Leaked Trump infrastructure plan is a plan for corporate subsidies

The Trump administration’s plans to rebuild infrastructure in the United States have been leaked, and it appears to be as bad as feared. At least three-quarters of intended funding will go toward corporate subsidies, not actual projects. It is possible that no funding will go directly toward projects.

There’s no real surprise here, given that President Donald Trump’s election promise to inject $1 trillion into infrastructure spending was a macabre joke. What is actually happening is that the Trump administration intends to push for more “public-private partnerships.” What these so-called partnerships actually are vehicles to shovel public money into private pockets. These have proven disastrous wherever they have been implemented, almost invariably making public services more expensive. Often, far more expensive. They are nothing more than a variation on straightforward schemes to sell off public assets below cost, with working people having to pay more for reduced quality of service.

That is no surprise, as corporations are only going to provide services or operate facilities if they can make a profit. And since public-private partnerships promise guaranteed big profits, at the expense of taxpayers, these are quite popular in corporate boardrooms. And when those promises don’t come true, it taxpayers who are on the hook for the failed privatization.

Panorama of Paris (photo by Benh Lieu Song)

The collapse earlier this month of Carillion PLC in Britain put 50,000 jobs at risk, both those directly employed and others working for subcontractors. The holder of a vast array of government contracts for construction, services and managing the operations of railways, hospitals, schools and much else, Carillion received contracts worth £5.7 billion just since 2011. Overall, an astonishing £120 billion was spent on outsourcing in Britain in 2015.

What did British taxpayers get for this corporate largesse? It certainly not was the promised savings. Parliament’s spending watchdog agency, the National Audit Office, found that privately financing public projects costs as much as 40 percent more than projects relying solely on government money. The office estimates that existing outsourcing contracts will cost taxpayers almost £200 billion for the next 25 years. (This report was issued before Carillion’s collapse.) In response, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “These corporations need to be shown the door. We need our public services provided by public employees with a public service ethos and a strong public oversight,” The Guardian reported.

Naturally, there was one group that did quite well from this privatization: Carillion’s shareholders, who reaped £500 billion in dividends in the past seven years. But it is the government that will have to pick up the tab if the company’s employees are to continue to be paid. On top of that, the company’s pension shortfall reached £900 billion, according to Reuters.

By no means is Carillion’s collapse the only privatization disaster in Britain. A bailout of the corporate-run East Coast rail system is expected to cost hundreds of millions of pounds. There are numerous other examples that have proven windfalls for corporate executives but expensive mistakes for the public.

Offer subsidies first, ask questions later

One of the many empty promises made by President Trump during the 2016 campaign was that his infrastructure plan would “leverage public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over ten years. It is revenue neutral.”

“Spur” investment, not actually spend on investment. This supposed plan originated with Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, a conservative economics professor. Ross, now Commerce secretary (although perhaps not for long if recent reports are to believed), was an investment banker who specialized in buying companies and then taking away pensions and medical benefits in order to quickly flip his companies for a big short-term profit. The two recommended the Trump administration allocate $137 billion in tax credits for private investors who underwrite infrastructure projects. The two claimed that over 10 years the credits could spur $1 trillion in investment.

So the new administration won’t actually spend $1 trillion to fix the country’s badly decaying infrastructure; it hopes to encourage private capital to do so through tax cuts.

That brings us to this week’s leak. The news site Axios published the Trump administration’s six-page outline for infrastructure investment on January 22. The document mentions no dollar figures. But what the document does do is to discuss where money will be sent. First up is “infrastructure incentives initiative,” which is to account for 50 percent of total appropriations. This category will provide grants to be used for “core infrastructure” projects and requires “Evidence supporting how applicant will secure and commit new, non-federal revenue to create sustainable long-term funding” and requires new sources of “revenue for operations, maintenance and operations.”

Netherlands highway (Daan Roosegaarde)

Although it is possible that local- or state-government funding could provide the required revenues, given the intentions of the Trump régime, what this means is that privatization is being counted on for these projects, with corporations taking over public facilities providing the required ongoing revenue streams.

A hint that this is intended is that the first item on a list of “Principles for Infrastructure Improvements” is an intention to make it easier for tolls to be placed on highways. That item is this: “Allow states flexibility to toll on interstates and reinvest toll revenues in infrastructure.” Again, it is possible that state governments might do this themselves. But the more likely scenario is the privatization of highways, with the corporations gaining control then installing toll booths to not only provide funds for maintenance but to hand themselves a perpetual profit. And if the profits don’t materialize, it won’t be private capital holding the bag. For example, nine privatized toll roads in Spain will cost taxpayers there €5 billion because the roads are being nationalized in the wake of the private operators’ failures.

