Ever since President Ronald Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” conservatives have attributed virtually all of our problems to the federal government. They believe that the government cannot do anything well. As a result, they have continually cut taxes in order to starve the government of revenue, making it less effective and less efficient so it better lives up to their expectations.
At the same time, conservatives have pushed to privatize many government functions. Private, for-profit contractors now handle many of the functions that our military once did, including food service, transportation, supply and security. Both state and federal governments have awarded contracts to private prison corporations. Public education now competes for funding with private charter schools. Even our most sensitive spying and surveillance programs have been outsourced to private companies as evidenced by the revelations surrounding Edward Snowden.
But are these private entities really better than the government? Is the government really the problem? Much of the evidence says no.
The jury is still out on whether or not privatizing our military is a good idea, but there have been numerous embarrassing incidents in which private contractors were accused of committing war crimes. As for private prisons, studies have shown that they cost far more per inmate than public prisons, even though private prisons refuse to accept high security prisoners and those with chronic illnesses. And a study by Stanford University has shown that private charter schools perform no better than public schools.
Moreover, the 2013 Customer Rage Survey by Customer Care Measurement and Consulting and the Arizona State University W. P. Carey School of Business found that the percentage of people with customer service problems grew from 32 percent in 1976 to 50 percent in 2013. And 56 percent of those who complained in 2013 remain unsatisfied. Most telling is the fact that 98 percent of the most serious customer service problems involved private companies. Only 2 percent were associated with the government!
How can that be? Is it possible Reagan was wrong?
The truth is, our government is ultimately accountable to us. It may seem big and uncaring, but one election can change everything. On the other hand, today’s giant financial institutions and multinational corporations have little accountability to customers. Certainly, you can move your account from a large bank to a smaller one, but the likelihood is that it, too, is controlled by a large holding company. You can switch insurance companies and find that the new company is just as difficult to deal with as the previous one. Likewise, you can get rid of your cable company, but your satellite provider may not be any more responsive. Indeed, it may be worse.
The problem is not a matter of public versus private. Most customer service problems stem from bureaucracy – both public and private.
But our most serious problem involves both public and private institutions. It centers on the alliance between government and large corporations based on disproportionate access and influence. Consider, for example, the alliance between the George W. Bush White House and Richard “The Dick” Cheney’s former company, Halliburton, which was awarded billions in no-compete military contracts for Iraq and Afghanistan; or the alliance between Ohio congressional representatives (both Republican and Democrat) and the Ohio contractor for Abrams tanks which was awarded a contract for additional tanks that the Army neither wants or needs; or the alliance between Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s staff and a private prison company which led to the company receiving multi-million dollar contracts for private prisons. There are many, many more examples.
Not surprisingly, many of the government’s most outspoken critics are conservatives who will gladly spend money to enrich their districts, their states, their corporate friends and themselves.