Eclectic commentary from a progressive voice in the red state

Friday, September 20, 2013

The government isn't broken, it's the rush to privatize that's broken

Government bashers and privatization advocates need to think carefully about how and what they want to be run by public entities versus private corporations — and that’s putting it charitably.

Lax work by a private firm may well be the reason for at least 13 dead and as many wounded in the shooting rampage at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard Monday. Multiple news outlets are reporting that a private firm, USIS, is the target of several investigations, including a criminal probe, for its vetting of Aaron Alexis, the shooter. According to the Washington Post, “The company, which is under criminal investigation over whether it misled the government about the thoroughness of its background checks, said earlier this week that it had not handled Alexis’s (sic) case.”

Previously, representatives of the firm — which is owned by Virginia-based Altegrity Inc., in turn owned by Providence Equity Partners LLC, according to Bloomberg News — had denied it did a background check on Alexis.

But, there’s more.

The same firm also did the background check on Edward Snowden, who is in hiding after having blown the whistle on extensive spying on American citizens, probably in violation of our Fourth Amendment rights. I personally believe Snowden did the right thing for our country, which is why the power elite have vilified him. That’s not the issue here.

What is at stake is whether the extensive role of USIS and other private contractors for the United States government can be trusted to carry out their tasks in what is usually phrased in contracts as “a workmanlike manner.” How fair is it to attack a private corporation for missing the signs that one of its subjects would go rogue or go crazy?

Well, there are two contextual answers to that question. First, the Babbitts of corporate America, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well as the local chambers, bray about how wonderful the capitalist system is in delivering greatness and supporting our exceptionalism. Do they ever acknowledge the flaws and faults? No. And when we the people in the form of the federal government bailed out the too-big-to-fail banks and auto industry, did the chambers and corporate American acknowledge how the capitalist system failed? No, again.

The second contextual answer is that the capitalist economic system is amoral. Note, I didn’t say immoral. In the purest macro- and microeconomic senses, the system is designed to maximize revenue and minimize costs to maximize profit. The history of our country and the labor movement are part of the evidence of what happens when unfettered capitalism is left to its own devices inside the economic model. Eventually, forces outside the pure model must intervene.

It’s clear that explaining the events at the Washington Navy Yard are more complicated than one company failing to properly do its job. But the fact that the consequences of such a failure are so dire should argue for more than just a look at one firm. The entire question of privatizing government work, which for several decades has been the glib solution from the right wing for “fixing” government, needs to be examined. It’s a sure bet that an objective review will show that government isn’t as broken as the right wing would have one think and that a private company taking over is the wrong answer to the wrong question.