Friday, October 11, 2019

California Is Burning: One More Argument Against Privatizing Education

California is burning, even as California is dark, its people trying to survive a manmade nightmare.

PG&E, never America's most favorite utility behemoth, has made a hash of things. To save a buck here and there, the power company cut back on some necessary maintenance, but that-- plus a dry season-- has led to almost a dozen catastrophic fires, which have been followed by some hefty lawsuits, which has now been followed by the company shutting off the power for millions of residents (including folks dependent on medical equipment).

2017: This image always gets me because I was once right there
on that exact piece of road.
This is, to repeat, not some kind of unforeseeable disaster, but a systematic program by corporate chiefs to do less maintenance so that they could make more money.

And it's not like this is an isolated incident.

Let me pause for a moment to say that I don't hate capitalism. There are some things that it's very good at, and I'm not ready to throw it out. But if left unattended in the hand so of scruple-impaired men, it can start to do some Very Bad Things.

Take the Boeing 737 Max. The plane crashed multiple times dues to features that were par of a  concentrated effort to cut corners. It was a management problem, not an engineering problem. But it is now looking like it will be a hard one to come back from (not unlike the difficulty in coming back for the people the planes killed).

But if nobody's careful, the engineers will ultimately lose. 

Steve Jobs is just one of the people to have laid out how this happens. The basic sequence looks like this. Acme Widget Company starts with a new idea for how to make a better widget. It enters the market, and through excellence in design, it captures a hefty market share. The widget engineers run the company. But eventually that only gets so much of the widget market, so the company starts hiring high-powered marketing guys to increase market share or grow the market into new places. Now the sales department runs the company. One other critical event occurs-- the company goes public and with that changes its purpose. It no longer exists to make and sell widgets; it now exists to maximize stockholder value. So now the company calls on Beanus Maximus-- the bean counters who can find new ways to squeeze money out of the company. Cut wages. Cut staff. Cut benefits. Cut materials costs. Cut procedures, even safety procedures. And keep doing it, because it's never good enough to do as good a job as you did yesterday.

And so Beanus Maximus cuts and trims and cuts some more and giant jets slam into the ground and California burns in the dark.

That's not all. The "retail apocalypse" that has taken down stores like Sears and Toys R Us is not simply about bricks being outplayed by It's about manager and hedge fundies and private equity firms strip mining all the value out of the chains, until they are too broke to maintain a level of quality and service, until they are too hollowed out to be limber and competitive. 

Call it late stage capitalism or a moral and ethical crisis of management. Call it what you like, but ask yourself if it belongs anywhere near institutions that are entrusted with the public good. Privatizing things like water and parking have not worked out well for many municipalities for precisely this reason-- the companies involved are run from a world away and see nothing but a spread sheet. 

Is there a solution? I don't know, and I think about this a lot as I've watched my own small county suffer from the effects. Make every CEO live within ten miles of the widget factory he runs, because I think the biggest problem with the wealth gap is that it has allowed the super-rich movers and shakers to turn the meat widgets and worker bees into abstractions, not real live humans. 

Every time I hear someone say that schools would work better if they were spurred by free market competition, I want to ask, "Have you actually seen what that kind of competition is doing to the country lately?" It is not excellent that companies have figured out how to get away with paying less-than-living wages. It is not excellent that most citizens live one health crisis away from financial ruin.  It is not excellent to come up with a really elegant system that chews up human beings. And it is especially not excellent that the Acme Widget Company ends up creating neither good-paying jobs nor top quality widgets. 

I don't want to see these kinds of forces turned loose in the world of education, nor do I want to see education shackled and twisted to work in service to these forces, reduced to nothing more than human capital production. 

I know that I will hear from some of my more progressive friends-- capitalism is inherently evil and awful and all you can do is hope to get rid of it. Personally, I'm not there yet. It doesn't have to be this way, and there are certainly companies where it isn't. But in its current state, it doesn't belong anywhere near schools-- particularly when it's been brought there by the same Beanus Maximus hedge fundies that are making a hash out of everything else, blithely cutting corners and making excuses while planes slam into the ground and California burns in the dark. 


  1. Yup, well said.

    It's not as if this is a new understanding. I remember growing up knowing that some other cultures and even institutional companies valued, say, social opprobrium or community morals. You do not have to structure a society on maximizing wealth. But we have been at this for so long that we know no other way.

    Yet we are seeing now the implosion of this ideology, unchecked. Antitrust laws were supposed to halt that runaway monopolization degeneracy. But we seem to have added removal of any regulation to our brand of capitalism and like those planes, our economy seems headed for the ground at 600mph too.

    "Business is business and business must grow, regardless of crummies in tummies you know".

    Dr. Seuss is unfashionable these days for his reverence of fascism, as I understand it. But it's complicated. I think the "balances" part of these equations is critical, and the system itself is secondary to the corrective measures. I'm no political scientist. But the experiment we're doing here does seem to be pretty poorly working out.

    1. Dr. Seuss was VERY anti-fascist, actually. His political cartoons in PM during World War II show that. He has some racist blindspots, but he certainly didn't "reverence fascism." Here's a link to his cartoons if you want to see more:

  2. The problem is a privatized government service has profits it can use to not only bribe politicians to give them more contracts and less oversight, but also to mount PR campaigns to sell the public on how much better they do it than a purely government program.

    Non-profits with government contracts have the same advantage since they are often shell companies that hire for-profits to do the actual work, and they donate to that PR effort.

    A well-run efficient government program doesn't have that slush to sell itself.

    Very often, if there are problems with a fully government run program, politicians intentionally created them, so they could point at them later to show the "need" for contractors to fill the void they created or take over the function altogether.

    This is the kind of stuff that should be taught in civics

  3. As a capitalist, I believe more options are better than fewer options, and any monopoly is a bad idea. Therefore, private education is best when offered side by side with public education. And vice versa. Parents should have the option of where to send their kids. Capitalism works in retail, shipping, manufacturing, and many other areas. Unscrupulous men and women exist in the public sphere too, so I appreciate having options about where I spend my money. Nobody beats the Post Office for mailing a letter at a low price, but UPS and FedEx are better for many packages with higher priorities on timing of delivery. As with anything, oversight is necessary to ensure those with fewer scruples are kept in check. In the public sphere that’s done through voting. In private, it’s done through regular inspections.

  4. PG&E is your example of bad capitalism? The same PG&E which is practically a monopoly thanks to government intervention? Government granted monopolies / oligopolies are not capitalism. Energy is one of the most regulated and monopolized industries going back over 100 years.

    In fact every industry that are politically hot topics are heavily regulated. Finance, energy, telecom, medical, education. Calling any of that "free market" or "capitalism" shows a gross ignorance in the meaning of those terms or the facts of the matter.