The Privatization Myth

Between April and June of 2019, more than 2,000 immigrant children were sent to internment camps without due process because their parent or parents purportedly entered the country illegally, which, by the way, is a misdemeanor. Some of the camps were hastily constructed by private-sector firms, which has again raised the question of whether some government services—no matter how reprehensible—should be outsourced to for-profit corporations.

The justification for outsourcing, typically made from the right side of the aisle, is that capitalism is inherently more efficient than bureaucracy, therefore less costly. Our politicians are rarely if ever wrong, but let’s test the assertion anyway. To the extent we can, let’s apply our collective intellect to examining (in four easy steps) whether outsourcing government services to privately-owned companies is more cost efficient than continuing down the old-school, “deep-state” bureaucratic path.

Step 1: The classic motive for creating profitable companies is maximization of shareholder wealth. Profits vary from industry to industry, but, in our (lengthy) experience, a pretax profit of 15% per annum is generally considered healthy, therefore a workable assumption.

For those of you who forgot to take accounting in college, that means that fifteen cents out of every dollar a private company makes are set aside for profit and taxes.  Government agencies don’t make profits and don’t pay taxes.

Step 2: By definition, efficient markets are competitive, which in turn requires privately-owned companies to promote and sell their services. The cost varies from as little 10% of revenue to as much as 30%, again depending on the industry. Since we’re a conservative bunch, let’s assume that the average cost of promoting and selling services in competitive markets is circa 15% of revenues on an ongoing basis.

In other words, fifteen cents of every dollar a private company earns are used to pay for a sales force, advertising, media relations, and similar functions. Some government offices, the US Army for instance, also advertise, and they have sales forces (called recruiting offices), but the cost in minuscule in comparison. As far as we know, no one in Washington is considering the privatization of the US Army, although mercenaries were used in Iraq—at a cost of as much as $1,500 per day.  In comparison, an Army captain makes about $180 per day.

Step 3: Outsourcing isn’t free. In order to ensure delivery of quality, low-cost services to the public, government agencies are required to manage their for-profit service providers. Since everything the government does is inefficient, let’s assume for our purposes that the cost of oversight is about 5% of the overall cost to the taxpayer.

To summarize: We’ve estimated so far that private service providers have to be about 35% more efficient (15% + 15% + 5% = 35%) than government agencies, just to break even on a cost basis. We can argue about the numbers all day, but the logic is indisputable.

Step 4: Since private companies exist to maximize shareholder returns, the provision of services can be no more than a means to an end. In other words, the act of privatization subordinates the provision of service to the production of wealth. Government agencies are intended to make service provision their top priority, and the conscientious, properly funded ones do.

The bottom line: Privatization of public-sector services is a structurally inefficient and counterproductive way to put tax dollars in the pockets of private-sector shareholders. There are exceptions—Elon’s Musk’s Spacex for one—but they’re few and far between.

Disclaimer: We believe that capitalism is more than just a good thing; it’s essential to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. Before those of you on the left collapse into foaming-at-the-mouth fits of apoplexy, here’s the but: We doubt that capitalism is good for everything, just as we doubt that everything tastes better with ketchup.

 

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