Both political parties have been overtaken by the idea that making money (which is the purpose of the private sector) will guarantee good outcomes. In fact, this seems to underlie what many people see as morality, both for companies and individuals.
It wasn’t always that way. I can recall that a concept of working for the good of the community, whether that was your local town or the nation. And I don’t think that was my childish naiveté. There’s still community feeling around: people support volunteer fire departments, and they staff a myriad of organizations that tend to stray animals, help people find jobs, and keep the parks clean.
But privatization of so many things and the rationale of making money are doing damage that those do-gooder organizations, even the churches, can’t repair. We’ve seen two big examples over the last few days.
While snowstorms blanketed the nation from New Mexico to Vermont, a blob of intensely cold Arctic air sloshed down into the southwest. Temperatures twenty degrees colder than normal and worse were common. My outdoor thermometer read minus 12 F.
In Texas, power plant equipment froze up and shut down fifty power generating units, causing the power companies to institute rolling blackouts across the state. The natural gas generators intended as backups couldn’t operate without electrical power. And natural gas pumping stations shut down, causing outages in New Mexico. The detailed causes will be examined, but this seems to be the general outline of what happened.
It is true that the cold was extreme, but profit-making companies have no incentive to plan for the worst. Or, apparently, prepare in any rational way: backup equipment that can’t operate without electrical power? Duh! Regulation is no guarantee; the companies lobby and buy their way to as much profit as they can. Being prepared for unusual events like last week’s cold eats into profit.
Texas officials take pride in the fact that theirs is the only state with its own independently operated power grid and say federal oversight isn't necessary. [WSJ]
There’s another way to think about electrical and gas utilities. People need them to keep their houses warm and lit when Arctic air and snow hit. They are particularly needed then, because last week’s cold was life-threatening. Reliability of supply is essential. So it needs to be guaranteed in some way. That requires more and better equipment than the bare minimum arrived at by compromising with profit. So perhaps power utilities are not suited to both serving the community and turning a profit.
Less reliable power, then, is one of the costs of privatization.
The other example is quite different, but no less damaging to the idea of community. Frank Wisner, having been US ambassador to Egypt, India, and other places, would seem to be the perfect person to deliver President Barack Obama’s message to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. And presumably he did. But then he appeared on a panel at a security conference in Munich on Saturday and delivered a message at odds with Obama’s statement on Friday. Obama was pushing for Mubarak to step down, without quite saying those words. Wisner said that the transition required Mubarak to stay. The questions were being asked quite explicitly because he had been the President’s messenger, so what he said would be taken in that light. By the end of the day, the State Department had disavowed Wisner’s statements and Vice President Joe Biden had reiterated the President’s message.
After Wisner retired as ambassador, he went on to new jobs. After all, an ambassador may have prestige and connections, but he doesn’t make as much money as an executive of Enron or AIG. Wisner is now at Patton Boggs, a Washington law firm heavily involved in lobbying. He was a cheerleader for the nuclear agreement with India, one of the firm’s clients. And you can bet he was working his connections behind the scenes to get that agreement passed.
Likewise, he knew Mubarak from his days as ambassador, and the government of Egypt and various of its wealthier families are clients of Patton Boggs. It seems to be those instincts that took over Wisner’s comments on Saturday.
There is always a problem in selecting an expert for a government mission; the connections that expertise brings are likely to present a conflict of interest. That should have been part of President Obama’s calculation in selecting Wisner.
In a system that makes money the criterion, it makes sense for a former ambassador to capitalize on his network and expertise. And, in a system that allows unlimited political participation by corporations and foreign countries, a firm like Patton Boggs is the place to be.
There have always been people who are primarily driven by money. But there will be more of them if money is seen to be the source of prestige, happiness, and all things good. A different goal might encourage an ideal of public service, companies doing patriotic things for a dollar-a-year fee, as in World War II, or public servants retiring to write their memoirs so that their wisdom might profit the country. Those things happened in a less money-driven world that America once was.
The price of the worship of unrestricted capitalism that we’ve indulged in for the past thirty years is high. Endangering citizen well-being and the loss of leaders we can look up to are part of that price.