A further hint is found buried in the section on water infrastructure, where we find this passage: “Remove the application of Federal requirements for de minimis Federal involvement.” This is likely intended to provide a green light to privatization of water systems. That has been done in France and Germany, with disastrous results. For example, water prices in Paris doubled over 25 years before the city took back its water system, saving €35 million in the first year and cutting rates. The German city of Bergkamen reduced costs by as much as 30 percent after returning its basic utilities to the public sector.

No details for a plan not based in reality

Another 25 percent of the total appropriations for the White House infrastructure investment plan is a “rural infrastructure program,” under which state governments are “incentivized to partner” with “private investment.” Various other programs constitute the remainder of the plan, none of which are clear as to who or what will be eligible.

The official unveiling of the plan will likely not be released until after the January 30 State of the Union address, according to a report in The Hill. A further sign of the lack of specifics is that the White House has had nothing substantial to say on the topic. The most recent statement on infrastructure that a search of the official White House web page could find was an August announcement that the president had signed an executive order making the “environmental and permitting processes more efficient.”

Channeling the president’s usual disregard for reality, the announcement claimed that “delays” in infrastructure projects cost “trillions” of dollars. The only actual projects mentioned are three pipelines, including the Keystone XL and Dakota Access lines, of which the announcement claims will “create over 42,000 jobs and $2 billion in earnings.” (Those figures appear directly copied from a widely discredited State Department environmental impact statement issued in 2014, when the Obama administration was supporting them.) In reality, a study by the Cornell Global Labor Institute found that, when all effects are calculated, there may be a net loss of jobs. Additional fuel costs in the Midwest, pipeline spills, pollution and the rising costs of climate change would contribute to job losses.

Of course, environmental damages are not considered in Trump administration projections, putting them even more in the realm of fantasy. Consider two World Health Organization studies that concluded polluted environments cause 1.7 million children age five or younger to die per year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated a year ago that 230,000 lives would be saved and 120,000 emergency-room visits saved in 2020 if the Clean Air Act is left intact. Globally, air pollution could lead to nine million premature deaths and US$2.6 trillion in economic damage from the costs of sick days, medical bills and reduced agricultural output by 2060, according to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study.

This doesn’t come cheap, either — a study of energy subsidies estimates the totality of subsidies given to fossil fuels for 2015 was $5.6 trillion. Lest you think some “anti-oil” group made that calculation, that figure comes to us courtesy of the International Monetary Fund! The Trump administration will only add to this mind-boggling total as it has made clear its intentions to further subsidize gas, oil and especially coal, no matter the lack of rational economics. And the cost of global warming? Incalculable. What would be the future cost of hundreds of millions displaced from drowned cities? Or, in the long term, of destroying the Earth’s ability to maintain a stable environment?

Although Donald Trump is the worst yet of a long line of disastrous U.S. presidents, let’s forgo the easy idea that he alone is responsible for facilitating corporate plunder at the cost of all other human considerations. He is highly useful to the plutocrats who control the Republican Party, so much so that talk of a Trump impeachment should be relegated to the level of fantasy for the foreseeable future, barring an all-time wipeout in the 2018 midterms despite the Democratic Party’s uncanny ability to blow elections. The greater question is if sufficient numbers of Trump voters come to realize the degree they were hoodwinked for believing that a billionaire who built his fortune by screwing working people would somehow come to their rescue.

That’s the short term. For the longer term, humanity finding its way out of the dead end it is speeding toward depends on freeing itself from the grips of a system that repeatedly throws up Trumps, Bushes, Harpers, Thatchers and the like. The Trump administration is a symptom, not a cause, of morbid decay.

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The bait and switch of public-private partnerships

This being the age of public relations, the genteel term “public-private partnership” is used instead of corporate plunder. A “partnership” such deals may be, but it isn’t the public who gets the benefits.

We’ll be hearing more about so-called “public-private partnerships” in coming weeks because the new U.S. president, Donald Trump, is promoting these as the basis for a promised $1 trillion in new infrastructure investments. But the new administration has also promised cuts to public spending. How to square this circle? It’s not difficult to discern when we recall the main policy of the Trump administration is to hand out massive tax cuts to big business and the wealthy, and provide them with subsidies.

Public-private partnerships are one of the surest ways of shoveling money into the gaping maws of corporate wallets, used, with varying names, by neoliberal governments around the world, particularly in Europe and North America. The result has been disastrous — public services and infrastructure maintenance is consistently more expensive after privatization. Cuts to wages for workers who remain on the job and increased use of low-wage subcontractors are additional features of these privatizations.

