Monday, March 7, 2005

Private Parts

William Raspberry on the perils of privatizing.

Remember the gag about “the three biggest lies”? They were: “The check is in the mail,” “Of course I’ll respect you in the morning” and — the punch line — “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.”

Maybe it’s time to add a fourth: “We’re from the private sector, so naturally we’ll do it better.”

This last “biggest lie” has become a conservative mantra, a mystical incantation repeated not so much to explain as to make explanations unnecessary. Of course the private market will do it better — whether the “it” is cleaning city streets, funding Social Security or staffing prisons.

Somebody got the bright idea that the private sector would do a better job managing health care for prison inmates. The New York Times, which undertook a year-long examination of one such company, Prison Health Services, reported several cases of inadequate — sometimes fatally inadequate — medical treatment of inmates and detainees because the private company had cut staff and services in an effort to keep costs down and protect its multimillion-dollar contracts.

A jail medical director, for example, cut off all but a few of the 32 pills a Parkinson’s sufferer had been taking to keep his tremors under control. The patient-inmate died.

Stories abound of similar abuses in prisons operated by private companies — many of them the result of attempts to hold down costs and boost profits.

The point is not that public correctional facilities are perfect — only the foolishness of imagining that privatizing improves them.


And yet people keep looking to privatization to improve everything from education (remember Chris Whittle’s Edison Project?) to drug safety (leaving it to private lawsuits to drive dangerous medicines off the shelves).

Having worked in both the public and private sector, I find it ironic to see that governmantal agenices are trying to take on the best aspects of the private sector – improving customer service, for example – and the private sector trying to provide public services. At some point there will be a convergence and… we’ll be back where we started.