This is a topic that often intrudes into my consciousness. Reading Meteor Blades' front page story on privatizing prisons thrust it forward to the point I decided to offer some mental ruminations.
Let's start with prisons. A prison is a place to which we send someone as punishment for having broken the social contract. Prisoners do not have the full rights of the rest of us - even the !3th Amendment banning slavery and involuntary servitude says of the ban
except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convictedthus in theory there would be no Constitutional bar for the government committing people to private prisons as is already the case around too much of the nation. But while prisoners and ex-felons lose some rights, they are not subject to absolute authority of those controlling their confinement: a sentence even of life imprisonment without parole does not authorize the jailers to torture, maim or kill.
The kind of contract guaranteeing a flow of prisoners for the purpose of private profit has always seemed a dangerous path for this nation to follow. We had a history in the South of allowing private corporations to rent prisoners for very lost cost labor to line private pockets: anyone who saw the movie Brubaker got a glimpse of what that system was like.
Some things might be legal and/or constitutional, but I wonder what it says about our nation that they can be so classified. Private prisons are but one example.
There are other things I question being in private hands, especially when those hands are either offered a guaranteed profit or subject to the pressures of maximizing profits for shareholders and thus potentially burdening the population of this nation in a way that may be destructive.
Let me explain. . . .
In the past we had an approach to natural monopolies - you did not have two sets of power lines to your house, nor did you have two sets of water or sewer pipes. If your water was not provided by a local or regional government but by a private company, it would be subject to regulation: guaranteed an operating profit but not allowed to use its monopoly power to maximize its profits to excessive levels.
My electricity, like that of the vast majority of Virginians, is provided by Dominion Virginia Power. That is, the wires that connect me to the grid are theirs, although nominally I might be purchasing my electricity from some other provider. Dominion is regulated by the Commonwealth. Yet in Virginia we have allowed direct corporate contributions in our political races, and Dominion is by far the biggest single contributor to our politics. Given Virginia's strong reliance upon the Dillon Rule, Dominion is able to prevent local regulation of what they do by its influence on the General Assembly. Thus for an essential service they have far more influence than do those reliant upon them for that service.
I once had a discussion with a good friend who taught at a seminary and was a major mentor to many clergy in his domination, in which I was at that time a member. Given my long orientation towards service, I had a discussion with him about possibly attending that seminary. As part of that discussion we wandered through compensation. He described the sense that many had in helping/serving professions of wondering about how much we might profit from the needs of others. Clearly there is nothing wrong with earning a good living, with being paid for the services one provides. But there seemed something wrong about allowing one who serves to be able to dictate to others at their time of need, be that need physical, mental, or spiritual.
In that denomination, many of the clergy were very poorly paid, and depended upon "stole fees" - if you wanted the clergyman to perform a baptism, a wedding, a funeral, you were expected to pay him directly for that service, despite some clear language to the contrary in the New Testament.
I never pursued becoming a clergyman. I did serve twice as president of a local parish. In that position we enacted a policy on stole fees, starting by raising the salary of our clergyman and increasing his benefits, including his housing allowance (we did not own a rectory). It did not matter if you were a member of the parish or not, there were no stole fees. You could feel free to make a contribution to the church, you might well give the clergyman a thank you gift, but it was not required. We might point out that if you wanted a choir to sing for your wedding, our choir members were not paid and if you were not inviting them to the reception (in our small parish if one of the couple was a member the choir was usually invited) it might be nice to offer some wine and cheese for them for giving up their time). It was rare that someone did not offer a gift to the church that was more than might have been charged in stole fees, but on those occasions we smiled and performed the spiritual service.
Let me return to this mental meandering.
People are entitled to a living.
People who provide goods or services of any kind should not be required to do so at a loss, even if it serves a good purpose - thus fixing the Medicare reimbursement rates is necessary if many seniors are going to be able to continue to receive medical care. I note that the medical practice where I receive my medical care will not take new patients who are already on Medicare because the reimbursement rates are so poor.
To what should people have access without being excluded because of their financial situation? Certainly those things necessary for life, unless we are totally inhumane. Basic shelter, clothing, food, power and certainly water, without which none of us can live. Should not this also include medical and dental care?