Chicago at night (photo by Lol19)

Chicago at night (photo by Lol19)

The rationale for these partnerships is, similar to other neoliberal prescriptions, ideological — the private sector is supposedly always more efficient than government. A private company’s profit incentive will supposedly see to it that costs are kept under control, thereby saving money for taxpayers and transferring risk to the contractor. In the real world, however, this works much differently. A government signs a long-term contract with a private enterprise to build and/or maintain infrastructure, under which the costs are borne by the contractor but the revenue goes to the contractor as well.

The contractor, of course, expects a profit from the arrangement. The government doesn’t — and thus corporate expectation of profits requires that revenues be increased and expenses must be cut. Less services and fewer employees means more profit for the contractor, and because the contractor is a private enterprise there’s no longer public accountability.

Public-private partnerships are nothing more than a variation on straightforward schemes to sell off public assets below cost, with working people having to pay more for reduced quality of service. A survey of these partnerships across Europe and North America will demonstrate this clearly, but first a quick look at the Trump administration’s plans.

Corporate subsidies, not $1 trillion in new spending

The use of the word “plans” is rather loose here. No more than the barest outline of a plan has been articulated. The only direct mention of his intentions to jump-start investment in infrastructure is found in President Trump’s campaign web site. In full, it states the plan “Leverages public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over ten years. It is revenue neutral.” The administration’s official White House web site’s sole mention of infrastructure is an announcement approving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines without environmental reviews, and an intention to expedite environmental reviews for “high priority infrastructure projects.”

Wilbur Ross, an investment banker who buys companies and then takes away pensions and medical benefits so he can flip his companies for a big short-term profit, and who is President Trump’s pick for commerce secretary, along with a conservative economics professor, Peter Navarro, have recommended the Trump administration allocate $137 billion in tax credits for private investors who underwrite infrastructure projects. The two estimate that over 10 years the credits could spur $1 trillion in investment. So the new administration won’t actually spend $1 trillion to fix the country’s badly decaying infrastructure; it hopes to encourage private capital to do so through tax cuts.

The Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia (photo by D. Vincent Alongi)

The Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia (photo by D. Vincent Alongi)

There is a catch here — private capital is only going to invest if a steady profit can be extracted. Writing in the New Republic, David Dayen put this plainly:

“Private operators will only undertake projects if they promise a revenue stream. You may end up with another bridge in New York City or another road in Los Angeles, which can be monetized. But someplace that actually needs infrastructure investment is more dicey without user fees. So the only way to entice private-sector actors into rebuilding Flint, Michigan’s water system, for example, is to give them a cut of the profits in perpetuity. That’s what Chicago did when it sold off 36,000 parking meters to a Wall Street-led investor group. Users now pay exorbitant fees to park in Chicago, and city government is helpless to alter the rates.”

The Trump plan appears to go beyond even the ordinary terms of public-private partnerships because it would transfer money to developers with no guarantee at all that net new investments are made, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis. The EPI report asks several questions:

“[I]t appears to be a plan to give tax credits to private financiers and developers, period. The lack of details here are daunting and incredibly important. For starters, we don’t know if the tax credit would be restricted to new investment, or if investors in already existing [public-private partnerships] are eligible for the credit. If private investors in already existing PPP arrangements are eligible, how do we ensure these tax credits actually induce net new investments rather than just transferring taxpayer largesse on operators of already-existing projects? Who decides which projects need to be built? How will the Trump administration provide needed infrastructure investments that are unlikely to be profitable for private providers (such as building lead-free water pipes in Flint, MI)? If we assume tax credits will be restricted (on paper, anyhow) to just new investment, how do we know the money is not just providing a windfall to already planned projects rather than inducing a net increase in how much infrastructure investment occurs?”

Critiques of this scheme can readily be found on the Right as well. For example, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office and economic adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told The Associated Press, “I don’t think that is a model that is going be viewed as successful or that you can use it for all of the infrastructure needs that the U.S. has.”

Corporations plunder, people pay in Britain

Britain’s version of public-private partnerships are called “private finance initiatives.” A scheme concocted by the Conservative Party and enthusiastically adopted by the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the results are disastrous. A 2015 report in The Independent reveals that the British government owes more than £222 billion to banks and businesses as a result of private finance initiatives. Jonathan Owen reports:

“The startling figure – described by experts as a ‘financial disaster’ – has been calculated as part of an Independent on Sunday analysis of Treasury data on more than 720 PFIs. The analysis has been verified by the National Audit Office. The headline debt is based on ‘unitary charges’ which start this month and will continue for 35 years. They include fees for services rendered, such as maintenance and cleaning, as well as the repayment of loans underwritten by banks and investment companies.

