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The Fox In The Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy

StoryNovember 07, 2005
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We speak with Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich, authors of the new book, “The Fox In The Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy” that exposes the damage privatization has done in several areas of society including, schools, prisons and the military. [includes rush transcript]

We speak with Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich, authors of the new book, “The Fox In The Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy.” In the book the authors expose the damage privatization has done in several areas of society including, schools, prisons and the military. The authors argue that instead of privatization serving the public good, it rewards powerful corporations intent on replacing the government with a “private profit culture,” in which there is limited public accountability.

  • Si Kahn, Co-Author, “The Fox In The Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy.” He has worked for 40 years as a civil rights, labor, and community organizer. He is executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an organization that works to abolish for-profit private prisons, jails and detention centers
  • Elizabeth Minnich, Senior Fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She is Co-Author of “The Fox In The Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “When the War is Done” by folk singer, Si Kahn, also author Si Kahn, who joins us in studio now with Elizabeth Minnich. They are authors of the new book The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy. This is Democracy Now!, DemocracyNow.org, I’m Amy Goodman, as we talk about the issue of privatization. They talk about the damage privatization has done in several areas of society, including schools, prisons and military. They argue, instead of privatization serving the public good, it rewards powerful corporations intent on replacing the government with a “private profit culture,” in which there is limited public accountability, in which there’s limited public accountability. Welcome both to Democracy Now!

SI KAHN: Amy, it’s wonderful to be on Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t we start by connecting what we’ve really been talking on the program today, just in Argentina, talking about the protests against the Fair Trade Area of the Americas, to Iraq and what we’re seeing now? The latest there, with the level of deaths now for U.S. service men and women over 2,000; for Iraqis, unknown, but believed to be over 100,000.

SI KAHN: Amy, in The Fox in the Henhouse, we’re making an argument that we think is somewhat different. Don’t think about privatization in terms of the usual arguments that the government gives or that are given by the corporations, which say, 'Oh, this is about saving money for the taxpayers, this is about efficiency.' What we are doing is the largest transfer of public wealth to private pockets in the history of this country. We’re seeing this in Iraq, where the goal of this administration is to see how much of the money that should be going to all sorts of other issues and other causes can be put into private pockets. Think Halliburton. Think Lockheed Martin. This is what is going on, and it is the undermining of public space, of the public good, of public welfare, is a deliberate strategy to undermine the ground that belongs to all of us: the common wealth, the commons, those things that create public good, that create a humane society.

AMY GOODMAN: Elizabeth Minnich, talk about why you think this undermines democracy and how the media deals with this, if people in this country are understanding the shift of the public commons to the private sphere.

ELIZABETH MINNICH: The most important thing to emphasize over and over again is precisely that shift from the public, that which belongs to us, services, goods, values that we have held dear, that we have government established to protect and to provide for us, being opened up to for-profit exploitation, in which case two things key happen. One is, goods that are supposed to be for the people, that we set aside, that we established as rights for the people, which is democratic to the core, being taken over by for-profit corporations for private pockets, dispersed away from the people most directly affected. This is anti-democratic in the extreme.

The whole notion of shrinking government that they talk about? That’s not — it’s about shrinking government that’s responsive to the people. It’s not about shrinking the powers of government. With the media, we see — you know this, of course, infinitely better than I do — but the whole notion of public airwaves, analogous strictly to public lands and to rights, to the exercise of freedom of the multiple kinds of freedom. Hand that over to for-profit, and it is by definition not run democratically.

AMY GOODMAN: Si Kahn, Hurricane Katrina, and how this fits into your picture?

SI KAHN: Amy, part what I love is the common argument that, oh, the administration wasn’t prepared. They were absolutely prepared for Katrina, but they were prepared for an agenda that they were prepared to move. Here’s what I think is remarkable about the Bush administration and their cronies. They take every disaster, they take every national trauma as an opportunity to move forward on a privatization agenda, a centralization agenda, an authoritarian agenda.

So, in Katrina, the response that we’re seeing is not a humanitarian response, it’s not a humane response. It is: Let’s see how much contracts, sole source contracts, can be given to Halliburton, to Lockheed Martin, to Wal-Mart, to Home Depot. And we just see the proposal to take $2.6 billion to create vouchers that would allow the children of the Gulf Coast to go to private schools all over the country. The Bush administration has been struggling to privatize education. Let’s say that for what it is: to destroy public education and to put education in the hands of for-profit corporations. And they’re taking advantage of this extraordinary disaster, this human tragedy, to move $2.6 billion into private corporations for education.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you compare the response to Hurricane Katrina to what happened after September 11th?

