Tuesday, June 06, 2006

But that's Communism

Atrios and Yglesias both mention that the government should be providing public goods, such as roads, bridges, and sidewalks. That this even needs to be said is a sign of how the right has triumphed in our discourse.

OF COURSE the government should deliver roads, bridges, highways, water, electricity, and any number of other services. Natural monopolies - that is, networks where competition is impossible - should by definition by controlled by the public, for a very simple reason: A private entity - unless strictly controlled by the government - is really required to treat a network it controls as a source of revenue to be maximized, not a public commodity. Of course, if we're going to strictly control a private utility, you might as well nationalize it and put it under government watch.

And there's a huge list of things that could be done, even after we're done repaving the roads and reinforcing the bridges. How about adding to our rail capacity, and electrifying it? This would allow freight companies to ship goods across the country more cheaply, and at greater speed, even without a French- or Japanesestyle bullet train system. Speaking of, why not a bullet train system? The eastern half of the continent is more then densely populated enough. (Electrified rail is also an excellent way to stave off peak oil problems.) How about fiber-optic networks to every home? The electrification of Ontario was almost certainly more demanding, and was entirely public. How about a truly national electrical grid, allowing the whole country to benefit from the winds and sun of the prairies, and letting the prairies profit in the process?

(My girlfriend's asked me to suggest a chocolate pipeline to every town and village. Add your suggestions in comments below.)

If we're really serious, we need to think about more than just refurbishing existing infrastructure in Canada. We need to build in such a way as to encourage development in rural communities. Again, these links - communications, energy, transport - need to be publicly owned and operated. Toronto is going to suffer immensely in the next twenty years if all we can think to do is cram more and more people in the GTA.

Just to be clear, I don't think the government should be nationalizing Ford Motors Canada (well, maybe) but the idea that we ever sold Ontario Hydro is an act of madmen and criminals. Thanks, Tories.

Note that the few jurisdictions in North America who did not deregulate their power supplies (Los Angeles and Medicine Hat) pay substantially lower rates than the privatized markets. Note that a public organization - UTOPIA - is building one of America's most advanced fiber networks, without private help, and in fact with great private opposition. Note that the sale of Highway 407 has been a fiasco for the commuters of Ontario. Again, again, and again, we see that privatization of vital networks and services does nothing but ruin those networks and services.

This isn't to say that public organizations can't have problems of their own: Ontario Hydro, enthralled by what one consultant called a "nuclear cult", dug itself in to such a deep debt hole that the Harris government was able to sell this ratepayer rape as a kindness. Moreover, Ontario Hydro had been such a monster for Ontario politicians for so long, that most parties - even the NDP, despite their claims in the last election - welcomed the dismantling of Hydro when it came.

But the fact that Ontario Hydro was out of control isn't an argument against public ownership any more than $100 hammers are an argument against national defense. What it's an argument for is tougher public accountability, and maybe a Minister of Energy who's willing to swing an axe or five. But this kind of accountability is basically impossible once you've privatized things - and we have to ask a simple question: As bad as Ontario Hydro was, would we prefer Enron?

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