Responding to the findings, [British Trades Union Congress] General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Crippling PFI debts are exacerbating the funding crisis across our public services, most obviously in our National Health Service.’ ”

Under private finance initiatives, a consortium of private-sector banks and construction firms finance, own, operate and lease the formerly public property back to the U.K. taxpayer over a period of 30 to 35 years. By no means do taxpayers receive value for these deals — and the total cost will likely rise far above the initial £222 billion cost. According to The Independent:

“The system has yielded assets valued at £56.5bn. But Britain will pay more than five times that amount under the terms of the PFIs used to create them, and in some cases be left with nothing to show for it, because the PFI agreed to is effectively a leasing agreement. Some £88bn has already been spent, and even if the projected cost between now and 2049/50 does not change, the total PFI bill will be in excess of £310bn. This is more than four times the budget deficit used to justify austerity cuts to government budgets and local services.”

The private firms can even flip their contracts for a faster payday. Four companies given 25-year contracts to build and maintain schools doubled their money by selling their shares in the schemes less than five years into the deals for a composite profit of £300 million. Clearly, these contracts were given at well below reasonable cost.

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

One of the most prominent privatization disasters was a £30 billion deal for Metronet to upgrade and maintain London’s subway system. The company failed, leaving taxpayers with a £2 billion bill because Transport for London, the government entity responsible for overseeing the subway, guaranteed 95 percent of the debt the private companies had taken out. Then there is the example of England’s water systems, directly sold off. The largest, Thames Water, was acquired by a consortium led by the Australian bank Macquarie Group. This has been disastrous for rate payers but most profitable to the bank. An Open University study found that, in four of the five years studied, the consortium took out more money from the company than it made in post-tax profits, while fees increased and service declined.

As for the original sale itself, the water companies were sold on the cheap. Although details of the business can be discussed by “stakeholders,” the authors conclude, the privatization itself remains outside political debate, placing a “ring-fence” around the issues surrounding the privatization, such as the “politics of packaging and selling households as a captive revenue stream.” The public has no choice when the water provider is a monopoly and thus no say in rates.

Incredibly, Prime Minister Theresa May and the Tories intend to sell off more public services to Macquarie-led consortiums.

Corporations plunder, people pay across Europe

Privatization of water systems has not gone better in continental Europe. Cities in Germany and France, including Paris, have taken back their water after selling systems to corporations. The city of Paris’ contracts with Veolia Environment and Suez Environment, expired in 2010; during the preceding 25 years water prices there had doubled, after accounting for inflation, according to a paper prepared by David Hall, a University of Greenwich researcher. Despite the costs of taking back the water system, the city saved €35 million in the first year and was able to reduce water charges by eight percent. Higher prices and reduced services have been the norm for privatized systems across France, according to Professor Hall’s study.

German cities have also “re-municipalized” basic utilities. One example is the German city of Bergkamen (population about 50,000), which reversed its privatization of energy, water and other services. As a result of returning those to the public sector, the city now earns €3 million a year from the municipal companies set up to provide services, while reducing costs by as much as 30 percent.

The Grand Palais in Paris (photo by Thesupermat)

The Grand Palais in Paris (photo by Thesupermat)

Water is big business. Suez and Veolia both reported profits of more than €400 million for 2015. Not unrelated to this is the increasing prominence of bottled water. Bottled water is dominated by three of the world’s biggest companies: Coca-Cola (Dasani), PepsiCo (Aquafina) and Nestlé (Poland Springs, Deer Park, Arrowhead and others). So it’s perhaps not surprising that Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe infamously issued a video in which he declared the idea that water is a human right “extreme” and that water should instead have a “market value.”

One privatization that has not been reversed, however, is Goldman Sachs’ takeover of Denmark’s state-owned energy company Dong Energy. Despite strong popular opposition, the Danish government sold an 18 percent share in Dong Energy to Goldman Sachs in 2014 while giving the investment bank a veto over strategic decisions, essentially handing it control. The bank was also given the right to sell back its shares for a guaranteed profit. Goldman Sachs has turned a huge profit already — two years after buying its share, Dong began selling shares on the stock market, and initial trading established a value for the company twice as high as it was valued for purposes of selling the shares to Goldman. In other words, Goldman’s shares doubled in value in just two years — a $1.7 billion gain.

Danes have paid for this partial privatization in other ways as well. Taking advantage of the control granted it, Goldman demanded lower payments to Danish subcontractors and replaced some subcontractors who refused to use lower-paid workers.

