Matt Stoller had a piece in Politico yesterday, “Public pays price for privatization.” It’s a good read about how America has historically completed great national infrastructure projects like the Hoover Dam and interstate highway system though a combination of public and private resources. But at this point we are not only not building things, but privatizing the public infrastructure we have left. Stoller writes:
After all, building infrastructure implies the ability to build things here and being able to use the power of taxation to finance them. Privatizing infrastructure requires the ability to securitize revenue flows. Which one do you think modern America does better?
Privatization takes inherently governmental functions — everything from national defense to mass transit and roads — and turns them over to the control of private actors, whose goal is to extract maximum revenue while costing as little as possible.
Not shockingly, quality suffers when business risk is backstopped by public funds.
Stoller also makes an important point about the dangers of putting state powers in private hands:
Even more perniciously, selling infrastructure such as toll roads puts the coercive power of the state in the hands of private actors. We have great public assets built by prior generations. We should and could be building a better country for our children, rather than liquidating what we have.
The last great era of public works — the New Deal’s roads, bridges, arts programs and schools — did not come from great planning and bipartisan concern over U.S. infrastructure. It came from the desperation of then-new-economy industrialists, who sought an economic structure in which they could profit and a populace seeking to govern its own country.
It was initiated by an unemployed and hungry citizenry and supported by builders clamoring for a government-backed housing-finance system, auto companies demanding roads and airlines seeking airports. The scorching class conflict of the Great Depression led to a national consensus in favor of avoiding unemployment that lasted until the 1970s.
Naturally one wonders whether the continue refusal by DC elites to address unemployment will provoke the a Depression-era style backlash as more and more people lose their jobs, lose their homes and go hungry. Stoller concludes:
Ultimately, of course, we will have no choice but to rebuild our infrastructure or risk social collapse. It’s not just the disintegrating bridges and extreme weather. Recent global supply chain disruptions suggest that certain parts of corporate America may turn toward a pro-infrastructure posture out of self-interest.
But Matt notes that this isn’t where Congress and the White House and state governments are at. Instead the focus is on reducing spending and privatizing infrastructure. This is a dangerous disconnect and one that only makes the further sale of infrastructure more likely, while simultaneously collapses and we’re left with less quality power, fewer good roads, less drinkable water, and unsafe bridges.
We need job creation in America. One of the simplest ways to do it would be to build infrastructure – repair roads, build new sewer systems, rebuild the entire electric grid, build new bridges, and build clean energy facilities like wind farms, solar farms, geothermal and hydroelectric. We could put millions of people to work building big things and ensuring that we have the infrastructure our country needs to survive in the 21st century. Or we could just sell what we have and hope we’re not on a big bridge when it collapses.