Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Government--what's it good for?

I made the point in a comment over on redhurtmachine's sweet blog that the so-called MSM, whatever they are, if they can be treated as an entity and if they have a viewpoint, just aren't that liberal.

Here's a New York Times article about the Heritage Foundation's summer interns. I don't know how else to say it--there's just no "bias" in this article. It's just news, and if there were a forum to mock conservatives, this would be it.

Now, I'd like to use this article as a springboard to discuss conservatism. At one point it is reported that one of the interns wrote a paper on the inefficiencies of a government-run park system--he's in favor of privatizing it. For me, what's crucial to note here is that "privatizing" could mean one of two things: bringing in an outside company to run it, OR running it more like a business. Conservatives think the distinction between "government" and "private" is one of function, whereas I see it more in terms of funding, because I agree with conservatives that everything should be run like a business.

So, for me, "government" just means publicly funded, whereas "private" means privately funded. We need to run everything like a business--we just haven't yet agreed on what we should all pay for, and what we should individually pay for. I'd like health care, mass transportation and education to be paid for by tax money, but I'd like them to be run efficiently, like businesses. If you're not a good teacher, or HMO, or bus driver, you're out, in my system.

Conservatives and liberals miss this distinction between function and funding. Conservatives are trying to insist that we run government agencies more like businesses, which is GREAT, but all liberals hear is "cut social programs." Liberals want aggressive, publicly-funded solutions to social problems, which is also great, but all conservatives hear is "more bureaucracy." WE NEED BOTH.


At 11:24 PM, Blogger Rufus said...

Actually, a lot of the people who advocate "privatization" mean corporate ownership and funding. Running government like a business would be fine. But, selling off public parks to a corporation would be a terrible idea for any number of reasons.

At 11:26 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

I'm going to have to disagree with you completely here, unless I'm misunderstanding you, Chuck. As a conservative, when I say "privitize", I've never meant "use private money." I think every time I've used this term or heard it used, it's meant, "bring in private organizations to introduce the competition required to run this program like a business."

I think many conservatives are interested in social welfare, for example; they're just not interested in having it run by the horribly in-efficient monolithic government welfare system and would prefer that private organizations be awarded government contracts based on their ability to out-perform the competition, more like the aero-space industry. It seems to me that the liberal response to this is rarely, "yes - let's keep government funding but make systems run like businesses." More often it's "let's create a new program to address this issue." Or maybe that's just my perspective as a conservative?

At 11:27 PM, Blogger Rufus said...

For one thing, the "Motorola Public Park" would allow the company to install their own private security, like in a Mall. Most malls have explicit rules against "non-commercial speech", which is why you can't read your poetry in the mall. In Toronto, we have outdoor public squares that have been privatized and the same rules apply. You get arrested for reading your poetry. Privatization is terrible for free expression.

At 11:30 PM, Blogger Rufus said...

And would we still have to pay the same amount of taxes? In Toronto, private companies started supplying our dumpsters, all sporting ugly billboards. The question would be why in the world we still have to pay taxes if the city can't afford trash cans.

At 11:31 PM, Blogger Rufus said...

And private organizations like Enron for example?

At 11:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I have a couple of responses. First, the Heritage article. As a current intern at the Heritage Foundation, I can tell you first-hand that the author was a friend of the Director of our Young Leaders program, and they worked together to get the article written. Now, why did the New York Times run it on the front page? Because it convinces people who want to believe that the NY Times isn't slanted that they are right. You called it a perfect opportunity to bash conservatives but it is the opposite - it is the perfect time to give conservatives credit. Everybody knows that the Heritage Foundation is the most effective think tank around and that we have a great internship program. It doesn't hurt the left to compliment the efficiency and success of the Heritage Foundation. It doesn't champion (and to be fair it doesn't criticize) any Heritage ideas, so I find it hard to see why this article shows that there is no bias in the paper. I think that the ideology of the columnists is apparent - it is blatant on the op-ed page, and it is at the very least highly visible on the front page.

