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Answers to questions raised last month

Letter from Ray Schoch

Modern Life – November 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine


You’ve included a couple of questions in “Survival of the Fittest” (a depressingly apropos title for this month’s “Letter from the Editors”) that I want to briefly address.

First, on page 28, you asked, “But do conservatives really want to eliminate public service agencies like the FDA, CDC, and FEMA?”

The short answer is “Yes.”

Old-fashioned fiscal conservatives, of the sort that called themselves “Republican” when I was a lad in the Eisenhower years, might have a different answer, but the sort of “conservatives” who’ve shown up in Colorado and across the country for the past couple of decades have proven themselves, time and again, to be the antithesis of fiscal conservatism. Our current national debt, courtesy of Ronald Reagan and the Bush dynasty, is a multi-thousand-dollar dead weight hanging around the neck of each of our children and grandchildren.

What we’re dealing with under the guise of “conservatism” nowadays are ideologues, whose notion of government is that it’s all basically evil, whether at the local, county, state or national level. Grover Nordquist is merely among the most widely known examples of this sort, with his “shrink government down to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub” notion serving as a rallying cry for people who not only believe (quite mistakenly) they can maintain their current lifestyle without any assistance from government at all, thank you very much, but concurrently decry the “nanny state” as both unnecessary and bad for the national character. They also tend to be the same people who insist that workplace unions, or any other organization or institution that has the effect of raising wages for ordinary working people to the point where they might eventually have some hope of joining the middle class, are simultaneously unnecessary and the Devil’s spawn.

Second, in the next sentence, you asked, “And if so, then who will we call after the next disaster? Halliburton? Oprah? France?”

The short answer here is, “The first one.”

Oprah is wealthy enough to ride out just about any disaster except a large meteorite striking the planet. France has its own issues to deal with. Meanwhile, as detailed in “Disaster Capitalism,” a lengthy article in this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, the “conservative” antipathy to government actually serving a function has led to an epidemic of privatization, wherein an increasing number and amount of what were previously government functions and services are now being “contracted” to private entities (Halliburton being merely the most widely-known example) which reap millions of dollars in profits from taxpayers. I urge you to get a copy of Harper’s and read the article for yourself.

Both theoretically and personally, I find the notion that private contractors can provide services more effectively and cost-efficiently than government to be, in most circumstances, laughable. I’ve worked for major defense contractors, non-defense-related national corporations, and in the public sector. Bureaucracy is endemic to ANY large organization, and I saw no evidence whatsoever that services were being provided either more effectively or with more cost efficiency by my private employers than was the case with my public sector employer. Even a cursory examination of the federal response to hurricane Katrina bears this out. Government’s ability to mitigate the disaster was sufficiently diminished by tax and budget cuts that many services HAD to be contracted out, and those contractors, in far too many cases, were ineffective, inefficient, and greedy — perhaps criminally so. The people of New Orleans continue to suffer from the consequences of the privatization of government functions.

Theoretically, there’s no getting away from the salient fact that government does not need to make a profit, while private entities must do so to attract or repay investment. They must either charge more for the same level of service, or find ways to reduce costs in order to maintain profitability. Typically, it’s the second alternative that’s proved more popular, and under the misleading label of “efficiency,” employees are paid less, laid off through “downsizing,” or in some other fashion the service being provided is diminished. To the degree that we adopt a mind set that says “All taxes are bad,” “Government is evil and ineffective at every level,” and “Everyone in public service is a crook at heart,” as espoused by our most recent crop of neofascists, we’re setting ourselves up for the collapse of what remains of American democracy and the eventual triumph of corporate governance.

As for the title of this month’s “Letter from the Editors,” we’re living (unhappily) through a revival of some of the more pernicious forms of Social Darwinism, gleefully preached during the age of the Robber Barons in the late 19th century. The increasing chasm between the economic well-being of the top one or two percent of the population and the vast majority, coupled with social attitudes that truly blame the victim for poverty, unemployment, a lack of health care, etc., not to mention the nativist hysteria over immigration, resemble all too closely the economic bigotry and racism of a time period that produced huge and undeserved fortunes for a handful and grinding poverty before an early grave for millions. The wealthy justified their privileged position by twisting Darwin’s evolutionary theory to suit the preservation of their status and wealth, not to mention preserving their sensitive egos. Reading the business press today will leave one with a similar impression about the current crop of entrepreneurial types.

Ray Schoch