25 October 2007 |
In the city whose great symbols of freedom are barricaded and defended by armed guards, it should be no surprise that our local Boy Scouts chapter is called the Cradle of Liberty. Nothing against the Scouts per se — scoutmaster Richard Bank tells me about terrific weekends canoeing and storytelling — but according to official Scout policy, if you’re gay or don’t believe in God you’re not allowed to join. Now the Cradle of Liberty’s internal contradictions have put it opposition to the city’s official anti-discrimination policy.
Presently the Cradle pays the city $1 a year to occupy the Logan Square building the Scouts built in 1928 on city-owned land — the point being, of course, that the services the Scouts provide are a public good. Now following a May City Council action authorizing the city to cancel the lease and using a federal court ruling as precedent, City Solicitor Romulo Diaz Jr. raised the Scouts’ annual rent to $200,000.
The Scout reaction — “The real victims here are the 40,000 kids in Philadelphia who potentially could lose afterschool programs at a time when Philadelphia’s murder rate is soaring” — sounds familiar. It’s the same threat we hear from developers and corporate officials who expect government to sweeten every deal with tax cuts and subsidies, zoning exceptions and environmental safeguards waivers. Otherwise, they say, we won’t create those desperately needed jobs.
Usually fear works. Government caves.
This time, the city is playing Thoreau, refusing to spend our tax dollars to discriminate against members of our community. The public sector — hey, that’s really all of us — has stood up and is pushing back against a private organization with narrow interests.
That isn’t so easy to do these days.
Public policy since Reagan has embraced privatization, the notion that a private-sector firm can provide a public service more efficiently, with higher quality, and at less cost to the taxpayer than the old civil service. It was probably a necessary tool to shake up highly bureaucratic systems. Margaret Thatcher famously privatized some government services in Britain, and the effect was to lift a veil of melancholy from the nation. It was a great idea to allow government agencies to try to procure services more cheaply, to place private bids directly against the government’s actual cost. If the private firm could do better than the government, then the taxpayer would benefit.
Now a generation on, the system is flipped on its side. Government has altogether stopped providing many services. The Philadelphia Department of Recreation, for instance, doesn’t cut grass. The city doesn’t own lawn mowers anymore, nor does it pay maintenance staff. Private firms routinely charge whatever they want because they know the public sector can’t do anything about it.
Privatization comes to its shocking pinnacle in Iraq, where 630 private firms employ 180,000 people, including 48,000 mercenaries like Blackwater, to do the work the U.S. Army used to do itself. Two articles in this month’s Vanity Fair detail the extraordinary lack of oversight, gouging and waste, much of it for the direct gain of a single corporation once run by our vice president. If you’re not sure what building a $600 million embassy along the Tigris does for you, you probably don’t own stock in one of Washington’s preferred contractors, who tell the government how much to pay instead of the other way around.
Which is why solicitor Diaz’s move, though a small one, comes as a welcome sign. I wonder if it might be an early pushback. What shall we call this emerging movement — Republification? Communification? Regulatization? Whatever it is, perhaps it will spell the end of runaway privatization. And years from now, we’ll say the first shot was fired in the cradle of liberty.