Corporations plunder, people pay in Canada

Canada’s version of public-private partnerships has followed the same script. A report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives flatly declared that

“In every single project approved so far as a P3 in Ontario, the costs would have been lower through traditional procurement if they had not inflated by these calculations of the value of ‘risk.’ The calculations of risk could just as well have been pulled out of thin air — and they are not small amounts.”

Not that Ontario is alone here. Among the examples the Centre provides are a hospital, Brampton Civic, that cost the public $200 million more than if it had been publicly financed and built directly by Ontario; the Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia that will cost taxpayers $220 million more than if it had been financed and operated publicly; bailouts of the companies operating the city of Ottawa’s recreational arenas; and a Université de Québec à Montréal project that doubled the cost to $400 million.

A separate study by University of Toronto researchers of 28 Ontario public-private partnerships found they cost an average of 16 percent more than conventional contracts.

Corporations plunder, people pay in the United States

In the United States, a long-time goal of the Republican Party has been to privatize the Postal Service. To facilitate this, a congressional bill signed into law in 2006 required the Postal Service to pre-fund its pension costs for the next 75 years in only 10 years. This is unheard of; certainly no private business would or could do such a thing. This preposterous requirement saddled the Postal Service with a $16 billion deficit. The goal here is to weaken the post office in order to manufacture a case that the government is incapable of running it.

The city of Chicago has found that there are many bad consequences of public-private partnerships beyond the monetary. In 2008, Chicago gave a 75-year lease on its parking meters to Morgan Stanley for $1 billion. Shortly afterward, the city’s inspector general concluded the value of the meter lease was $2 billion. Parking rates skyrocketed, and the terms of the lease protecting Morgan Stanley’s investment created new annual costs for the city, according to a Next City report.

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park. Republicans are targeting national parks for sale, too. (photo by Pete Dolack)

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park. Republicans are targeting national parks for sale, too. (photo by Pete Dolack)

That report noted that plans for express bus lanes, protected bike lanes and street changes to enhance pedestrian safety are complicated by the fact that each of these projects requires removing metered parking spaces. Removing meters requires the city to make penalty payments to Morgan Stanley. Even removals for street repairs requires compensation; the Next City report notes that the city lost a $61 million lawsuit filed by the investment bank because of street closures.

Nor have water systems been exempt from privatization schemes. A study by Food & Water Watch found that:

  • Investor-owned utilities typically charge 33 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than local government utilities.
  • After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, with an average increase of 18 percent every other year.
  • Corporate profits, dividends and income taxes can add 20 to 30 percent to operation and maintenance costs.

Pure ideology drives these privatization schemes. The Federal Reserve poured $4.1 trillion into buying bonds, which did little more than inflate a stock-market bubble, while the investment needs to rebuild U.S. water systems, schools and dams, plus cleaning up Superfund sites and eliminating student debt, are less at a combined $3.4 trillion. What if that Federal Reserve money had gone to those instead?

“Public investment to create private profit”

Given its billionaire leadership, the Trump administration’s plans for public-private partnerships will not lead to better results, and may well be even worse. Michael Hudson recently summarized what is likely coming in this way:

“Mr. Trump wants to turn the U.S. economy into the kind of real estate development that has made him so rich in New York. It will make his fellow developers rich, and it will make the banks that finance this infrastructure rich, but the people are going to have to pay for it in a much higher cost for transportation, much higher cost for all the infrastructure that he’s proposing. So I think you could call Trump’s plan ‘public investment to create private profit.’ That’s really his plan in a summary, it looks to me.”

This makes no sense as public policy. But it is consistent with the desire of capitalists to continually extract higher profits from any and all human activity. Similar to governments handing over their sovereignty to multi-national corporations in so-called “free trade” deals that facilitate the movement of production to locales with ever lower wages and weaker laws, public-private partnerships represent a plundering of the public sector for private profit, and government surrender of public goods. All this is a reflection of the imbalance of power in capitalist countries.

This is “the market” in action — and the market is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. It also reflects that as capitalist markets mature and capital runs out of places into which to expand, ongoing competitive pressures will drive corporate leaderships to reduce expenses (particularly wages) and move into new lines of business. Taking over what had been the public sector is one way of achieving this, especially if public goods can be bought below fair market value and guarantees of profits extracted.

The ruthless logic of capitalism is that a commodity goes to those who can pay the most, regardless of whether it is something essential to human life.

When water is a commodity instead of a human right

The shutoff of water to thousands of Detroit residents, the proposed privatization of the water system and the diversion of the system’s revenue to banks are possible because the most basic human requirement, water, is becoming nothing more than a commodity.

