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Late Night FDL: Privatopia

Privatopia (photo: wbeem/flickr)

Once again, Republicans have proposed privatizing Medicare, despite the rather chilly reception this transcendently idiotic idea received last time. The logic is, as always, is that the hallowed Private Sector just does everything better than that wasteful, extravagant, ol’ Big Gummint, so why would caring for sick old people be any different? I won’t bore you with inconsequential minutia about risk pools, demographics, or, well, what makes health insurance pencil out as a business proposition, but I wish that, for once, they’d give an example wherein this cockamamie notion actually worked.

Privatization is simply another bead on the right-wing rosary; a rote prayer to Goddess Ayn that not only has no basis in reality, but has been repeatedly showered in lightning bolts for decades. Remember when Chicago privatized its parking meters? How about all those states that privatized their prisons, leading to violence, jail breaks, and new lobbyists calling for harsher sentencing, and even brand-new crimes? What about those charter schools? Halliburton? Blackwater?

Every time privatization has been tried, it’s instantly led to graft, cronyism, and wasted public resources, but not before an irreplaceable public asset has been hastily pawned off for good to some grabby charlatan unwilling to submit to the slings and arrows of the Free Market. Government, and those who work for it or depend on its services, invariably suffer, but the Privateers rarely, if ever, do. They go on looking for the next thing, and you really can’t blame them; which would you rather take over; parking meters or, say, Bank of America?

The problem with private enterprise taking over government functions is that, in America at least, “private enterprise” sucks, and it is far from private. Free from the burden of taxation, unshackled from government meddling, and unbothered by ruinous competition, American big business still can’t find its ass with both hands and a flashlight. Reading the fine print of the recent bank settlement, for instance, most people would be loath to entrust our largest banks to run a lemonade stand, let alone handle our life savings, but we have no choice.

Far from being some model of efficiency, all of our largest industries have long since given up on competence and competition and instead simply opened lobbying offices in Virginia to get rid of it, with great success. From airlines to publishers, retailers to manufacturers, oil companies to factory farmers, telecoms to utilities, developers to health care providers, they’ve enriched themselves on subsidies and antitrust forbearance for so long they wouldn’t know how to produce a quality service or product if they wanted to. Often, they don’t.

If only for that reason, I think any righty privatization schemes will ring hollow with the electorate this time around. Say what you will about the post office or the DMV; you’ll wait longer at the AT&T store, and spend a lot more money. We may love Apple and Nike products, but we know they depend on a virtual slave economy that has helped drive down our own standard of living while ruthlessly exploiting those who toil in it. In daily life, the vast majority of our encounters with the supposedly infallible Private Sector tend to underwhelm, at best. Do we really want these people running things?

Recession-drained Americans know all too well why that clerk was so surly, that paperwork was lost, that flight had no meal, or that balance was incorrect; many have seen or heard what merciless cost-cutting has done to all workplaces for front-line workers, but that doesn’t make it less frustrating. It’s become annoyingly apparent that everybody in Private Enterprise, from the customer to the employee, is being screwed over so some bozo can have four houses.

Go ahead, Republicans. Try to sell “privatizing” Medicare; I dare you.

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