David Morris founded and directs the New Rules Project at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He’s the author of four books, ranging from a political history of Chile to an exploration of the future of electric power to an analysis of the potential for self-reliant cities. For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and his columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
David has been an advisor to national, state and local governments on economic development strategies and to businesses as large as IBM and as small as microbreweries.
At the founding of the American Republic the word “private” had pejorative connotations. Derived from the Latin word “privare”, private meant to divide or tear apart. A privateer was a pirate.
The word “public” was an honorable adjective, often found in the phrase “public good”. The eminent historian Bernard Bailyn in the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, winner of both the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes summed up the philosophy of our revolutionary leadership, “In place of the individual seeking security for private rights of property and liberty, republicanism gave us a more politically concerned citizen laboring for the commonwealth by carefully preserving the constitutional balance of the one, the few, and the many. It was virtue, not interest, that motivated the American Revolution; self-seeking commercialism was more akin to corruption in the body politic than to the public good, according to the new republican consensus.”
As John Adams wrote in 1776, “There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest…established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superior to all private passions.” Thomas Jefferson agreed, “I profess… that to be false pride which postpones the public good to any private or personal considerations.”
In the first 150 years of the new republic, in fits and starts, we expanded the public realm even as we also dramatically expanded private wealth. Individuals gained great wealth but ultimately the public good gained priority over private gain. From the founding of the country, the US Post Office was given an exclusive monopoly over mail delivery. Congress went even further, enacting laws requiring the inexpensive or sometimes even free delivery of those types of mail considered in the public good (e.g. newspapers). The road system, at first privatized, became public. In the mid to late 1800s we established a nationwide, neighborhood based system of free public education. In the early 1900s we established a similar nationwide, neighborhood-based system of free public libraries. In cities the water and electricity and transit systems, at first private, became public.
In the 1930s we applied the expanded the concept of a public good and a public asset to the idea of social insurance, enacting programs like unemployment insurance and social security and in the 1960s health care for the elderly through Medicare.
Today our language has changed. The “private” is glorified while the word “public” has become the pejorative, especially its current synonym, “government”.
The new era began with a new narrative, with Ronald Reagan declaring in his Inaugural Address, “Government is the problem”, he told the American people. Since then the verb form of the word private, “privatizing” has gained wide currency.
In the 1990s, the federal government began dramatically increasing the use of private contractors rather than full time public employees. Prison privatization began in the 1990s as well.
In the last few years the pace of privatization has quickened. In March 2009, for the first time in American history, private contractors outnumbered U.S. troops in a war (Afghanistan). Only 25 percent of the University of Illinois’ budget comes from the state, only 8 percent of the budget of the University of Virginia.
The call for privatization of social security, begun in earnest under President Clinton has become deafening in recent months. Several cities have begun the process of allowing public taxes to pay for private schools.
The financial collapse in 2008 spawned both an economic depression that has crippled public budgets, forcing them to consider selling public assets while it has encouraged the financial industry to focus on privatizing public assets as a new source of profits. The Wall Street Journal notes, “Cities and states across the nation are selling and leasing everything from airports to zoos…”
Cities and states are now so desperate that even when they know they are entering into a bad long-term deal, they believe they have no alternative. The California legislature recently released a report by its analyst’s office entitled “Should the State Sell its Office Buildings?” California originally bought office buildings to save money, the report says. The cost of leasing them back “would exceed sales revenue,” it said, making the sales “poor fiscal policy.” But “in the current budget environment,” the report added, such deals may be necessary to balance the budget.
Sometimes rather than privatizing, the public sector is simply closing down. Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta shut down its entire public bus system, stranding 8,400 daily riders. Utah seriously considered eliminating the 12th grade, or making it optional. Camden, New Jersey is preparing to permanently shut its 105-year-old library system by the end of the year.
Today there is a wild imbalance between those who favor protecting public assets and those who do not, between those who believe the public should take priority over the private, and those who do not, between those who would emphasize the “we” over the “me” and those who would not.
This blog is a response to this imbalance.