SI KAHN: I think it’s absolutely the parallel. After September 11th, I think so many of us progressives and just good Americans said, this is a time of national grief. This is a national tragedy. This is a time for mourning. And many of us said, this is not a time to score political points. This is not a time to try to move an agenda.

We were naïve in that, because the Bush administration, within 24 hours was moving towards the Homeland Security system, the so-called Homeland Security system. Security in a democracy is freedom, is public space, is public good. And they were moving towards the PATRIOT Act. They take our human response to disaster, where our hearts reach out, and they reach out with their pocketbooks.

ELIZABETH MINNICH: May I add something to this?

AMY GOODMAN: Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH MINNICH: One of the important things that we saw with FEMA that it’s harder to see with 9/11, but was also in action, is that the privatization agenda —-— it’s not just, as Si was saying, something that happens here and there as a technique — it is a political agenda to destroy, push back democracy and put in its place for-profit culture, corporations, anti-democratic.

With FEMA, what we saw is the same thing we found in our research in all the different areas of privatization, which is: First, you break it–if you’re a privatizer — and then you say, 'Oh, dear, it's broken. The public doesn’t work. Government can’t run anything. Hand it over to the corporations,’ with the whole mythology about how efficient and effective they are. They broke FEMA — we know this story now — by putting in political cronies, by de-funding, by removing it from the seats of power, so that when it was desperately needed, it didn’t work well. And the person they had put in charge didn’t help it work well. But it had also been de-funded and disempowered.

Then you say, 'Ah, we need help,' so we go to the private sector. They do the same thing with the schools: You de-fund. Like on the international scene, you use debt, you de-fund, you make people dependent on the sources of other money, not government, not public money. Then you pull the strings. You impose more regulations and rules. You swamp them, so that they break. The people get mad at them, because they’re not doing their job. And then you say, 'You know who could do this well? The efficient, the effective, the corporations.'

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Elizabeth Minnich and Si Kahn. They’ve written The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy,” why “the fox in the henhouse?”

ELIZABETH MINNICH: The old story is, you don’t set the fox to guard the chickens. Well, what struck us while we were doing this research across all of these areas: Military, schools, welfare, for heaven’s sakes, public lands, public airwaves, public — was that the fox was no longer even being put forward as the guard of the henhouse. The fox was in the henhouse.

And we had one particular story that, you know, you reach a moment when you say, “This is it.” We were reading about Lockheed Martin, huge armament manufacturer, which also does things like welfare and things these days, which is absurd. There’s an article in which the president of Lockheed Martin is saying with great pride and no sense that he shouldn’t be saying this right out in public, which tells you where we are, that they’re not only, of course, selling hugely to this administration, but that they sit in on the policy decisions. They’re there. Now, that literally is “the fox in the henhouse.”

AMY GOODMAN: Si Kahn, you’re a long-time community organizer, and one of the areas you’ve worked in is prisons. Talk about for-profit prisons?

SI KAHN: Amy, of all the privatization issues, this is the one that hits me in the gut the hardest. The idea that private corporations build prisons in a cornfield somewhere, and then they go out looking for people to put in that prison in order to make money, I find that that crosses any human line, and it draws the parallels between our foreign policy, our policy with Abu Ghraib, all of these things. It’s a complete violation of human rights in every sense. And yet, it’s endemic in the United States. Something like 120,000 people in our country are imprisoned for profit.

I’ve been working for 25 years at Grassroots Leadership. We do civil rights, labor, and community organizing in the South. For the last six years, we’ve been working on a campaign to abolish for-profit private prisons, jails and detention centers. And the key word here is “abolish.” Part of what is remarkable here is that faith forces, for example the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., not usually thought of as a radical or left-leaning church, in its general assembly voted to abolish all for-profit private prisons, jails and detention centers. And it raises the core question of privatization: Is everything for sale? Is everything that we now have any voice in whatsoever, whether imperfectly or not, our schools, our lands, our governance, our ability to govern ourselves, even to some extent, will it all be sold back to us for a profit?

