One of the many troubling features of our current civic landscape is the steady erosion of boundaries between sectors. Thanks to “privatization,” or–more accurately–contracting and outsourcing, the lines between public, private and nonprofit have steadily blurred.
The problem is that different sectors have different purposes/missions. For-profit companies exist to make money; nonprofit organizations are mission-driven, and the public sector is supposed to serve the public and safeguard the common good. These descriptions obviously gloss over the many nuances in each sector, but they are a serviceable shorthand.
When the profit motive characterizes all of the sectors, our society no longer works the way it should.
I get “paper” newspapers on Sunday mornings, and look forward to reading the news old-style. Last Sunday, I opened the Indianapolis Star to discover that it had engaged in actual journalism, in a story about charter schools established by ITT.
The strongest selling point of the Early Career Academy, a tax-funded charter school scheduled to open next year in Indianapolis, is that its high school students will earn an associate degree free of charge.
But the degree comes with a catch: The credits from that degree likely will not transfer to any major university in the state if the students want to pursue four-year degrees.
There is, however, one institution guaranteed to accept the credits — the for-profit college sponsoring the charter school.
ITT, you may recall, is being sued in several states by individuals and the federal government, who allege that it provides an inferior education for which it charges exorbitant tuition, and employs unethical, high-pressure sales techniques to “lock students into an education most are unable to finish and into loans many are unable to pay off.”
When I opened my Sunday New York Times, the front-page story was even worse–the headline was “Energy Firms in Secretive Alliance with Republican Attorneys General” and the article detailed the cozy–and highly unethical–arrangements whereby state Attorneys General are conspiring with, and carrying the baggage for, fossil fuel companies that have “generously” contributed large sums to their campaigns. They are suing the EPA and otherwise resisting federal regulations meant to protect air and water quality–purportedly on behalf of their states, but in actuality on behalf of their political patrons.
There are plenty of lessons we can take from these revelations. (I’d probably start with the premise that for-profit educational institutions should automatically be viewed with extreme suspicion.) Certainly, these revelations are more evidence–as if we needed it–that the role of money in politics is toxic and corrupting.
However, I think there is a larger warning lurking in these, and similar examples of venal behavior. When we fail to recognize the different ethical obligations that attach to the different sectors–when every organization and every job is focused on a fiscal bottom line–the structures we have built to be complementary become competitive and corrupt.
We have spent the past thirty-plus years demeaning and “hollowing out” the enterprise we call government, and in the process, we have lost the very concept of a public. “Public service” is an oxymoron. Well over half of our purportedly nonprofit/voluntary organizations are so totally dependent upon government grants and contracts that they have become unrecognized arms of the state. Meanwhile, we have idealized private enterprise and the private sector beyond recognition, delegitimizing the rules and regulations that are necessary to ensure a level economic playing field and a healthy, sustainable economy.
The result is on the front pages of our newspapers, and it isn’t pretty.