Privacy is a sacred word to many Americans, as demonstrated by the recent uproar over the brazen invasion of it by the Patriot Act-enabled National Security Agency (NSA). The information about dragnet data-collecting of telephone and internet records leaked by Edward Snowden has opened the door to another pressing conversation—one about privatization, or corporatization of this governmental function.
In addition to potentially having access to the private electronic correspondence of American citizens, what does it mean that Mr. Snowden—a low-level contractor—had access to critical national security information not available to the general public? Author James Bamford, an expert on intelligence agencies, recently wrote:
“The Snowden case demonstrates the potential risks involved when the nation turns its spying and eavesdropping over to companies with lax security and inadequate personnel policies. The risks increase exponentially when those same people must make critical decisions involving choices that may lead to war, cyber or otherwise.”
This is a stark example of the blurring of the line between corporate and governmental functions. Booz Allen Hamilton, the company that employed Mr. Snowden, earned over $5 billion in revenues in the last fiscal year, according to The Washington Post. The Carlyle Group, the majority owner of Booz Allen Hamilton, has made nearly $2 billion on its $910 million investment in “government consulting.” It is clear that “national security” is big business.
Given the value and importance of privacy to American ideals, it is disturbing how the terms “privatization” and “private sector” are deceptively used. Many Americans have been led to believe that corporations can and will do a better job handling certain vital tasks than the government can. Such is the ideology of privatization. But in practice, there is very little evidence to prove this notion. Instead, the term “privatization” has become a clever euphemism to draw attention away from a harsh truth. Public functions are being handed over to corporations in sweetheart deals while publicly owned assets such as minerals on public lands and research development breakthroughs are being given away at bargain basement prices.
These functions and assets—which belong to or are the responsibility of the taxpayers—are being used to make an increasingly small pool of top corporate executives very wealthy. And taxpayers are left footing the cleanup bill when corporate greed does not align with the public need.
With this in mind, let us not mince words. “Privatization” is a soft term. Let us call the practice what it really is—corporatization.
There’s big money to be made in moving government-owned functions and assets into corporate hands. Public highways, prisons, drinking water systems, school management, trash collection, libraries, the military and now even national security matters are all being outsourced to corporations. But what happens when such vital government functions are performed for big profit rather than the public good?
Look to the many reports of waste, fraud, and abuse that arose out of the over-use of corporate contractors in Iraq. At one point, there were more contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan than U.S. soldiers. Look to the private prisons, which make their money by incarcerating as many people as they can for as long as they can. Look to privatized water systems, the majority of which deliver poorer service at higher costs than public utility alternatives. Visit privatizationwatch.org for many more examples of the perils, pitfalls and excesses of rampant, unaccountable corporatization.
In short, corporatizing public functions does not work well for the public, consumers and taxpayers who are paying through the nose.
Some right-wing critics might view government providing essential public services as “socialism,” but as it now stands, we live in a nation increasingly comprised of corporate socialism. There is great value in having public assets and functions that are already owned by the people, to be performed for the public benefit, and not at high profit margins and prices for big corporations. By allowing corporate entities to assume control of such functions, it makes profiteering the central determinant in what, how, and why vital services are rendered.
Just look at the price of medicines given to drug companies by taxpayer-funded government agencies that discovered them.
(Autographed copies of my new book Told You So: The Big Book of Weekly Columns are available from Politics and Prose, an independent book store in Washington D.C.)