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The Fire Sale of America

At a time when the corporate leaders of America have demonstrated an incurable proclivity to blaze a trail of scorched earth and looting across the banking, trading, housing, and mortgage industries, the public is now catching the whiff of a new smoldering stench just over the horizon.

If corporate America has its way, everything from our parking meters, zoos, airports, toll roads and drinking water will be privatized in the biggest fire sale in the history of the industrialized world.  In other words, let’s send a powerful message to our children that the reward for corporate greed, incompetence and criminal behavior is to hand over what’s left of the country’s assets.

The fire sale is being stoked by unprecedented state and local revenue shortfalls. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), “the worst recession since the 1930s has caused the steepest decline in state tax receipts on record…48 states have addressed or still face such shortfalls in their budgets for fiscal year 2010, totaling $178 billion…the largest gaps on record…Fiscal year 2011 gaps – both those still open and those already addressed — total $80 billion or 14 percent of budgets for the 35 states that have estimated the size of these gaps. These totals are likely to grow as revenues continue to deteriorate, and may well exceed $180 billion…These numbers suggest that when all is said and done, states will have dealt with a total budget shortfall of at least $350 billion for 2010 and 2011.”

Ironically, $350 billion is exactly half the amount the Federal government doled out to the Wall Street gang that proceeded to pay million dollar bonuses, fly staff to lush resorts, or slap logos on sports stadiums.

Here’s a rundown of what’s up for corporate grabs around the country:

Here in beautiful Southern New Hampshire, there’s a recommendation to privatize the 143 year old historic Cheshire County Farm which holds some of the most cherished open space and farm land in the state.  City kids can currently pet a cow or see an osprey or bald eagle soar with no admission fee.

Out in Green Bay, Wisconsin this week, officials tried to hold a closed door meeting to discuss privatizing the Brown County planning department. (Isn’t a key function of a planning department to police corporate interests? This sounds like the U.S. Treasury model, also known as regulatory capture.)

In Grand Rapids, Kent County commissioners are weighing a recommendation from the Sheriff, Larry Stelma, to privatize the food service at the county jail.

Following a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study at the end of October, finding it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars, the Army is backing off a plan (at least for now) to privatize carpentry, plumbing, grounds maintenance and other staff positions at West Point.

Blaine Mogil, writing on November 3, 2009 in The Pride, the independent student newspaper of California State University at San Marcos, sums up the palpable mood  there: “If the idea of a professor bidding you ‘Good morning and welcome to McUniversity, may I take your order?’ seems far-fetched, then the silent battle waged in Sacramento has not reached your mind space. It is time to awaken from political slumber and join the battle. Under attack are not only your educational opportunities, but also the future of educational opportunity for a wide swath of our friends and family on the lower levels of the socio-economic strata. This is a battle to save the California State University system from privatization…Everyone among us, struggling financially to attend this great institution, must be among the first wave to participate in preventing privatization, for if this battle is lost, we will be the first to wash away when the corporate yacht docks in our port.”

From sea to shining sea, it’s all up for corporate grabs:  the prisons of Arizona; the libraries of Nevada County, California; the Milwaukee County Zoo; the tree cutters of Detroit; the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans; a youth shelter in Cape May, New Jersey; a sewage treatment plant in Marin County, California.  The parking meters in Chicago have already been privatized.

If the ongoing hard lessons of our country’s blind trust in corporations to balance greed and profit against the greater public good cannot dissuade officials to sack these goofball plans to turn over essential government programs to the corporate profit motive, perhaps the recent example in Indiana might serve up an epiphany.

In 2006, Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana privatized the state’s welfare services, handing a $1.34 billion contract to IBM.  A computer company, engaged in gigabits and memory chips, was entrusted with getting food stamps and Medicaid and welfare payments into the hands of the hungry and the poor.  The previous Indiana system of face to face meetings with case workers was sacked for automation and call centers.  After legislators heard endless stories of life-saving prescriptions not being filled, people with less than $100 in assets not receiving food stamps in the legally mandated response time, call centers not picking up the phone or losing the calls, paperwork disappearing, together with a class action lawsuit being filed, Governor Daniels finally sacked IBM last month.

But what about the people who may have died or been injured from this abhorrent judgment call.  Should Governor Daniels be able to simply make the same sheepish admission, “I got it wrong,” like Alan Greenspan and walk away.  Hopefully, the voters will provide some accountability.

PAM MARTENS worked on Wall Street for 21 years; she has no security position, long or short, in any company mentioned in this article other than that which the U.S. Treasury has thrust upon her and fellow Americans involuntarily through TARP. She writes on public interest issues from New Hampshire. She can be reached at pamk741@aol.com

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Pam Martens has been a contributing writer at CounterPunch since 2006. Martens writes regularly on finance at www.WallStreetOnParade.com.

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