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Conference speaker advocates the downsizing of government

May 18, 2010

Yesterday, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with Crain’s Detroit Business hosted a forum at the downtown campus of GVSU on the importance of downsizing and consolidating local government.

The event was titled “Better, Faster, Cheaper: The Business Case for Rebuilding Local Government,” and featured Stephen Goldsmith, a former Mayor of Indianapolis and in 2000 he was the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign.

Goldsmith began his presentation by saying that government can’t solve complex horizontal problems with vertical solutions. This is an interesting observation, especially since he advocated for a more business/privatized approach for government. However, don’t corporations and private entities use a top down (vertical) approach to solving problems? At least with governments you have the capacity to vote people out of office, but you can’t vote for a change in corporations.

The keynote speaker went on to say that “government is being changed from direct service provider to generator of public value. We need government that does less and does more through third party entities.” Goldsmith was advocating for more public/private partnerships, but he also believes it is necessary to promote privatization of government services and more deregulation.

The speaker shared a few stories from when he was governor of Indianapolis that emphasized how to put his theories into practice. One story was about how a union representative for the city sanitation workers came to Goldsmith and said that they would freeze their wages and make concessions in work rules if the Mayor would agree to not privatize their jobs. Goldsmith agreed and the sanitation workers even came up with better ideas on how to function.

What Goldsmith didn’t say was that this is the situation that most unionized workers find themselves in, so one of the few options they have is take a pay cut or to give up some workplace power just in order to save their jobs. This tactic by unions is not terribly effective and does not always work, since businesses and governments will often choose to either move else where, or in the case of government/public entities – privatize public services.

As I listened to Goldsmith it reminded me of the same kind of language that neo-liberal international policy makers use when talking about ways to “improve” the economies of poorer nations. One of the main tools that these policy makers use are structural adjustment programs (SAPs), a policy advocated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

SAPs call for downsizing government, eliminating public services, the privatization of public services and better tax incentives for foreign investors. Although historically, these policy have been imposed on other countries they are now being promoted domestically. Naomi Klein, author of Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, demonstrates how these same structural adjustment programs are being adopted in the US with the example of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

However, Goldsmith’s presentation was exactly what the crowd wanted to hear and it fits nicely into the goals of the West Michigan Regional Policy Conference objectives – downsize government, privatize public services, more public/private partnerships, eliminate business taxes and make Michigan a “right to work state.”

The Press Acts as Stenographer

The only news agency that was present was Grand Rapids Press reporter Jim Harger. Harger recounts the comments from Goldsmith and others in attendance, but doesn’t question or verify the claims being made by any of the speakers. In many ways the Press article accepts the position that governments are resistant to change and are burdened by bureaucracy.

While there may be problems with local governments to not seek out dissenting perspectives or to verify the claims of the main speaker does a disservice to the public. Imagine if a conference organized by unions was held that was advocating greater restrictions on corporations. Do you think that the Press would have sought out the perspective of companies to “balance” such a story?

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 19, 2010 7:43 am

    The privatization of government is unsettling. This is one step towards the elimination of the middle class. Good paying government jobs replaced by low paying jobs.

    I also see a problem with nepotism and cronyism playing a role in awarding private companies contracts when they privatize. A well known example of this is the Iraq private contractors. erik prince’s black water and cheney’s halliburton got rich off Iraq and now because of the new supreme court ruling can pump a shitload of money in to the republican political machine.

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