The potential sale of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is one more development of the idea that water, as with any commodity, exists to produce private profit rather than to be a public necessity. And if corporate plunder is to be the guiding principal, then those seen as most easy to push around will be expected to shoulder the burden.

Thus, 17,000 Detroit residents have had their water shut off — regardless of ability to pay — while large corporate users have faced no such turnoff. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department began its shutoff policy in March with a goal of shutting off the water to 3,000 accounts per week. Residents can be shut off for owing as little as $150. That is only two months of an average bill.

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, amd Utility Shutoffs)

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs)

Detroit water rates have more than doubled during the past decade, according to Left Labor Reporter, and in June another 8.7 percent raise was implemented. Yet only in July, months after residential water shutoffs began, did the water department announce it would send warning notices to delinquent businesses. There is no report, however, that any business has had its water turned off.

About half of the city’s overdue water payments are owed by commercial and industrial customers. Forty offenders, according to the department, have past-due accounts ranging from around $35,000 to more than $430,000. One golf course operator is said to owe hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The same week that the residential water shutoffs began, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr put the water department up for sale. The department takes in about $1 billion in revenue per year, The Wall Street Journal reports, and collects more revenue than it spends. The system would potentially be a valuable asset for one of the multi-national corporations that have taken over privatized water systems around the world, mostly to the regret of the local governments and ratepayers.

Reversing the privatization of water

If Emergency Manager Orr succeeds in selling off Detroit’s water system, he will be bucking a trend. Dozens of cities in France and Germany have reversed earlier privatizations and are taking back their water systems after finding that higher prices and reduced services had been the norm post-privatization. French private water prices are on average 31 percent higher than in public water services. Five Pennsylvania towns that privatized their water saw their rates more than triple on average.

That rate differential shouldn’t come as a surprise — a government doesn’t need to generate a profit like a corporation. A water company, like any other capitalist enterprise, is expected to generate large profits for its investors and giant payouts to its executives, and thus must extract more money out of its property.

If the water system is privatized, Detroit’s city budget will receive a one-time boost, but forgo future revenues and lose control of a public good built with public money. Nor is there any guarantee that it would be sold at market value. A utility undervalued would produce quicker profits for any water company that got its hands on it, and every incentive is for it to be bought at as low a price as possible.

Banks, however, have already extracted huge profits from Detroit’s infrastructure. The water department is believed to have paid banks penalties of $537 million to escape its disastrous interest-rate default swaps. Instead of simply selling plain-vanilla bonds — paying bond holders a set amount on a set schedule — Detroit (like many municipal governments) became entangled in various complicated financial derivatives layered on top of its bonds.

Investment banks sold local governments interest-rate swaps as a form of insurance as a hedge against rising interest rates. But if interest rates went down — which they did — then the governments would be on the hook for large sums of money. (That rates would fall was predictable; central banks cut interest rates as a matter of routine during recessions.) Thanks to financial engineering falsely sold as “insurance,” the Financial Times reports it will cost Detroit $2.7 billion to pay back $1.4 billion in borrowing — this total includes $502 million in interest payments and $770 million as the cost of the derivatives.

The $537 million the Detroit water department handed to banks to escape continued extra payments to cover the swaps is more than four times the entire past-due water bill, residential and commercial, at the start of the water shutoffs in March.

Not so quick to challenge the banks

Yet there appears to be no effort to recoup any of that penalty money or to investigate if there was any illegality in the deals. Curt Guyette, writing for a Detroit alternative publication, Metro Times, said:

“Given the fact that former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is now is serving a decades-long sentence in federal prison for running the city as if it were a criminal enterprise when these deals went down, [was then in office] it doesn’t seem unreasonable to at least suspect that something shady might have been going on.

Nonetheless, Orr and the legal team from [corporate law firm] Jones Day — where Orr was a former partner, and which has as clients both Bank of America and a division of UBS — have, as the complaint [filed in federal court by community activists] points out, ‘failed to investigate the misconduct or take measures to recoup any portion of the $537 million in suspect termination fees paid to the banks.’ ”

Both Bank of America and UBS profited enormously from the interest-rate swaps. Emergency Manager Orr does not seem terribly bothered by democratic processes, however. He is going ahead with a separate plan to privatize Detroit’s parking department despite the fact that the City Council voted, 6-2, against it. The Detroit Free Press reports that the parking system generates $23 million in revenue with only $11 million in expenses. This would be another revenue stream leaving public hands, and the same needs of a private owner to generate profits would be expected to lead to the same results that privatizations of water systems and other public services have led.

