Sunday, January 25, 2015

Government Is Not a Business

Each of us has unexamined beliefs that started in childhood. It can't be helped. One of mine is the belief that we're all better off when we pool resources to provide for common goods.

I first encountered a person who didn't believe that while working in student government as an undergraduate. This was right around 1980, as Reagan was rising to power. I was shocked that this guy thought the way he did, but assumed he was misguided. (I looked him up recently, and guess what his job is? Lawyer. Big shock.)

After living through the Reagan years (several of them up close and personal while living in Washington, D.C.), I was less surprised. Graduate school found me participating in student groups at the University of Minnesota, including allocating the mandatory student fee, which funds health care, student recreation, student government, and budgets for a smattering of other student groups.

Once again, I encountered students (more numerous by this time) who basically didn't believe in common funding for common problems. I remember discussing this essential difference of world view with another advocate for the student fee. The idea of shared costs was so obvious to us that it was hard for us to defend it.

Recently on Twitter, I watched a tweet storm unfold from attorney Alan Mills of Chicago. He's the good kind of lawyer; he runs the Uptown People's Law Center, which represents poor tenants and people who are getting screwed over (outside the criminal courts). He started tweeting in reaction to an article about Illinois's new governor, Bruce Rauner, who has promised to run Illinois "like a business."

That promise felt very similar to my earlier run-ins with people who couldn't see the value of funding government services with common money.

Mills put it this way (storified here):

In the end, a business is about generating a profit; government is about making people's lives easier. Businesses are hierarchical; there is a clear chain of command from owner to management to employees. Power in government is diffuse -- "checks and balances." Legislature, governor, judges are all independent.

Illinois has huge financial problems. Gov. Rauner highlighted these in his campaign, and successfully blamed incumbent(s) but offered no solution. Instead, he promised not to touch health care, and to increase funding for education.

Realities are that pensions (which the court ruled untouchable), education and healthcare account for 75% of budget at the same time! And he promised to CUT taxes. These promises simply do not add up -- they're mathematically impossible.

So, Rauner cannot have meant what he said to get elected. What he actually intends to do remains a mystery. What we know is that his history is the private sector, and privatizing government services is the hot trend. But I believe privatization is a false solution, and ultimately hurts the worst off.

My biggest fear is that he views government through that private sector lens -- and will judge success by profit.
Thanks to Alan Mills for formulating my thoughts for me.

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