Magazine article The American Prospect

Public Heroes

Magazine article The American Prospect

Public Heroes

Article excerpt

Even the Right Suddenly Appreciates Government

THERE IS NO SILVER LINING to the cloud of horror that descended on America September 11. Many are engaged in burying the dead and tending to the survivors or facing the awesome responsibility of satisfying the national demand for action that serves justice rather than multiplying evil. Those of us who are going back to "business as usual" have an obligation, as we do so, to reflect on what we have seen.

The September 11 attacks revealed some truths about the American political economy that have been obscured in recent years. One is just how much of our economy is made up of what used to be called the "working class"--the nonsupervisory, non-college-educated people who make up 70 percent of our labor force. For the last half-dozen years, the media saw economic trends through the eyes of the glamorous, globe-trotting business executive--to the point that many people abroad must think the corporate elite represent the vast majority of American workers. And one could hardly find a more fitting symbol of the new global economy than the World Trade Center--surrounded in the evenings with herds of sleek limousines waiting to serve the masters of the universe at the end of their day.

Yet it turns out that the enterprise was run by thousands of data clerks and secretaries, waiters and dishwashers, janitors and telecommunications-repair people. The list of trade unions mourning their dead is long: firefighters, hotel and restaurant employees, police, communication workers, service employees, teachers, pilots and flight attendants, longshoremen, engineers, electrical workers, federal employees, construction workers, and a variety of state, county, and municipal employees. And many were in no union--meaning no job security, no benefits, and certainly no limousines.

A second insight revealed by the awful gaping hole in the Manhattan skyline was how ill served we have been by a politics that perpetuates the illusion that we are all on our own and holds the institutions of public service in contempt. For two decades, politicians of both major parties have celebrated the pursuit of private gain over public service. Shrinking government has become a preoccupation of political leaders through deregulation, privatization, and cuts in public services.

One result is that the United States is the only major nation that leaves airline and airport security in the hands of private corporations, which by their very nature are motivated to spend as little as possible. So the system was tossed in the lap of lowest-bid contractors, who hired people for minimum wages. Training has been inadequate and supervision extremely lax. Turnover is estimated to run 126 percent a year and the average airline-security employee stays on the job for only six months. Getting a job at Burger King or McDonald's represented upward mobility for the average security worker. In an antigovernment political climate, the airline corporations were able to shrug off the government inspections that consistently revealed how easy it was to bring weapons on board. The competition for customers sacrificed safety to avoid inconvenience. How else to explain the insane notion that a three-and-a-half-inch knife blade is not a weapon?

Private provision of public services has been the dominant philosophy of government in recent times. Only natural, the economists told us. People were motivated by money. It's human nature. "Greed is good," said the movie character in the send-up of Wall Street--a sentiment echoed by politicians of both parties: "Collective solutions are a thing of the past. …

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