The people of Detroit are fighting back, through demonstrations, lawsuits, appeals to the United Nations and in physically blocking crews assigned to turn off the water. Water is also being turned back on without asking for permission from authorities. Activists demand the immediate resumption of water service for everyone and to make water affordable. Detroit Debt Moratorium, for example, is calling for water bills to be capped at two percent of household income.

These efforts have borne some fruit as Emergency Manager Orr issued an order handing Mayor Mike Duggan managerial control over the water department in late July. The department subsequently declared a moratorium on water shutoffs until August 25.

A commodity is privately owned for the purpose of profit, regardless of human need; that the commodity is something as necessary as water does not alter that a commodity goes to those who can pay the most. The market determines who gets what, or if you get it at all — and the market is simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. The agony of Detroit is the logical conclusion of reducing social and economic decisions to market forces. Detroit just happens to the be the locality that got there first.

The logic of public services chips away at ideology of privatization

One should beware vampire squids bearing gifts. It would also be best to cover your ears when the siren songs of privatization are offered.

Even were Goldman Sachs not the buyer, the Danish government’s decision to sell a portion of the state-owned energy company Dong Energy A/S goes against the pattern of recent years of governments taking back control of utilities after having dropped them into the sweaty palms of investors. Shareholders expect maximum profits from investments, and utilities that provide basics like electricity and water are not excepted.

Pont Neuf in Paris

Many a local government has learned the hard way that even water is a commodity from which to squeeze a profit once privatized, with human need an afterthought. Decades of ideology have attempted to instill the idea that the private sector is always superior to government; that government can only mismanage what is in its hands.

Although attempting to flip this discredited, self-serving phantasmagoria by arguing the complete opposite would not stand up to scrutiny, either, the realm of facts and data firmly contradict the standard corporate ideology. Government after government has found that privatization was a mistake in what has become a wave of “re-municipalization” — the return of public services to public management.

Paris takes back its water

France had been a leader in privatizing water, leading to the rise of two of the world’s biggest water companies, Suez and Veolia. As recently as 2006, the private sector provided drinking water services to four-fifths of the French population. In parallel, starting in early 1990s, the European Union began issuing directives mandating that national governments implement legislation deregulating the electricity market. E.U. bureaucrats sought to separate (“unbundle”) generation, transmission and distribution of energy, supposedly to ensure price competition.

In France, according to a paper published in the March 2012 issue of Water International:

“This model was favoured by several factors, including strong fiscal centralization, the rigid character of public accounting, the creation of private water companies, and the establishment of a legal framework that protected the interests of the concessionaires.” [page 3]

The paper, “The remunicipalization of Parisian water services: new challenges for local authorities and policy implications,” written by Joyce Valdovinos, reports that a series of investigations found that there was no way to verify work that should have been long completed, a lack of transparency of technical and financial data, discrepancies between declared profits and actual profits, and the generation of extra profits by manipulating maintenance costs. When a Left coalition won the 2001 city election, it believed returning water services to public management would lead to better functioning, more transparency, greater public control, and the ability to stabilize prices.

Paris’ contracts with Suez and Veolia expired in 2010; during the preceding 25 years water prices there had doubled, after accounting for inflation, according to a paper prepared by David Hall, a University of Greenwich researcher. Professor Hall reports that the two companies had secret clauses in their contacts allowing automatic price increases. Despite the costs of taking back the water system, the city saved €35 million in the first year and was able to reduce water charges by eight percent.

About 40 other French cities intend to “re-municipalize” their water services. Higher prices and reduced services have been the norm for privatized systems, Professor Hall’s paper says:

“A report by the Cour des comptes in 1996 identified many problems with private water services in France, including lack of competition, corruption, and lack of transparency, but also price increases which it firmly concluded were linked to privatisation of water services. … The association of municipalities publishes each year price comparisons, which in 2009 showed that private water prices were on average 31% higher than in public water services.” [page 19]

Sellers’ remorse in Germany

A strong trend toward public provision of services is also under way in Germany, for many of the same reasons. A paper written by Hellmut Wollmann of Humboldt Universität zu Berlin found a similar dynamic east of the Rhine:

“Since the late 1990s, it has become more and more evident that the (high flying) neoliberal promises that (material or functional) privatization would usher in better quality of services at lower prices has not materialized. On the contrary, private service providers have often made use of the next possible opportunity to raise prices and tariffs while at the same time deteriorating the working conditions of their employees.” [page 15]

In response to that, 44 new local public utilities have been set up and more than 100 concessions for energy distribution networks and service delivery have returned to public hands in Germany since 2007, according to Professor Hall’s paper. Further, German goals of phasing out nuclear energy, increasing the use of renewable energy and cutting overall energy usage is impossible without a strong public role, he wrote:

“There is little economic incentive for the private companies to make these investments, and indeed the growing use of renewable electricity undermines the profitability of existing gas-fired power stations. As a result, municipalities and regions have to play a leading role, not only to meet the targets for renewable energy but also to secure sufficient capacity to protect against the effects of markets and the phasing-out of nuclear energy.” [page 12]

One example is the German city of Bergkamen (population about 50,000), which reversed its privatization of energy, water and other services. As a result of returning those to the public sector, the city now earns €3 million a year from the municipal companies set up to provide services, while reducing costs by as much as 30 percent.

