The previous section considered how the wealth of individuals is transferred to the wealthiest tiny percent. Let’s consider how publicly owned wealth is transferred to private wealth of the wealthiest Americans, too.
There are philosophical differences about whether there should be publicly owned wealth. Some believe that only private individuals take good care of property and therefore all property should be in private hands. This is an offshoot of 20th century novelist, Ayn Rand’s idolization of selfishness and the righteous pursuit of self- interest.170 Rand had an enormous impact on the thinking of 20th century Libertarians and the GOP. Many in the GOP require their staff to read her works.171
There is no evidence to support this idolization of selfish interests. Many individuals are wonderful stewards who take excellent, prudent care of their land, with care for sustainability and their neighbors well-being. But, unfortunately there are also many individuals who exploit their property without regard for the impact on the larger community.
Think of the giant redwoods that vanished – a glory lost for at least a couple thousand years. Think of the decades when you couldn’t swim in the Willamette river that runs through my city, Portland, Oregon. Think of the tons of plastics in the oceans killing sea life and making their way as microbeads into our food chain. Think of disappearing fish populations. The evidence says that in the aggregate, individuals are unwilling or unable to set aside personal, short-term needs and greed, and act in the best interests of life as a whole system. This is why whatever is crucial to the general welfare must be protected by an effective government of, by and for the people.
Selling off the commons
We sell off our common wealth at fire sale prices on good days and on bad days.
Selling off natural resources
On good days, we sell off many of our publicly owned natural resources at minimal prices. For a pittance we allow wealthy owners and lessees to extract oil, gas, and minerals permanently depleting our common wealth, and often despoiling the land for generations. Significant habitats are crisscrossed with industrial infrastructure, with little obligation to protect and maintain a healthy land. In the last few decades many states have improved decision- making – gathering all stakeholders, and coming up with win-win arrangements that preserve the value and sustainability of heritage lands. In other states, there is room for improvement. It takes a dedicated neutral facilitator-mediator, skill, and dedicated tax dollars.
For example, grazing rights are sold at such low prices, we’re giving away these assets. The federal government charges $1.87 per animal per month for grazing rights on federal lands.172 The market rate for state or privately owned land ranges from $8 to as high as $150.173 Out of the meager haul in grazing fees, the federal Bureau of Land Management is charged to,
…ensure the long-term health and productivity of these lands and to create multiple environmental benefits that result from healthy watersheds… administer public lands ranching… provide livestock-based economic opportunities in rural communities while contributing to… America’s social fabric and identity… maintain open spaces in the fast-growing West, provide habitat for wildlife, offer a myriad of recreational opportunities for public land users, and help preserve the character of the rural West.174
Whew! This is a lot of work to do on a skimpy budget, and we end up being poor stewards. If the going rate for renting land for grazing is higher, why not charge the market rate and use the funds to improve our common wealth? Give discounts to lessees and extractors who restore and improve the land, habitat and animal populations.
Republican President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906 into law. This law established the first general legal protection for cultural and natural resources. It gave us our National Parks and Monuments. It required that land set aside as part of a monument be “confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects of historic or scientific interest to be protected.”175
Today, there is a clear difference in the political parties about the meaning of “smallest area compatible” when it comes to protecting, preserving, and exploiting our treasured wild lands. On a party line vote in January 2016, Republicans eliminated a requirement to consider the income and costs of public lands when considering their sale.176 This makes it easier to sell heritage assets to private interests – one of the GOP’s stated platform goals.
In 2017, with full control of Congress and the Executive, the GOP is moving quickly to sell off heritage assets. They are rapidly removing the regulations that slow this process down, and which are intended to assure that prudent and thoughtful choices are made for the future. These cautionary exercises are considered, “unnecessary impediments and burdens, to expedite the offering of lands for lease.” 177
Eight months after taking office, Trump, by executive order, reduced two national monuments – by 85 percent and 45 percent. Bears Ears National Monument, was reduced by 1,150,860 acres. Nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was nearly cut in half.178 Trump says there will be more reductions to come.
Now land in both former national monuments is on fast tract for sale and resource extraction approval. Trump proclaimed that,
At 9:00 a.m….the public lands excluded from the monument reservation shall be open to: (1) entry, location, selection, sale, or other disposition under the public land laws and laws applicable to the U.S. Forest Service; (2) disposition under all laws relating to mineral and geothermal leasing; and (3) location, entry, and patent under the mining laws.179
Trump’s proclamation makes it clear that the Republican interpretation of the Antiquities Act’s requirement means bare bones preservation and conservation with the following priorities: transferring ownership to states and individuals, and resource extraction by private business. Democrats, who established both of these Monuments lean toward prudent and generous preservation for future generations and the nation as a whole.180
Selling off property assets
On bad days, when money is tight, we are selling off public real estate assets to fund current operations. For example, old schools not currently being used are sold to private developers. This is short- sighted. As populations grow, we will need these sites, and will then need to buy something back at a much higher price to maintain the community-based schools that are the heart of healthy communities.
