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Federal: Editorial about privatization.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
November 17, 2002


FOR MONTHS, President George W. Bush swore that his demand for authority to hire and fire workers at the Department of Homeland Security had everything to do with national security and nothing to do with union-busting. In fact, Mr. Bush won a big mid-term election victory by portraying Democrats as weak on security and beholden to unions.

Then, one day after Democrats said uncle on homeland security, the White House announced plans to privatize up to half the federal work force -- 850,000 workers. The president's in-your-face decision makes his denials of union-busting ring hollow. The decision is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's campaign to bust the air traffic controllers' union.

Fundamental philosophical differences in the role of government are involved in this debate. Conservatives generally think of government as a necessary evil that should be as small as possible and run like a business. If the government can save money by privatizing janitors, lawn-trimmers and mine inspectors, so much the better. Liberals, on the other hand, see government as an instrument of social betterment. The lack of a profit motive allows government to do what is just for the people. It's good to pay a government lawn-trimmer $10 per hour, when a private worker could do it for $6, because the lawn-trimmer deserves a decent wage.

All of this plays into the debate about the national budget. Saving money by privatizing workers, the Bush administration says, will slow the growth of the deficit. But why should the budget be balanced on the backs of janitors when the GOP is doling out big tax cuts to the wealthy?

Some privatization may make sense. ADP can probably run the payrolls of government behemoths more cheaply and efficiently than government workers.

But there are government functions that should never be privatized. America doesn't want a mercenary army, like the French Foreign Legion. Health and safety inspectors should not work for private industry. Law enforcement -- the FBI, prisons, prosecutors -- always should have justice as their motive, not the bottom line.

We saw what happened when airlines ran baggage security as a low-cost operation. Medicare also is more efficient than the Byzantine system of private health insurance we now have. Private prisons and prison doctors often have provided substandard services without direct public accountability.

The Bush plan has two other problems. One is that private workers who want to blow the whistle on wrongdoing won't have job protection. If Donald Sweeney -- the Corps of Engineers economist here who challenged the figures on Mississippi River construction projects -- had worked for private industry, he'd be out
on the street. The other, much bigger, problem is politics. The Bush proposal weakens a basic principle of government contracting: The job goes to the lowest qualified bidder. Without that, government contracting is susceptible to becoming political payola.

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