Ok, secondly, privatization from a conservative perspective. What would a conservative prefer? Complete deregulation and open competition - because free markets are always more efficient. The government CANNOT run something like a business, because it has a monopoly on any program it runs. Universal healthcare would be disastrous, because there would be no price competition. It is just bad economics. As a conservative, will I settle for the government contracting out programs to the highest bidder? If it is all I can get, sure.. it is way better than any government program.

Lastly, you mentioned that we need to both run programs like a business (no bureaucracy) and have social welfare programs. As a conservative, I don't care as much about bureaucracy in government programs (though it is very harmful) as I do about the fact that the program is an economic strain on the government. Healthcare is a great example again. If we universalize healthcare, even if we have a streamlined business model for administering healthcare, it still cannot be as effective as a competitive market. The problem with healthcare is the lack of a market under the current system, not a need for a disastrously expensive universal healthcare.

Ok, long response, I'm sorry.

At 9:21 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

A couple things:

1) redhurt, you did misunderstand me, but it's my fault--I left one part of my argument implicit. The accepted usage of "privatize" can and does involve public money in many cases; that's why I prefaced two of the statements in the post with "for me." Certainly, the aerospace industry is a good example of private firms competing for public money. In my definition, that's government, and good government.

2) anonymous, you wrote: "I think that the ideology of the [NYT] columnists is apparent - it is blatant on the op-ed page, and it is at the very least highly visible on the front page." One, of course the ideology of the columnists is apparent; it's just not apparent to me that it's that liberal, and if you say it is, I'm going to need examples. Here are today's (June 15) op-ed pieces:

1) Pressing Pakistan to enforce human rights
2) Supporting public broadcasting
3) Developing genetically modified crops in poor countries
4) Fairness in sentencing of drug criminals in CT
5) Thomas Friedman on Iraq--he thinks we can win, but that we need a clear strategy
6) Stacy Schiff on the blurring of fact and fiction in the Da Vinci code, and how it's hurting us
7) Andrew Vacchs on the Michael Jackson trial

Ideological? Sure--for freedom (Thomas Friedman), truth (Stacy Schiff), and fairness. Who's not ideological?

3) Why would universal healthcare be disastrous? Make it competitive. Run it like a business. It's still a "government" program, just as the defense industry and the defense contractors are government.

At 10:14 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

If it’s okay, I would like to bring the issue back to national parks as a way of bringing clarity to the issue of privatization in general. redhurt and anonymous Heritage intern seem to champion privatization for the simple reason that it is more efficient. The problem is that this argument, like most “Conservative” arguments, hinges on the assumption that we want public spaces (and services) to be run efficiently and that inefficiency serves no purpose except fiscal burden. In the case of parks, it also assumes that efficiency doesn’t compromise something of the nature of public parks. The problem, of course, is that “Conservatives” are totally wrong. The way societies order and maintain public space gives great insight into those cultural ideals that have the most purchase in that society. So this really gets down to what we think the nature of public spaces is. Are they burdens on the communal pocketbook - that serve no real purpose or don’t point to any larger goal - that could easily be made profitable (another curious given in the “Conservative” argument) if only we operated them correctly; or are they untouchable spaces, set outside the reach of private interests as a way of promoting the highest ideals of democracy - that no one interest has voice above any other in the public forum, no matter how much they own? It strikes me as profoundly un-civic and un-democratic to commodify public space through privatization, especially in the name of efficiency. Democracy isn’t about efficient operation that leads to lower taxes in order to maximize individual purchasing power; it’s about equity, principle, virtue, citizenship, and so forth. I think that has been the historical position of Americans (particularly its great statesmen and founders), anyway, and it has certainly been the position of classical democratic societies. So, rather than writing off inefficiency (and those spaces and services that rely on inefficiency), let’s think about the fact that the authors of our Constitution were very purposive in the profound inefficiency that they required of a federal government. Let’s think about what are goals for a society really are. Just a thought...