AMY GOODMAN: Give some concrete examples. You begin your chapter on for-profit prisons by talking about a case that we covered years ago in Syracuse, New York, of a man who was brought in for, I think it was, theft.

ELIZABETH MINNICH: I don’t know about the story years ago. But precisely, there was a cover story in the New York Times recently, that was enormously useful in moving this forward. A man — I believe what he did was break into his ex-wife’s house to get his skis or something to that effect — and he had a serious medical condition. The prison health services privatized — private prison, all of this run for profit — contracted out, owned, they decided he wasn’t really sick. They decided he was malingering. They decided he was using this. They didn’t give him his medicines. The man died.

AMY GOODMAN: He had Parkinson’s.

ELIZABETH MINNICH: Was it Parkinson’s? Yeah, it’s really a terrifying thing. The whole notion that gets repeated time and again is that the privatizing corporations can do a better job. People ask us this every time: “But aren’t they more efficient?” No, they do not do a better job.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the Prison Health Service, which was a private health contractor, didn’t give him his medicine.

ELIZABETH MINNICH: Didn’t give him his medicine. In the record, there were follow-up reports, and there have been many such studies, in every single area of privatization where there are these intense studies, the myth of 'we do it better' collapses. And there is, you know, there’s blood on this agenda. It kills.

SI KAHN: And efficiency, in corporate terms, means efficiency in generating a profit. It means efficiency in returning the maximum amount of money to the corporate directors and executives and to the majority shareholders. So, for example, in the case of private prisons, this means keeping them full at all costs. As a result, what we have is people transported thousands and thousands of miles from home for the convenience of the private prison.

I remember talking at a Jobs with Justice conference with a woman from Hawaii, whose nephew, a Hawaiian, was in a private prison in Arizona. And this young man’s mother had sold her house to buy an air ticket to go visit him. Now, from the corporation’s point of view, that’s efficiency, because they’re balancing their occupancy. From any human or humane point of view, that’s across the line.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich about The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy. On the issue of war right now, on the issue of Iraq, can you talk specifically how the corporations are benefiting? You have a very interesting chapter, and I think what’s most interesting are the details.

ELIZABETH MINNICH: A number of different areas in which private corporations are making monstrous profits — Halliburton is being covered, Brown & Root is all over the newspapers now, so we probably don’t even need to mention that — it’s war-profiteering of the first order. The contractors that we hear about regularly, we’re talking about mercenaries. We’re talking about people who are fighting for pay. They’re hired. There are large private military firms, international, super-national. They like now to call themselves “security firms,” so you’ll hear, “security personnel.” They are private military companies. The U.S. military is said by those who have studied it to be probably the most privatized military in the world. And a lot of that came out of Iraq. Mosul, you wanted to talk about Mosul?

SI KAHN: I was going to — the recent quote from an active three-star general about three weeks ago in The Economist that Elizabeth’s father sent us. He said, “You know, these private so-called security firms, they are actually mercenaries.” They are driving through the streets of Iraq, armed with automatic weapons. He says, “They get scared, they get trigger-happy. They take aim at civilians. People die.” And we have to risk our volunteer forces to send in and get them out of the trouble that they cause. And he said, “Do you know what? They are not subject to Iraqi law, and they are not subject to the U.S. Code of Military Conduct.” He says, “There’s nothing we can do when they kill an Iraqi civilian, except terminate the contract.” So this is part of what’s going on. It means that we have mercenaries who are completely and totally out of control.

ELIZABETH MINNICH: Some of those have now shown up, of course, in New Orleans. You’ve seen those stories. And the same thing happens. They’re not subject to military, to public control. And they put the people who are working on public payroll at enormous risk, because they are out of control and they create incidents that then have to be stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. In your research over years on privatization what surprised you most?

SI KAHN: That they’re serious about wanting it all. That Grover Norquist means it, about shrinking government to where we can drown it in a bathtub. Amy, we are trying to — to use James Baldwin’s phrase, we’re trying to ring the fire bell tonight. We’re trying to sound the alarm. We are saying they are serious about taking over this country and about operating it. Their vision is of an America owned and operated by the corporations. And we have got to stand and fight back.

AMY GOODMAN: Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich, the authors of The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy.

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