an investment.
And in return for this “spending” plan, Trump would give away hundreds of billions of dollars more in publicly-owned resources to powerful corporate interests.
It’s difficult to measure the full impact of Trump’s proposals, because in the words of unnamed White House officials cited by the New York Times, Trump is only offering “the contours of a plan.” The Times reported that “the actual details of the initiative are unsettled, and a more intricate blueprint is still weeks or even months from completion.”
In other words, he doesn’t have a plan yet at all. All he has are ideas – but they’re not good ones.
Trump threatens to turn U.S. highways over to private contractors, despite the fact that past roadway privatization projects have faced grave financial troubles and have caused enormous expense and inconvenience to drivers. One piquant example: After an Indiana highway was privatized, the Indianapolis Star wrote of complaints about “long waits at toll plazas, bridges that haven’t been repaired in more than a year and rest stops that reek of urine.” Trump’s plan would also privatize waterways and other vital resources.
This massive giveaway of public resources would not save money. In most cases, it would merely force Americans to pay for them in different ways: through tolls and other user fees, through the charges that businesses pass on to customers in the form of higher prices, and through the added cost of subsidizing private-sector profit.
An even higher price is likely to be extracted in the form of health and safety problems that are likely to result from corporations cutting corners to boost profits.
Trump has also indicated that he wants to privatize the United States’ air traffic control system. That’s very bad idea. The Federal Aviation Administration reports that 2,246,004 people and 7,523 commercial aircraft fly in the United States every day. That’s a lot of people and a lot of airplanes to keep safe and separate.
The Washington Post Editorial Board likes the idea, which is laid out in more detail in a bill from Republican Rep. Bill Shuster. The Post describes the concept as “a corporation supported by user fees and governed by stakeholders.”
Now there’s a word you don’t want to hear in a discussion about human lives: “Stakeholders.” When it comes to air traffic control – or any other public function, for that matter -- the only people whose “stakes” matter are the men, women, and children who will die if the job isn’t done right.
The word “stakeholder” is corporate lingo, and corporate interests are already jockeying for power. “This initiative appears to be an effort by the airlines for more control of the airspace and the airports,” a spokesman for the helicopter industry said in a statement.
Come In To My Kitchen
But let's get back to that kitchen analogy. Imagine for a moment you did hand the keys over to a restaurant chain, and agreed to pay them for your meals from that point forward.
What would happen if you wanted a midnight snack? They could say, “We don’t stay open at night.” A between-meal bite? “You’ll have to pay for a full meal.” How about T-bone steak, medium rare? “Sorry, but you’re not a ‘stakeholder.’”
Our nation’s infrastructure does need a lot of work. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives it only a D+ grade. But you wouldn’t privatize your kitchen to fix your refrigerator. Why privatize our national patrimony when we have the money to repair it ourselves?
(Part 2 in this privatization series will cover the Democratic Party’s privatization faction, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to privatize Penn Station in Manhattan.)