Four Victories for the Public Good

Date: 17 Apr 2013 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

I’m not saying it’s time to break out the champagne and start chanting, “The people united will never be defeated”.  But the past few weeks have brought us some heartwarming demonstrations that the popular will still has a bite.

February 22:  After a major public outcry, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) directed federal agencies to make published results freely available to the public.  Director John Holdren declared, “Americans should have easy access to the results of research they help support.”

The announcement by the Obama Administration came after 65,000 people petitioned the White House to make publicly supported research available to the public and 6 weeks after the suicide of Aaron Swartz who was facing up to 35 years in prison for freely distributing nearly 5 million scholarly articles from a privately owned digital archive.  The death of Swartz, whose 2008 manifesto declared sharing information a “moral imperative” and the “privatization of knowledge” a curse, became a rallying cry for those who wanted to honor his legacy by changing a federal bias toward the privatization of public information first adopted by Ronald Reagan.

March 3:  By more than 2 to 1, Swiss voters approved the “fat cat initiative”, a Constitutional amendment that bans big payouts to new and departing managers, gives shareholders the right to veto executive compensation and makes prison the penalty for executives who defy the new rules. All 26 Swiss cantons approved the amendment.  A few weeks before the vote the nation was both outraged and energized by the $78 million payoff offered to the outgoing Chairman of Novartis even as the firm was cutting jobs. The vote reflected a deep-seated public sense “that company managers have been ransacking the coffers at the expense of society”, noted one Zurich newspaper.

March 21:  The European Right to Water Initiative announced it had gathered 1.3 million signatures on a petition to demand the European Commission stop mandating or encouraging the privatization of water utilities.  To be formally recognized by the European Union, the petition needs not only a million signatures but also a sufficient number from 7 EU member states.  Currently 5 states have exceeded that level; several more are close.

April 10:  The US Postal Service reversed its February 6th decision to end Saturday mail delivery as of this August.  The Postal Service blamed Congress for requiring six-day delivery in a continuing budget resolution in March, but the culprit really was the groundswell of public opposition to its decision.  Indeed, the leading advocate of privatizing the Post Office, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee declared, “Despite some assertions, it’s quite clear that special interest lobbying and intense political pressure played a much greater role in the Postal Service’s change of heart than any real or perceived barrier to implementing what had been announced.”

Truth to tell several of these victories come with significant caveats.  Obama’s directive for public access was given grudgingly and only after more than three years of stalling. The final announcement was precipitated in part by the introduction in Congress of a much stronger bill only a few days before.  The OSTP policy only applies to agencies that oversee $100 million in research. Agencies can petition to be exempted from the requirement.  Agencies can wait a year after publication before making research public. And in what can only be construed as a post-mortem middle finger to Aaron Swartz the OSTP memo states, “Agencies plans must also describe, to the extent feasible, procedures the agency will take to help prevent the unauthorized mass redistribution of scholarly publications.” who spend more than $100 million on research

The European water initiative also faces a recalcitrant administration.  In May 2011 several dozen organizations sent a letter to the European Commission asking it to “stop demanding the privatization of municipal water systems in countries receiving rescue loans in the context of the sovereign debt crisis.” The organizations asserted that such demands of EU members like Portugal and Greece violated European Union treaties that require neutrality on the issue of public and private ownership of utilities as well as the right to access to water.  Their letter pointed to recent empirical studies that found water privatization damaging and to the growing wave of remunicipalization efforts as European cities that had privatized their water systems reversed their decisions after seeing significant price increases and service problems.

The EC took almost a year to respond and did so only after the groups threatened to complain to the European Ombudsman.  Its very brief communication insisted, “The Commission believes that the privatization of public utilities, including water supply firms, can deliver benefits to the society when carefully made.”

The groups responded with amazement and anger. In a follow up letter they pointedly asked “what evidence you have to support your position”.   Unsurprisingly, the European Commission refused to respond.

Which led the groups, in late September 2012 to launch the first ever European Citizens Initiative, a formal process available only since April 2012.

If the Initiative succeeds it gains the groups the right to present their case in a public hearing to the European Parliament and to receive a formal response from the European Commission.  The Commission is not obliged to change its position.

As for the post office, the end of Saturday delivery is off the table, at least for the next few months.  But the USPS continues to operate under an increasing debt burden created by the Congressional requirement that it pay $5 billion a year to prepay 50 years of health benefits in 10 years, a requirement borne by no other public agency nor private corporation.  Until that Congressionally imposed mandate is lifted the USPS will continue to slash staff, reduce hours, close local post offices and processing centers and continue to press for the end of Saturday mail delivery.

But then, as my always wise wife says, we need to celebrate small victories, these days more than ever.  So lift a glass to the good citizens of America and Switzerland and Europe for standing up to ever more concentrated private power and insisting that the common good be served.




Avatar photo
Follow David Morris:
David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.