There are good reasons why not all governmental functions can or should be done by government employees or officials. It can be more cost-effective to hire contractors instead of training government employees; contractors can have more expertise; and contractors can do many things more efficiently. Some states have privatized such things as toll roads in order to raise cash in the short run to resolve serious budget problems (in the process, of course, sacrificing long-term revenue). In other cases, such as infrastructure, public-private partnerships can be the most cost-effective and efficient way to accomplish public and private ends.
But in recent decades, the dramatic push for more and more privatization of federal functions has gone beyond a discussion or analysis about how to best sort out public and private functions, turning into a headlong rush to privatize more. A good part of this is ideological in nature—driven by vociferously antigovernment ideologues who want to squeeze the size and role of government, decapitate government-employee unions, and discredit government generally along the way. Another part is greed: Sell off parts of government, or hand out contracts, in ways that reward one’s cronies and campaign benefactors. And a third part is to hide the costs of difficult or unpopular activities such as war or spying. Mixed in with these motives is a broader, less malign one: As government has been squeezed and public employees vilified and cut back, the only feasible way to hire competent people who are needed to fill important functions is to do it through the back door.
The intelligence brouhaha and Snowden fiasco—how could this guy have been hired, given his high-level classification, paid $122,000 a year, and gain access to areas expressly off-limits for someone at his level?—should make us focus on the bigger issue, and bigger problem, here. We have vastly over-privatized, and in the process lost control over swaths of important policy areas while allowing unaccountable and even outlaw behavior to expand. There were at times more than 100,000 contractors in Iraq, including nearly 50,000 “soldiers,” many making $1,000 a day, far more than active-duty military, with the money coming from American taxpayers. Conveniently for politicians, if these “soldiers” died, they were not counted in the official death toll of Americans killed in the war.
And we have created areas where crony capitalism can meet crony government to create crony corruption that cheats all taxpayers. If multiple public functions are privatized, or partially privatized, government employees have huge incentives to curry favor with potential private employers by granting them rich contracts or consulting fees, and then subsequently getting jobs paying multiples of their government salaries—or just giving nice perks to one’s former colleagues and friends who left for the private sector. Private contractors know the game well; they can recruit top government employees and then effectively lease them back to the government, where they do the same jobs and stick taxpayers with much higher bills.
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Thursday, June 20, 2013
Outsourcing pendulum starting to swing back?
Analysis: Government Privatization Paves the Way for Crony Corruption By Norm Ornstein