Monday, May 26, 2008

To Do Nothing is to Die a Little

The hardest thing about any kind of decline is watching its victims take it lying down.

Lying down also takes the form of sheer ignorance, and standing up can take the form of correcting it. So on Memorial Day it's worth also remembering the teachers and the journalists who devote themselves to setting the record straight. The Sacramento columnist for the LA Times, George Skelton, offers a nice example of the genre today, correcting a few instances of massive middle-class dumbness about taxes and what they pay for.

Speaking of the uncorrected, our Governor has been spreading the myth that private companies will rebuild California more efficiently and cheaply than government can. His ode to public-private partnerships in his State of the State address last January is worth quoting in full:

Now, also over the next 20 years we have $500 billion worth of infrastructure that needs to be met. Now, as we head into this new century, we also need digital infrastructure to keep our economy growing. So the question is: How do we meet all those needs?

There isn't enough money in the public sector, we all know that. Can't do all of it. We need to expand partnerships where government and the private sector work together to meet the needs of the people. These partnerships can often deliver infrastructure faster, better and cheaper.

For instance, in British Columbia, public/private partnerships are common for building highways, bridges, rapid transit, water treatment and so on, and everyone is happy. The political leaders are happy, business is happy, the public is happy, the economy is happy, the future is happy.

Well, bond investors are happy. As Skelton points out, Arnold's champion borrowing has tripled the amount of state money that goes directly to service the states' debt. His latest plan, to increase state revenue by issuing bonds backed by future state lottery revenues, is another in his series of Wall Street Full Employment Acts - the fees and returns on these customized investment vehicles are huge.

In reality, private money increases returns by reducing costs, and one time-honored way of doing that is to externalize costs by getting the public to pay for them. You can make more money with your trucking business if the entire public builds and maintains freeways, rather than putting most of the cost on truckers themselves. The same is true of universities, as our two reports have shown: sponsorships and philanthropy flow to focused activities of interest to the donor, and not to general education. The reason is obvious once you start thinking about it: donors want effective results, and they leverage public money to do it. They use state-funded laboratories, federally-sponsored graduate students, and the like.

Other forms of private "partnerships" spring to mind:
  • corporate sponsorships of Gov. Schwarzenegger's public events puts businesses with a financial interest in state decisions into the statehouse
  • privatized utilities around the world, including electricity in California: one of the unavoidable cost increases that the University of California can't figure out how to pay for next year are elevated utility costs. Privatization has encouraged underinvestment in the electricity distribution system in many countries, as nicely summarized on page 10 of this book on solar energy. The logic is obvious: you make money by operating a grid that previous generations of taxpayers or fee payers already bought, not by investing in it. The same goes for the once-great British Rail and London Underground systems which pale by comparison with the far cheaper and more efficient SNCF and urban Metro systems in France.
What the hey. People do stand up a lot and figure things out. Leading recent examples are the California State Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, which was written by a Republican jurist who said he was inspired by the Black civil rights movement (and the case Perez v. Sharp).

And there was also Barak Obama fighting back when Bush implied in his speech to the Israeli Knesset that the Democrat opposition are appeasers of terrorists. This is the only thing that will allow Obama to win in November - standing up.

And there is the memory of the war dead today - the ones who caught bullets and bombs thanks to the dumbness of the living, neither in vain nor forgotten, we will make sure of that.

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