Good-Bye, Privatization; Hello, Nationalization

By Walker, Ruth | The Christian Science Monitor, March 13, 2009 | Go to article overview

Good-Bye, Privatization; Hello, Nationalization


Walker, Ruth, The Christian Science Monitor


Quick, what's the difference between taking over a bank and nationalizing it?

About 13 points - or so I read in Time magazine. Its latest issue cites a Gallup/USA Today poll finding that 57 percent of the American public oppose "temporarily nationalizing US banks." Only 44 percent, however, oppose "temporarily taking [a bank] over."

What a difference a word makes. Take over is one of those phrasal verbs, so common in English, that sound concrete and user-friendly but whose meanings are less than clear. We understand what's meant if one friend observes of another, "He really took over the conversation at dinner last night." But just what does "taking over a bank" entail? It's not certain, other than that, should the feds take over one of the really big ones, some would want to be sure the US Treasury had a seat on the Executive Office Redecorating Committee.

Nationalize, on the other hand, with all its syllables and its "ize" ending, sounds like something Mussolini would do. It is something he did, in fact. The Italian government took over a number of ailing firms in the 1930s, among them carmaker Alfa Romeo. But Il Duce was not the only one in this game. The early 20th century was full of nationalizations of large companies, notably railroads.

Then after World War II, communist governments nationalized private companies in droves, virtually across the board in some cases. It wasn't only communists, though; the French nationalized major banks - and a number of other big companies as well - during this period.

And in 1956, the Egyptian government nationalized the Suez Canal, closing it to shipping for a time and buying out shareholders of the Suez Canal Co., the private entity that had been running it. It was a clear sign of a shifting balance of power between the European colonial powers and the countries we now refer to as the developing world. …

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