Selling off cultural resources
New technologies from taxpayer-funded research and development benefit the private sector in a cultural variation of strip-mining. Prior to 1980, new technologies developed with public funds belonged to the common wealth. However, the Bayh-Dole Act or Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act of 1980, changed our policy on government funded research. Now the researcher and the research institution have first dibs on owning and commercializing the outcomes.
If taxpayers funded the research, taxpayers should share in the profit- making. Or, better yet, why doesn’t the research remain in the public domain where many can use it to launch new businesses? WE the people paid for it. Why not make it open source and increase the diversity of applications?
Open source would enhance our common wealth and prevent unnecessary deaths. For example, the invention of the EpiPen was sponsored by the US Department of Defense in the 1970s. It is an emergency antihistamine delivery system for people with asthma. Though the invention was publicly funded it landed in the hands of greedy profiteers who increased the price of this life-saving necessity from $100 to $650 in 10 years – putting it out of the reach of many and leaving people to die, or the public to pay many times over for our own invention.181
Privatizing public services
Our money system’s wealth transfer machine is driving a privatization of public functions, and limiting their use to people who can afford to pay directly. Do you want to get to work in a timely way? On some major highways we now have a lane for those who can afford to pay a premium to drive in the fast lane, and clogged roads for the rest of us.
We increasingly contract out public services to private contractors and/or sell public assets to fund budget shortfalls. Thirty years ago we publicly funded nearly all community services and considered them our common wealth – fire departments, roads we travel, public schools, prisons, the military. Today, a few wealthy people are buying up our nation like crazy as we privatize and profitize public services.
Local and state governments struggle as devalued dollars and reduced taxes on the wealthy and corporations cut their income. Since the meltdown in 2008, governments have increased the sale of public service income streams for short-term solvency. Private equity firms like Blackstone, are buying up public services. Over 11 million Americans now work for private-equity-backed businesses – roughly 7 percent of our employed workforce. Private equity companies now own hospitals, ambulance, fire departments, and 911 services. They own public water and utilities. The private equity companies are not experienced managers; they follow a simple moneymaking playbook: a mix of cost cuts, price increases, lobbying for de-regulation/lower standards, and litigation.182
In these life-critical service industries, cost cuts can mean increasing risks, and this is proving true. Houses burn down because the for-profit fire department is understaffed and undertrained. People die because there are too few ambulances or inadequate supplies, or because ambulances break down from cost-cutting poor maintenance.183
Private contractors have a conflict of interest when it comes to putting out fires, reducing prison populations, and making peace in the world because it will put them out of business. Yet, for-profit private contractors now make up 22 percent of the Department of Defense’s workforce. They account for 50 percent of its workforce cost. The average contract employee costs two to three times as much as the average civilian employee for performing similar work.184 185
Taxpayers pay millions to train soldiers who fulfill a minimum service requirement, and then move to the private sector where they will pick up the same job with a government paid private contractor at a higher wage. The private contractors get the benefits of our training investment and a cost-plus profit for themselves. And, they have a profit-motive for perpetuating war. This is the wealth transfer machine and a black hole filler working together.
When the rich buy public services; they claim they will make them more efficient, less costly, provide a better service AND make a profit for themselves. There is little evidence this is possible. More often than not, they eliminate well-paying jobs, eliminate pensions, hire fewer and less qualified people at lower salaries, raise the cost and extract their profits at service quality and taxpayer expense.
Many once public services, like fire protection, cannot be run for efficiency. Wouldn’t we all prefer that we have enough fire fighters to deal with a serious conflagration? And, if they end up spending their days learning gourmet cooking and playing musical instruments or cards, that’s fine. It means no fires! The same is true for ambulance service. Don’t we want prompt life-saving service for everyone?
And, again privatization and profitization transfers wealth from the middle class who once had well-paying jobs with pensions to a very small elite of private owners skimming off a profit on lower wages and mediocre services. Employees, now paid less and without pensions, shift from independent livelihoods to government dependency and/or poverty.186
It’s worth repeating: we guarantee our money with the health and wealth of our commons. Degrade it. Sell it off to private owners. Our guarantee will not hold, and our money system and society will collapse. Our nation’s collapse is built into our current money system.