At 10:14 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

PS – I deliberately omitted any environmental concerns – which are huge in this case – from the national park debate, mostly because “Conservatives” don’t give a damn about it. Unfortunately, environmental responsibility isn’t profitable and doesn’t maximize individual freedom.

At 10:24 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

From what I understand, Carlton's fears are completely un-founded. Conservatives don't want to sell the public parks to Motorola. We just want to be sure that the maintenance of the park is being done in the best manner possible, which we believe includes an efficient maintenance program which in turn requires competition for the maitnenance contracts.

Here in the US, I don't know a single trash service that isn't privitized already. We've never had government agencies working our waste removal, and our dumpsters are completely devoid of billboards. They're the same bastions of aesthetic waste retention they've always been.

Conservatives in the US are NOT pushing to privitize government property but rather government porograms - they're never advocating "corporate ownership." It's about using tax money in efficient ways by introducing competition and market rather than allowing monopolistic government agencies free reign to abuse public funds.

It sounds like that ISN'T the way it works in Canada, if they can do things like prevent you from reading poetry in public open spaces. And that's absurd - conservatives in the US would never want that, and it goes completely against the ideal of efficiently providing services that don't impinge on personal freedoms, which is what conservatives in the US want.

At 10:40 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

But by making public spaces a commodity than can be bid on by private for-profit entities, you are fundamentally changing the nature of a public space as something that some individual (or in this case, some corporation) has more stake in than someone else. Which is exactly opposite of the purpose of public spaces in the first place. Selling public space aside, by introducing competition for profit over the maintenance of public spaces, we have compromised the identity and ideology of having public spaces.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

j. morgan, you've brought an interesting perspective to the discussion, but I think you're significantly confused. You seem to harbor the notion that conservatives want to take public parks away - this idea is absolutely untenable and manifestly not the case. There's certainly an element in the far right that sees everything in fiscal terms and dislikes the "waste of space" that public parks represent to them, but it's not the mainstream, and it's nothing that the anonymouse or I were advocating, contrary to what you've implied.

What conservatives want is to see those parks maintained well. We don't want to have to pay $25/hr to create a government organization to administer trash removal from the parks when private industries exist who will do a better job at less expense. I want public parks and outdoor spaces maintained and protected - not deforested or mined or depopulated - and I think we've done a good job of it so far.

And public parks really have nothing to do with this discussion other than that apparently in Canada they're being run poorly. Here in the US, Conservatives are not complaining about the misadministration of public parks. It's areas like welfare and health care that conservatives want to see the same sort of competitive democratic principles applied.

Inefficiency is often a matter of perspective, as you point out in your closing remarks. The governmental system of checks and balances instituted by our constitution is horribly inefficient for passing quick legislature, but amazingly efficient at preventing dictatorship or the abuse of power. Conservatives don't want to see people abused or freedoms lost in the name of efficiency; quite the opposite, they believe that society can be organized to provide for the needy and protect the environment without monopolizing those efforts. The checks and balances introduced by free-market are far closer to our system of Government envisioned by the founders than a monolithic dictatorship of bureaucracy.

At 10:53 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

What is the identity and ideology of public spaces?

Again, no conservative is trying to take public parks away from you. It's not an area they feel needs more privitized than it already is, so I think it'd be best if you'd let it go here. No one is trying to sell your public space.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

