Back in the late 90s when Mayor John O Norquist taught one of my planning classes at UWM, I remember a lot of talk of privatization. In fact, we even had a debate week with a guy in favor of it and a guy against it. Afterwards, I was pretty stoked about privatizing a lot of government services. I can’t say that I totally am anymore, mainly because I went on to become a teacher and lose my job to the “cheaper is better” mindset. However, as a taxpayer WITHOUT a decent-paying job, I have to watch how much I spend, which means I have to carefully consider any cost-savings. The latest opportunity for Wisconsin to cut costs has come in the form of privatizing drinking water with a company called Aqua America, and it has me a little worried, especially of that privatization has anything to do with giving up any rights to our own important water supply.

As I mentioned, I liked some of the ideas of privatization, like being able to paint the fire trucks any day of the week rather than whatever worked into some city painting schedule (one example used in my class). Yes, it makes sense to get the truck painted cheaper. If it’s a half-ass job, you just don’t hire the Speedy-Cheap Truck Painters next time. The guy who was against privatizing everything used garbage as an example of what NOT to privatize. He argued that we would not want a month of garbage piling up if workers go on strike or if the company goes out of business, and I saw his point, but the point of privatizing would likely be to contract with companies that do not hire union employees, and I’d think you might just hire the next non-union garbage collector when one folds. If no one is willing to get paid to pick up garbage, it becomes a public health issue, but if I was offered $50 an hour to hop on a garbage truck right now, I’d invest in some nose plugs. And I could do the job.

The problem I have with Aqua America trying to take over Wisconsin water is that it’s a bigger health concern than the potential for a month of garbage on the streets and I don’t know who could just get paid $50 an hour to help clean it up if the company fails us. Besides, water is our greatest resource in Eastern Wisconsin, and I want to be sure that I own my water rights as a citizen: water will become a huge commodity in the next twenty years, and everyone in Wisconsin could benefit from a global water shortage as long as we aren’t short-sighted enough to sell our rights off to some private company.

Let’s just create a simple test for privatizing.

  • The painting of fire trucks (and other city vehicles is relatively safe to outsource because it’s not a safety issue and it’s not a long-term economic issue). Some city painters had to find new employment, possibly somewhere else in the same government workforce.

  • The garbage collection is less safe to outsource because it’s a possible safety/health issue, but it’s not really a long-term economic issue, unless we eventually figure out how to use garbage to fuel our time-travel machines.

  • Water is a safety and health issue. Water will also represent a major economic concern in the near future. Water is the one reason I told my wife we were not relocating to certain parts of the country.

I can be in favor of some privatizing in order to save costs, but I’ve also seen Chinatown and dozens of post-corporate-takeover sci-fi films. Yes, I’ve also seen the ones depicting a totalitarian world in which some of you believe the government wants us to have, but the fact is that, for all their faults, government workers are just like the rest of us. CEOs of corporations are not. I used to believe the rhetoric that corporations are better at fulfilling government contracts because they care about customer service, but the truth, I have learned, is that corporations care about the PERCEPTION of better customer service, and there’s a huge difference. And most of the time, it might not matter, but water distribution is not one of those times.