Career Calling

May 7, 2012

Sabbath, May 6, 2012

[On Sundays, Career Calling ponders intersections of work and life in “Sabbath.”]

Private Is Not Better Than Public

Over the past few decades in the U.S., conservatives have won a message war that is begin to tear apart our country’s social and democratic foundations.  The message is simple – and false:  Private is better than public.  We in Chicago have gotten a real smack in the face with the deal our former mayor Richard M. Daley made in leasing the city’s parking meters, which I will discuss below.  But it’s not just Chicago.  Across the nation, we’re seeing roads, schools, garbage collection, and even prisons privatized in the name of efficiency.  The problem is that, like the promises of trickle down economics, the promise of cost savings and greater efficiency from privatization is a lie.

Starting in 2009, parking meters in Chicago were taken over by a company called Chicago Parking, LLC (All information in this paragraph is taken from the Chicago Sun-Times, 5-4-2012).  It paid $1.15 billion for a 75 year lease.  In the last year the city operated the meters, it collected $23.8 million in fees.  Over the next three years, the private company has collected $45.6 million (2009), $71.2 million (2010), and $82.8 million (2011).  Currently, Chicago Parking is billing the city for lost revenue due to street closure and spaces used by handicapped drivers.  For 2009-2010, the city paid an extra 9 million to cover parking spaces taken out of service.  The city is disputing an additional $27 million in additional charges.

How have the people of Chicago benefited from this move from public to private?  First, residents of the city are paying significantly more for parking under the private regime.  What if we called this a tax?  People would be outraged.  Second, it’s not a good deal.  At $80 million a year, the cost of the lease will be covered in less than 20 years, which means more than 50 years of the lease will be sweet profit for the private company.  Who’s not profiting?  The city and its taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the Sun-Times also reports that former mayor and three of his top aides now work for the law firm that represented the city in the park meter negotiation.  A cynical person might think this was some kind of conflict of interest.  But after hearing again and again over the past 20 years how much Mayor Daley, son of The Mayor Daley, loved the city, I cannot believe that there is anything shady in this arrangement.  After all, Mayor Daley loved the city.  If this is true, the parking meter deal must be seen as an expression of his love. 

It’s not just parking meters.  Private prisons in Arizona are costing more than original projections and there have been problems with lax security and prisoners escaping, which cannot be called greater efficiency.  The state’s legislature has shut down a review of the program.  A study in Colorado found a similar problem with cost overruns in another allegedly more efficient private prison system.  Who ends up paying more?  Taxpayers.

These are just two examples of the way government and private industry have joined in a big scam.  At the beginning of this article, I attributed the private is better than public meme to conservatives, and I hold by that claim.  However, many Democrats have jumped on the train, especially when it comes to education.  I have frequently written about education and how funds have been routed from public to private and charter schools, how teachers and teachers unions are the bogey man for education “reformers.”  There is no clear evidence that these private schools do a better job of educating children.  Some charter schools are good.  However, three of the top four ranked high schools in the state of Illinois are in the Chicago Public School system.  Many suburban districts in Illinois that have a strong tax base and low poverty offer their citizens great public schools. 

I do not defend any kind of public waste, corruption, or failure.  Ineffective teachers and other public employees who cannot do their jobs should be fired.  So should bad CEOs, who now often get multi-million dollar gold parachutes when they are fired.  We need to move beyond a cliché like private is better than public to the wisdom that John Dewey gave us long ago:  What works?  What works for the nation and most of its people?  What works to build a foundation for a strong democracy?  We need to find what works and leave the slogans behind.

Postscript:  My friend Bill Savage sent me this happy news.  By the end of the parking meter lease, the city will probably pay “fines” that equal what it paid the city in the original lease.   Really, he loved the city.


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