redhurt: you are misunderstanding me. Commodifying parks does not mean selling the land (i.e. the physical park) to a private corporation necessarily; it also means selling a contract to operate, maintain, or otherwise serve the park needs. In so doing, those services tied to the park itself become commodities that businesses vie for in order to make money. So, as a citizen driving through Yosemite National Park, when I see Coca-Cola machines at rest stops, Waste Management dumpsters at camp sites, or Exxon pumps to fuel park vehicles – even though the park is owned by the US Government - I am continually reminded that I am not in a space that is free from private interest (e.g. the interest of a corporation to make money on their brand). I am continually reminded that we are not all equals here, that some are making money because I am participating in public space. To answer your question about the ideology and identity of public spaces, I would quote my original post: “untouchable spaces, set outside the reach of private interests as a way of promoting the highest ideals of democracy - that no one interest has voice above any other in the public forum, no matter how much they own” as my understanding of the identity of public spaces. To define it, though, I would say it is the ideologies that validate the existence of public spaces and the goals/ideals that are pointed to by the way in which those spaces are operated. And to reiterate, I would say that the national park issue is important because a) it was the content of the paper mentioned in the NYT article that spawned the original post, b) because, as you have already noted, the national parks are already significantly privatized, and c) it is a clearer example of privatization than healthcare or SS. All I am saying is that by letting private corporations bid on contracts to fulfill services for profit, we are fundamentally changing the nature of those services from civic to fiscal. That’s it. Parks are just an example, and not a bad one. Hopefully that clears up any misunderstandings.

At 11:31 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

Yes it did - thanks very much for clarifying. I completely agree with you here. I don't want Coke trucks or waste trucks or gas pumps in private spaces. But aren't some of these necessary? I mean, for instance, we don't want people deficating wherever they please in our outdoor spaces, so we put in portable bathrooms and haev to service them. We also know that without trash cans people will litter (some will anyway), so many of our parks contain these.

As an aside, I wonder if maybe Ayn Rand's ideal could serve here - that when done properly, man's influence on the environment can serve to make it more beautiful and more perfect rather than detracting from it? That we could might some how make bathrooms and trash cans that didn't detract from the beauty of our surroundings, but rather enhanced it. What say you?

As a conservative, the issue I was aruging for in privitization was who would do the servicing - not whether the servicing could be removed altogether. In places where we can have parks without trash cans and bathrooms, I'm all for it. I love the back parts of the Rockies here in Colorado because it's untouched and uncontrolled in just that way - the last thing I want is a coke machine in the middle of any mountain.

So I agree with you - keep open spaces open; they're not there to make a profit from. Yet to what extent we must maintain and control them, let us operate such industry in a way that encourages efficiency and quality in the work being done.

At 10:34 AM, Blogger Chaos Rabbitt said...

WOW!!!! Non bias in a New Yor Times artical. We truly are all going to die.

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I may have posted this too late and missed out on the fray... but here goes.

One important aspect left out of this discussion is that public places are often abused in ways that privately held places aren't. Specifically, private ownership usually hinders the kind of exploitation people worry about. This is even a principle brought up by the prof in my otherwise liberal economics classes. A few examples to illustrate my point-
1) Public beaches and or National Parks (not that I'm advocating private ownership of Yellowstone... yet)- ever stick around till the end of a day at a public beach? You would not believe the amount of litter, etc left all over. People who visit private beaches on the other hand, have a vested interest in keeping the place as pristine as possible and pick up after themselves.
2) Timber Tracts- What is the difference between timber farming in the US and Canada as opposed to clear cutting the rainforests? Timber tracts are privately held assets in which the owners take care to harvest slowly enough and replant quickly enough to avoid the kind of enviornmental disasters that plague clear cut forests. Rainforests on the other hand are owned by the government, causing those who care little for them to clear cut in a race to see who can extract the most out of them, without any kind or replanting. More land has been allowed to revert back to its natural state while being set aside for public use by conservation groups in the last century than by government.

While I'm not advocating the selling of old growth forest to timber companies, a lot of public land could be long term leased to private corporations- a win win situation. Hell, this might be counterproductive to the rest of my argument, but I wouldn't mind visiting "Microsoft presents Yellowstone National Park" if it means that the sanctity of the park is preserved. I'll pay admission (which I believe you do anyway for some national parks) if it means someone is cleaning up the cigarette butts and broken bottles.

On a personal note, I've littered like mad on the road- but I've never failed to pick up a piece of garbage if it blows into my yard.


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