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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Mayor Richard M. Daley, of whom I am a shameful, often sycophantic apologist, wants to privatize the Skyway. In the name, of course, of efficiency. Let successful businesses handle it, for Chrissakes -- they're successful!

People say that we should assume a base intelligence in the people who achieve success -- besides, they're there, and we aren't. And yet, so many of the people in power -- and many people who have achieved success in business and politics are, in fact, idiots.

As I've grown and come into contact with more and more politicians and people in power, it has become increasingly clear that many of the so-called "movers and shakers," the people who make important decisions that effect in instances millions of people, can often be pretty dumb. There is no greater evidence of this, for me, than this insane drive towards "privatization," the supposed savior of -- well, of everything.

It is true that often, government is corrupt. Especially here in Chicago. We know how things get done, even to this day -- graft, nepotism, favors, political pandering. However, this mantra of "corrupt, wasteful government," has so taken hold in our national discourse that rhetoric has passed through some substantiating gateway so now people assume that everything the government does is inefficient and wasteful, always. Everything. "Those politicians," people say with a wink, "you know…" No, I don't know. And you know what? The government is good at stuff. How about the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation? They're good at that. Or printing money. I'm sure our lovely staff librarian, Alice Maggio, would have some good things to say about the public library system. And then, of course, there is that pet project of tax-and-spend liberals everywhere, "rural electrification."

Yet people, even supposedly populist Democrats, clap their ears and repeat the mantra that if business were allowed to run things, they would be run better. Democrats fear nothing more than the phrase "government-run-" prefixed to anything they support. It is to this end that Mayor Daley recently proposed privatizing the Chicago Skyway to defray maintenance costs and be content merely skimming tax revenue (all the while the City Council's and Mayor's friends are gleefully sticking up the corporation with recommended contractors and consulting fees). The assumption is that it will take a huge cost away from the city and be run better anyway since the all-healing, all-knowing Private Sector will be handling it.

Of course, the Mayor knows exactly what he's doing: pulling a cash cow out of nowhere, creating a new source for patronage, and passing the cost along to those hayseeds in Indiana or wherever that actually drive on the dreaded Skyway. Brilliant move! Won't cost Chicagoans a dime, and the benefits are aplenty.

Fair enough. But it points to a dangerous trend of privatization that politicians, in an attempt to make sure they have as little responsibility as possible for anything our society does, have latched onto since the Reagan Era. Rather than operating something within the public sector, where service, not profit, is the main concern, they give big business yet another publicly-subsidized handout and spit-shine it with the drippings of the salivating leisure class as "efficiency."

Look at Renaissance 2010, the Mayor's ludicrous plan to create a more "efficient" public school system by partially privatizing it and eliminating the unions which functionally grant public teachers a civil service protection that reduces the tendencies towards patronage. Privatizing schools doesn't work: it just doesn't. The bottom will fall out eventually, because when education is run as a business and the bottom line is more important than the product produced, corners will be cut, confidence will be undermined and the temptation of corruption will increase. Don't believe me? Ask those fortunate parents in California, who benefited so gloriously from the benevolence of The Market when 60 recently privatized charter schools went bust and just stopped operating. Kaput. No schools for your kids! Good thing the Walton Foundation makes home schooling kits (owned by -- guess who? The same people who support privatization!) so available!

Early in our republic's industrial history, everything was privatized. The business of the American people is business, so let business get busy curing all of our business-y problems. A great example? Chicago's public transit system. Originally, of course, it wasn't public transit. It was crappy transit. The city granted franchises to speculators and clouted magnates and investors (humanitarians like Charles Yerkes and Albert Harris of Harris Bank) who built shoddy, competing rail systems that were redundant and not very safe and prone to, you know, failing when ridership dipped and securities holders tried to dump their shares. I know, I know: very sad for the investors. But you know who was even sadder? The millions of people who depended on public transport to get to work to "feed their families" and "pay their mortgages" or whatever it is that poor people without cars do.

The reason we entrust certain endeavors to the government is that we want them to have only one purpose: to serve the public good. To serve us. To operate with the sole purpose of operating. That's it. When personal profit is involved, what is going to be cut first in rough times? CEO salaries? Stock dividends? Wasteful subcontracts to satellite businesses? Nope, nope, nope. "Services." The pay of the people actually doing the work. In other words, what the public gets is cut or degraded, because it is a private enterprise with one purpose only: to enrich the people operating it.

Wait, I just thought of something else that privatization cured with the exacting, ruthless efficiency of the private sector. You may not remember this, but there used to be a time when The Government…no, wait. Even better: The GOVERNMENT of Chicago "bought" "trucks" and had them go out and do "work" like hauling waste or transporting people and materials to work sites. Feh! Stupid program. You know what happened? Well, things like trucks are what those paragons of integrity, corporate accountants, call "depreciating assets." So every year, the GOVERNMENT had to show in its budgets all these assets (the trucks) that lost more and more value each and every year. Why would you buy anything that lost value every year!? Stupid government! Thank God there was a solution: We'll privatize it, hand it off to those heady young efficiency warriors in the private sector, and we'll keep those depreciating assets off of our books, and the trucks will be swift, the workers fleet of foot like woodland creatures. We'll call them -- we'll call them -- yes! -- Hired Trucks!

We should wish the institution educating our children were as efficient as that gem!

Can't wait until we get that cumbersome government-run "Social Security" disaster privatized.

Although the privatizing of the Skyway is a neat trick and probably not too detrimental to the public good of Chicagoans, it is still ominous. At the rate government has taken to giving favors to the leisure class and/or campaign contributors by privatizing everything, the only logical conclusion is that in ten years, Chicago's City Council will privatize itself.

Really, it isn't that silly. Everybody knows our aldermen are corrupt! They can't get stuff done without bickering and "debating," without succumbing to the "will of the people," and all those inefficient things. So, let's privatize it. We'll call it, oh I don't know, the Schmity Schmouncil. One year, after the election, the government will contract some think tank to write laws, to be approved by the CEO, and the aldermen will spend a lot of time in their ward offices playing solitaire and telling constituents to "Take it up with their Shmalderman," which will be their privatized counterpart. The elected officials' sole duty each year will be to meet on May 1st, introduce an ordinance to renew the Schmity Schmouncil's franchise, and then they'll head over to the Red Head Piano Bar and see how many quarters in a row Ed Burke (14th) can bounce into Virginia Rugai's (19th) glass, while Latasha Thomas (17th) and William J.P. Banks (36th) try to get Burt Natarus (42nd) to do a Concrete Mixer shot. Mayor Daley will be leaning against the piano, a ginger ale-and-ice in his hand, singing "My Kind of Town," in that endearing alto voice of his, while Dany Solis (25th) and William Beavers (7th) ironically wave their Bic lighters back and forth.

Look, I'm a capitalist. I believe in the market. I know of and support plenty of "market-solutions" to public problems. But I also know my taxes are really a "civilization fee," and that sacrificing a bit of efficiency for a publicly-accountable, non-profit driven endeavor does not make us Communists. It makes us civilized.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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