Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pilfering public assets

While traffic flow in Maine continues to increase and sprawl has only acerbated the issue, there is no comparison between driving in Maine and driving in the Chicagoland area.

Not only are the roads of northwestern Indiana and the greater Chicago area choked with cars and Big Scary Trucks (BST’s), but road construction, exorbitant tolls and in a case that hearkens back to the highwaymen of yesteryear, Governor Mitch Daniels (a supporter of President Bush) has privatized the Indiana Toll Road (I-80/90), which runs east/west across the northern part of the state. Indiana isn’t alone in selling off its public assets to private investors. The Chicago Skyway, once considered a white elephant by politicians in Springfield, is now considered a valuable enough asset that a foreign consortium spent $1.8 billion for the eight-mile stretch of pavement that is considered a shortcut to Chicago’s Loop.

Initially, the bid offered by the Cintra-Macquerie consortium, was considered extravagant by experts in the transportation community. However, when depreciation benefits of $300-400 million associated with the 99-year lease are factored in, as well as the recent refinancing of the Skyway for $1.4 billion, it appears that Cintra-Macquerie had done their homework.

"It's like putting a huge down payment on your house to secure the deal quickly so you can get in. Then you go and refinance it, so you can pull some money out," said Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, a public policy group that promotes libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law. (according to their website)

While Reason publicizes their work as non-partisan, their primary purpose seems to be the dismantling of government by promoting the privatization of public assets. They are fans of the privatization policies of “pioneers” such as Margaret Thatcher and the right-wing Daniels, who from what I can see, has turned the Hoosier State entirely over to business interests without much regard to people, or place.

My return to Indiana was predicated by my own involvement with fundamentalist Xianity, some 20 years prior. Interestingly, much of what I experienced firsthand in Hoosierville was still being dictated by a fundamentalist mindset—the ideology of “free market fundamentalism.”

We are living in a time when the drumbeat of the free market crowd drowns out any other discussion when it comes to public assets. Just like the fundamentalists of the religious persuasion, these economic fundamentalists hold up privatization in the same way that the right-wing Xian crowd hold up the virgin birth and the inerrancy of scripture. Question it and you shut down any hope of meaningful dialogue.

It is a rare opportunity to hear any contrary opinions and thoughts from the other side and most Americans no longer recognize that men of wisdom, people like noted author and journalist, the late Walter Lippmann, issued caveats to the market fundamentalists of his own day, when he reminding them that there is a need for both private and public enterprise in our country. For men like Lippman, wisdom always consisted in finding the right balance between the two.

More and more, ordinary Americans, far removed from the corridors of power, see firsthand, the emptiness and economic fallout that free market fanatics and their gospel of privatization wreak. While corporate America tries to extract maximum profit from every enterprise, at the peril of the people that live in the communities being paved over, and corporatized, it’s high time the inhabitants of these places begin to fight back, before all of their assets are stolen from them.

Here is a good article about how ordinary citizens can step up to the plate and make sure that they have a say in the well-being of their communities.

One area where citizens can make some "noise" is in the arena of local broadband, an increasingly important public asset, making sure this isn’t high jacked by corporate interests. Municipal broadband is an option for many communities and could be a viable alternative for rural areas of Maine that are underserved by Verizon and other communication giants.

Additionally, the BusinessWeek article, “Roads to Riches” is a good place to start for an understanding of why the investment community views public assets as the next place to put their money and why we all need to pay closer attention to attempts by our so-called public servants to privatize public services.

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