How do we ensure that all have access to the basic necessities of life, especially at a time when many have been without work despite being willing to work for extended periods of time, when even the extended unemployment benefits have run out?
How much does bureaucracy add to the cost of necessary services?
How much does profit add when those services are privatized?
One can provide services through a non-government but also non-profit organization.
Is profit the highest value in our society, in our economy? If it is, should it be?
I teach in a public school. I am paid a decent but not an exorbitant salary. I am able to focus on the service I provide to my students and their families (and thereby to the larger society) without having to worry about paying for the building in which I provide those services, or having to purchase their textbooks, etc. But our district is financially strapped, and much of what I use to enrich their educational environment comes out of my own pocket. I recover some of that because these are deductible expense. The money I spend on providing these things is money not available to me to take my wife out to dinner, or to buy myself a new pair of shoes (and those i wear to school are getting worn down). I could teach in a private non-profit school, probably get paid less, but have less work to do outside of my school day because i would not have the insane load (more than 175 students, in 6 classes ranging in size from 23 to 33). Some think my compensation should be variable, depending upon how much my students test scores improve. Perhaps I could make much more money, but then would not my motivation be to look for those from whom I had the best chance of getting improved scores? Would not I be rightly motivated to avoid teaching those that were hardest to educate, and thus least rewarding? Is that what we want of our educational system?
I do not claim to be an economic specialist. Nor do I claim that I have a complete or coherent point of view on this subject.
I know that I would like more money, that because of my choice to be a teacher there have been economic consequences. Some were poor choices on our part, and we accept responsibility for those. Others were inevitable consequences of the decision not to seek a greater financial return for my work in order to do something I cared about deeply, which was serving others, making their lives better.
Yet I remain troubled by what i see. I see schools being turned into profit centers - this is true from pre-school through graduate school. The Washington Post Company gets its operating profits from Kaplan, a for-profit educational endeavor that includes a university.
I worry about privatizing our toll roads, as Mitch Daniels has done in Indiana: it did not work well when a private organization built a toll road from Dulles Airport West to Leesburg, and the commonwealth had to take it over.
We have already begun to privatize our security, both at a national level and locally. Think of all the private security forces in gated communities. Think not only of the services used by the military that are privatized, even in combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, but also intelligence functions that are outsourced - remember that some of the abuses attributed to our nation were done by privatized security and intelligence organizations.
Politically it was bad enough that our campaigns have been taken over by people who make too much money driving the process - too many Democrats still hire consultants who get a piece of the television advertising and therefore commit to large amounts of advertising for their profit even it if is a waste of money and counter-productive. But at least there we could hold the candidates and the parties accountable. Now we have corporations and their foundations dictating policy, driving elections with their uncontrolled expenditures, delivering messaging for which neither candidate nor party can be held accountable.
Policies that should benefit people are being shaped by the profits that can be made. I remember looking at a professional educational journal shortly after No Child Left Behind had been passed into law, enacting a policy that was going to require many more tests to be created, and seeing an advertisement for Harcourt Educational Measurement in Texas seeking to hire a batch of psychometricians - opportunity to profit from policy, from a firm politically connected to the administration? Or perhaps you have seen news that Gates and Pearson have linked up to create computerized versions of and support for the new assessments to be tied to the Common Core Standards? Are we doing the policies because they are the best way to educate our children, or because some organizations, including those that are ostensibly non-profit, are seeing and seizing the opportunity to make money? At what cost to our society?
I think it is a negative moral judgment on this nation that we have privatized prisons.
I think our worship of the almighty buck is destroying not only our political democracy, but the hopes and dreams of millions upon millions of Americans.
We are destroying the communities in which we live.
We are destroying the institutions necessary for meaningful public life and replacing them with entities whose primary if not sole purpose is to maximize profits for their owners and to hell with the rest of us.
Which leads me again to the question with which I started, and to which I find myself as yet unable to offer a cogent or coherent motive:
When is the profit motive wrong?
I feel as if I am Potter Steward talking about pornography, I may not be able to define it but I know it when I see it.
I am seeing it.
... in privatized prisons
... in privatization of policing, intelligence, military support
... in privatizing of public toll roads
... in privatizing of what used to be public education
And what I see saddens me.
It scares me.
And I do not have an answer.