Private versus public in the United States

Municipal-owned utilities aren’t magic wands because they can be subject to the hostility of local business leaders. Cleveland’s city-owned power company, then known as MUNY, became the object of a political tug-of-war in the 1970s in which “market forces” were unleashed to detrimental effect. Successful lobbying by the private energy corporation, CEI, that competed with MUNY caused the city government to neglect maintenance and investment in MUNY, leading to it having to buy power from CEI, which in turn provided inadequate connections that often led to outages.

Davita Silfen Glasberg, in her book The Power of Collective Purse Strings: The Effects of Bank Hegemony on Corporations and the State, argued that Cleveland’s default was the result of “control of the city’s critical capital flows by an organized banking community.” Legal maneuvering by CEI caused a city cash flow shortage because of what MUNY was forced to pay to CEI. In turn, Cleveland’s bond ratings were downgraded, rendering the city unable to sell bonds and intensifying its dependence on bank loans. As a result, Professor Glasberg wrote:

“The banking community, which had significant interests in CEI (including stock ownership, pension fund holdings, CEI deposits, voting rights on CEI stocks, loans, and interlocking directorates) refused to renew or renegotiate the city’s loans unless [Mayor Dennis] Kucinich agreed to sell MUNY to CEI. Such a sale … would have solidified the private utility’s control of the city’s electricity business. … For political reasons the financial community had cut Cleveland off. Indeed, the coffers opened once again when the business and banking communities unseated Kucinich, and [George] Voinovich took office.” [pages 139-140]

As part of the deal, MUNY’s rates rose (dampening competition with CEI), the city laid off hundreds of workers and wages of remaining city employees were cut — working people paid the price for corporate profit. Cleveland did withstand the pressure to sell its public utility. The utility, now known as Cleveland Public Power, provides low-cost electricity that saved the city an estimated $195 million between 1985 and 1995.

Absent such blatant interference, U.S. cities have often found that public utilities outperform privatized ones. In Atlanta, for example, the city signed a contract with Suez, which promised to reduce water and sewer costs. Instead, the web site Water Remunicipalisation Tracker reported, repairs were neglected, 400 jobs were lost and sewer rates increased 12 percent a year. After four years, the contract was canceled and the services returned to the public sector.

Denmark’s embrace of Goldman Sachs

The decision by Denmark’s social democratic government to sell a portion of the state-owned energy company flies in the face of considerable recent history, even without the added question of Goldman Sachs’ predatory behavior. The investment bank, which stands out even among its rapacious peers for its ability to extract money from an extraordinary assortment of human activity, is buying an 18 percent share, yet will be given a veto over strategic decisions, essentially handing it control.

In addition, according to the Financial Times, Goldman Sachs not only has the right to sell its share back to the government if the deal doesn’t go its way, but 60 percent of its share is required to be sold back at a guaranteed profit — the purchase price plus 2.25 percent annual interest. And that’s not all — Goldman is using affiliates in tax havens to own its share, leading to much speculation that it intends, like many companies, to avoid paying taxes.

Danes are heavily opposed to this deal. But rather than consider popular anger, the chief executive officer of Dong Energy is instead worried that “Denmark’s reputation as a destination for offshore investors” may be “damaged.” The move is the latest in a series of austerity measures by Denmark’s social democratic government that have included restricting eligibility for child care benefits and study grants, and increasing the retirement age.

The sale to Goldman has also caused one of the three parties in the coalition government to leave in protest, resulting in a minority government that will require support from other parties in crucial future parliamentary votes. It has also reportedly caused a rise in the polls for the conservative opposition. Replicating a pattern seen across Europe and elsewhere, social democratic governments impose austerity, and in the absence of a vigorous organized Left alternative, voters continue to alternate between the major parties or blocs.

The trend toward public provision of services is an as yet rare example of common-sense resistance to dominant capitalist ideology. Enterprises owned by the public or by a collective workforce don’t need to extract huge profits to pay swollen executive salaries or payoffs to speculators — an example that can be followed in many more businesses. With enough organization, it will.