Saturday, October 9, 2010

A good look at privatization

There are currently two competing visions of governance in the United States. The conservative vision believes in the on-your-own society, no ‘village’ and no group cooperatives. This policy agenda primarily serves the well off and privileged sectors of the country. This conservative vision of utopia (touted by many of the GOP candidates in this election) is a society in which most government agencies are privatized, and unregulated free enterprise reigns supreme.

The conservative vision was on full display last week in Obion County, Tennessee. In this rural section of Tennessee, Gene Cranick’s home caught on fire. As the Cranicks fled their home, their neighbors alerted the county’s firefighters, who soon arrived at the scene. Yet when the firefighters arrived, they refused to put out the fire, saying that the family had failed to pay the annual subscription fee to the fire department. Because the county’s fire services for rural residences is based on household subscription fees, the firefighters, fully equipped to help the Cranicks, stood by and watched as the home burned to the ground!

The homeowner, Gene Cranick, said he offered to pay whatever it would take for firefighters to put out the flames, but was told it was too late. They wouldn’t do anything to stop his house from burning. Each year, Obion County residents must pay $75 if they want fire protection from the city of South Fulton. But the Cranicks did not pay. The mayor said if homeowners don’t pay, they’re out of luck.

I am surprised that the fire department was not prepared to accept payment for services. If the issue really is limited resources, then surely they would be interested in recouping the costs of having responded to the scene. The Cranicks offered to pay whatever it took to put the fire out. Why didn’t the fire department do so, and then charge as doctors or hospitals might for uninsured patients? The mayor of South Fulton said the chief could not have made an exception. “Anybody that’s not in the city of South Fulton, it’s a service we offer, either they accept it or they don’t,” Mayor David Crocker said. If homeowners do not pay, they’re out of luck.

The fire reportedly continued for hours because garden hoses would not work to put it out. When the fire spread to a neighbor’s property they responded because that neighbor had paid the fee. I am sure the firefighters on the scene who refused to put out the fire really wanted to help – some said they went home and cried later that night – but the county commission (all Republicans) and the fire department just could not escape the powerful lure of semi-privatization and market forces. They even allowed a barn full of horses burn to the ground a while back because the owner had not paid the $75. The city of South Fulton actually benefited to let a few houses burn down as an example to homeowners who will not pony up the protection money.

A local newspaper pressed Mayor Crocker about the city’s policy, which has been in place since 1990. Crocker, a Republican who was elected in 2008 and serves with a county commission in which every seat is also filled by a Republican, likened the policy to buying auto insurance. The paper said he told them that, after all, “if an auto owner allowed their vehicle insurance to lapse, they would not expect an insurance company to pay for an unprotected vehicle after it was wrecked.”

Ironically, in the county commission’s latest report on its fire services which outlines which parts of the municipal area will receive fire services only through subscriptions, the commissioners and fire service officials brag that the county is “very progressive.”

So this is what it is coming to: a far Right, to hell with the collective good and never mind about social services because we do not want to pay taxes to support them. We hear that mindset far too often these days: the only good government is no government; corporatize everything; privatize everything – Rand Paul’s biggest fantasy come true. The fiscal conservatives of Obion County, Tennessee threw out the money they spent sending the trucks out and turned their backs on a profit-making opportunity in exchange for the chance to stick it to the Cranicks for not paying the ‘voluntary’ fee.

If you think letting someone’s house burn to the ground because they forgot to pay a $75 fee is heartless, just wait until the GOP gets back their governmental power and start dismantling Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public Education, and any other domestic program they can. It will be government for the rich people, by the rich people. It will be all about paying your own way. If you are old, sick, and lose your home to medical bills – tough luck. If you neglect to pay the fire department fee and your house catches on fire – too bad, because they do not care about you. You could live in a tent and the Republicans will not care as long as they cannot see the tent from their house. This could very well be the inevitable conclusion to the Tea Party's empowerment.

Their counterargument is, in this instance, that the system only works if there are consequences for opting out. For the firefighters to have put out the blaze would supposedly have generated a bunch of future free-loaders.

The other vision of governance, the progressive one, believes in an American Dream that works for all people, regardless of their racial, religious, or economic background. Government is not good at taking care of every problem, but there are some basic services like police, fire, sanitation, and transportation that government should do because it furthers our social contract – that is, the basic understanding that we all are in this world together. It is an idea that today’s conservatives do not seem to understand. They are only willing to take care of numero uno – themselves.

What happened to compassionate conservatism? It never existed.