(image) As I begin to dig into the work of my next book, I’ve found myself thinking about politics and government far more than I anticipated. (For initial thoughts and stats, see Government By Numbers: Some Interesting Insights). While the body politic was always going to be one of the main pillars of the book, I didn’t expect it to push itself to the foreground so quickly. Certainly the Occupy Wall St. movement is partially responsible, but there’s more going on than that.
Well before #ows became shorthand for class disparity in the United States, I began to formulate a hypothesis on the role of government in our lives. (I focus on the US for this exercise, as I am writing from my own experience. I’d be very interested in responses from those living in other countries).
The headline: Over the past five or six decades, we’ve slowly but surely transitioned several core responsibilities of our common lives from government to the private sector. Some shifts are still in early stages, others are nearly complete. But I’m not sure that we have truly considered, as a society, the implications of this movement, which seem significant to me. I’m no political scientist, but the net net of all this seems to be that we’re trusting private corporations to do what, for a long, long time, we considered was work entrusted to the common good. In short, we’ve put a great deal of our public trust into a system that, for all the good it’s done (and it’s done quite a lot), is driven by one core motivation: the pursuit of profit.
A corollary to this hypothesis is that this shift has been made – and possibly engendered – by the ever increasing role of digitized information as the central driver of our society. But that’s probably another post.
Now before you start calling me an aging, anti-corporate hippie, remember that I’ve started several companies, consider myself a free market capitalist, and I’ve done pretty well so far. I’m simply pointing something out here, not making any judgements (at least, not yet).
So let’s consider some key areas:
- Identity. We are increasingly going to the Web/Interent as the platform for our lives. There, our identity is not managed by the government. It’s managed – in the majority – by Facebook. When we buy things, our identity is managed by PayPal, Amazon, and Amex/Visa/Mastercard, not to mention a raft of pretenders to our identity throne, including Facebook, Google, and startups like Square. All of these are private corporations. None of them ask us for our government issued identity cards before allowing us to make a purchase. Some do ask for our SSN, of course. But online, the “government layer” is melting into the background of our identity – rather like DOS melted into the background of Windows 3. I expect this to be the source of some serious conflict in the coming decade(s).
- Control. It used to be the only entity that was legally allowed to track citizens on a regular basis was law enforcement – agents of our government. Now, of course, we happily leave digital breadcrumbs everywhere, and private corporations, driven by profit, are far more advanced than the government at profiling and tracking us. Again, I expect this fact to be a source of conflict in the future.
- Delivery/Communication. For most of the past couple of centuries, you’d use a government agency if you wanted to get something important – either information, goods, or money – from one place to another in our country. That agency was called the United States Postal Service, and it worked really, really well, considering all it had to do. Now, the Postal Service is broke, and we use UPS or FedEx for physical goods, and the Internet for information. While the government built the infrastructure for all these companies (airports, roads and Interstate highways, DARPAnet, commonly owned airwaves), it has now receded DOS-like into the background, and we now entrust the function of delivery to private corporations driven by profit.
- Investment. Do any of you remember when your grandparents would give you a government bond as a birthday gift? Or when people actually believed that they could retire on the government-mandated benefits of Social Security? I do. I have two parents who are drawing on those programs right now. But as the economy has turned to one driven by information and financialization, we’ve entrusted our retirement and our investment to private corporations as well.
- Education. Once almost entirely the realm of the government, we’ve watched our public education system crumble, and we’re still not really sure what to replace it with. However, one could reasonably argue that private companies will take this over in due time. Some – like Edison and Phoenix – are already well on the way.
- Healthcare. The US has always shied from government-run healthcare, and some might say “Obamacare” is proof we’re moving in the opposite direction from the other trends I’ve outlined. But I’m not so sure. I have a gut feeling the numbers – in terms of Medicare etc. – may prove something different, and as I understand it, the recent legislation was, in the main, about regulating the private industry, not creating a government alternative. I have a lot more to learn here.
- Security. This is the one area of government that we all seem to agree should stay in government hands. However, even this realm has been increasingly privatized – from private prisons to vast armies of outsourced mercenaries and support teams for our military.
I could go on, but instead I’d rather that you do, in comments. What other aspects of our lives did we once entrust to government, but now entrust to private corporations?
No matter what your politics, it seems clear to me that most of us no longer trust our government to do anything particularly well. In short, as a culture we seem to be punting on doing anything well if it doesn’t have a profit motive. We are very good at is making corporations that are very good at making money. Is that enough? I don’t know.
I am not judging this trend, but rather pointing it out. It’s something I plan to lean into as I write the book, and I am simply a curious amateur when it comes to understanding the space of government and the commons. To that end your input and suggestions as to sources and readings are gratefully welcomed.