The Problem of Privatizing the Public Good

The Problem of Privatizing the Public Good

There are some extraordinary conversations happening between members of our community regarding the onslaught of changes brought on by the Trump administration. Naturally, there is much consternation over the administration’s goals for agencies like the EPA and what that means for the field of Environmental Studies and Sciences. In that view, I am almost dazzled by the rapid fire of bad news coming out of DC. I often find myself struggling to figure out what to do. Amidst all this, one thing I keep coming back to is infrastructure. Or more specifically, water infrastructure.

USDA Photo by Lance Cheung, Flint Michigan, source

If you are someone who pays attention to water, environmental justice, cities, or their interconnections, this is probably on your mind too. Most people know something about Flint, Michigan. The now infamous case (falling off the radar a bit these days; the investigation was recently closed and water discounts will end later this month) raises the spectre of both our crumbling infrastructure and the politics of our institutions and technologies. On the former point, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) most recent report card grade’s the nation’s infrastructure at a D+, or in poor condition. The ASCE report suggests it would take $3.6 trillion to get this infrastructure up-to-speed by 2020. Our water infrastructure, in particular, tells this story. Examples abound of old pipes that result in elevated lead levels in drinking water, the costly need to prevent sewage from spilling into our waterways, or dams and bridges that have reached the end of their useful lives. Just last month in Pittsburgh, where I conducted research on green infrastructure, half the city residents were advised to boil their drinking water. All of these examples demonstrate that we are on the razor’s edge of nation-wide public and environmental health disasters. The nearly 200,000 people evacuated from near the Oroville Dam suggests we have already gone over that edge.

But perhaps the more important issue is the politics of our institutions and technologies. In other words, our politics shape the strategies we deem the most appropriate for solving environmental problems. So, we may all agree that water is important or infrastructure needs fixing, but how we do it is where we often split apart. Let’s take, for example, the politics behind President Trump’s infrastructure proposal. At this point, it is light on specifics, but it follows two well-tread approaches of incentivizing private investment in public infrastructure (privatization) and loosening of regulatory oversight (deregulation).

A deeper look into Pittsburgh’s recent water issues provides some insight into the problems created by a privatization/deregulation approach to solving public challenges. The simple story often links the recent boil advisory to old pipes, a couple of bad management decisions, and an unfortunate confluence of events. (Not unlike the story we hear about Flint.) But a more in depth look reveals the privatization ideology at play. Four years ago, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) – a public utility poorly run and in debt – brought in the private firm Veolia to manage the agency. The idea behind this public/private merger was that Veolia would be incentivized to run PWSA efficiently because they would take home 50% of every dollar they made. The result was high executive director salaries, a gutting of staff, increased customer rates, and high levels of lead. The problem here is that private and public interests didn’t overlap neatly. Veolia was incentivized to cut costs and bring in higher profits. But the public good suffered when those strategies did not result in effective water delivery.

Pittsburgh by Dean Sorensen, cc license, source

Dismantling the institutions that provide regulatory oversight is the other side of the privatization/deregulation coin. It is clear that the Trump administration’s plan is to curtail our environmental and public health agencies, weaken regulatory oversight, and limit our social safety nets. We hear this in the familiar refrain, “job-killing regulations” (which isn’t exactly true). From this perspective, private interests can avoid the red tape and ostensibly work more efficiently. But, here again, do we assume private interests will take on the government’s role of protecting our common good? Or will these firms be motivated by their own financial interests? How will individuals recoup their losses when injured by the bad decisions of a company? What institutions will keep the companies in check? Do we just hope they will self-regulate?

The point I am trying to make is that our public utilities, infrastructure, institutions, and the like, are motivated by protecting the common good. They don’t run like businesses, nor should they. Are they complicated, bureaucratic, and problematic? Sure. But that is the nature of working towards equitable outcomes for hundreds of thousands of diverse people. It is complicated. Put another way, what, for example, would motivate private firms to work in impoverished rural or urban communities where the need is high but the incentive is low? Private firms may work efficiently when building golf courses in NYC, but not so much for equitably upgrading the nation’s infrastructure.

President Trump’s ideas for improving our nation’s infrastructure are basically giant tax incentives for private interests. But if constituencies want to demand a different approach, we should talk about opportunity. And infrastructure presents an opportunity. There are potentially decades of jobs in store for the design, implementation, and maintenance of infrastructure. If we avoid drastically deregulating our environmental and public health agencies, or dismantling our social safety nets, these will be good paying and safe middle class jobs. Further, with some creativity, this effort can lead to more sustainable and resilient communities, a key objective in the face of climate change. So, my charge to President Trump is to focus on these opportunities and use his bully pulpit to propose an infrastructure plan that serves the common good.