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No Privatized Infrastructure

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I talked yesterday about the poisoning of the water supplies of Jackson, Mississippi by a government more concerned with Dr. Seuss books than with its own people, at least if they are Black. There is a lesson here on the national scale. In the upcoming infrastructure bill, which unfortunately is going to have to be the second reconciliation bill it seems, Democrats need to reject Republicans bids to allow profit-taking privatization of the what gets build.

More egregiously, Mayor Lumumba alleged that Siemens and the subcontractors ​“manipulated the minority contracting rules” to essentially double the cost of the project. While Siemens disputed these accusations, the company nonetheless settled the city’s lawsuit in early 2020 — agreeing to repay the entire $90 million contract. While this was a victory for the city’s residents, the amount (of which lawyers will take a substantial cut) is far less than the original $450 million the city was seeking when lost revenue and additional costs to repair the damaged system are taken into account. 

Jackson is not alone in suffering the ill-effects of corporate involvement in the provision of water. There has been growing resistance to water privatization in the United States in recent years, along with several high-profile remunicipalizations—where privately-run services have been brought back under public control. Three interconnected factors, which were seen to varying degrees in Jackson, are driving many of these local efforts: higher rates and costs under private operation; poor performance and service by private operators; and loss of local control over decision making. 

While large-scale investments — like the $2 trillion infrastructure plan President Biden laid out on the campaign trail — are urgently needed to address the critical issues facing Jackson and other U.S. communities, the design of such programs will be critical. Those investments could either serve to lower racial and economic inequality, provide high-quality services, and preserve local control by supporting public and cooperative ownership structures; or they could supercharge privatization and line the pockets of large multinational corporations at the expense of the health and prosperity of local residents. 

If the Biden administration is serious about ​“Building Back Better,” it must ensure that justice and equity are at the heart of its agenda. 

At the core of the neoliberal era that both Clinton and Obama fully bought into was that private companies could do things more efficiently than the government. We know now that is a complete disaster in the making. I do think Biden is learning from the mistakes of his precedessors. We will see–certainly he may need to be pushed here. But the infrastructure needs to be federally controlled, New Deal through Great Society style, not a giveaway to corporate America.

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