Privatization woes

I was listening a bit ago to a piece on NPR about the privatization of Ghana Telecom, which is being protested by folks who think that Vodafone isn’t paying enough. This seems to be a frequent problem when state-controlled industries are privatized — consider, for example, Russia’s oligarch problem.

Now, it may be that simple corruption, or its lemon-socialist cousin, “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” adequately explains this phenomenon. But I also wonder if there may be a problem of an inadequate market. It’s not easy to assemble the resources to bid on a large national company, and many of these sales have a handful of potential buyers at best.

Perhaps worse, however, is that there often seems to be no reserve price in privatization sales; the government commits to sell, and then goes looking for buyers.  And as every negotiator knows, a party that has to make a deal is going to get absolutely worked over.

It also reminds me of a hypothesis I developed a while back.  One hears bandied about (though less so in these post-Washington-Consensus days, largely because no one seems to want to nationalize industries anymore)(Ed. Note 2021: OK, more so in these post-post-Washington-Consensus days) the principle that nations with leftist tendencies suffer from a dearth of private investment because capital shuns the risk of nationalization. I wonder if there may be a parallel phenomenon where nations with rightist tendencies suffer from a dearth of infrastructure because the electorate shuns the risk of privatization.

This was, for example, what I thought when I heard about the high-speed rail plan proposed for California; I think it’s a good idea on the merits, but I think it’s highly likely that we would wind up spending ninety hojillion dollars on the thing and then Sacramento would sell it to private investors for eighty-five cents and a meatball hoagie.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Consumption, Monopoly, and Protected Classes

As I read the coverage of all that Microsoft foofarah a few weeks ago, I was struck by something odd. The people who are really out for Microsoft’s blood are people like Netscape, various computer manufacturers, and other companies who have been seriously screwed over by Microsoft doing some pretty messed up stuff. Some of these people have lost a lot of money, and all of them have lost a lot of freedom of action, because Microsoft was a butthead at them (a brief word, just so you know where I’m coming from, on what being a corporate butthead means to me. Offering price incentives or preferred stocking to buyers who sign exclusivity contracts is being competitive. Refusing to deal with someone unless they sign said contract makes you a butthead in my book).

However, the complaints and sufferings of all these people are not what got talked about, on the whole. Instead, there was a lot of talk about “the freedom to innovate” and the consequences for consumers. Which was for me, initially, rather confusing. Microsoft’s sins against the consumers have been indirect, for the most part, and it seemed odd that consumers should be at the center of the debate.

Upon further reflection, though, it became clear that the discussion has to be carried out on that level because of what categories of people antitrust law, and to a certain extent all of American society, considers deserving of special protection by the law.

In traditional laissez-faire capitalism, theoretically no one is a protected class, but in practice the large capitalists are the protected class–their massive financial clout gives them special freedoms of action, and thus a government which refuses to regulate economic activity in effect privileges the large capitalists. In traditional communism and socialism, theoretically the workers are the protected class–government is supposed to intervene to make sure the workers are getting a fair deal.

There isn’t really a surviving system which privileges the small capitalist. There was a political philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries called artisanal republicanism, which glorified the individual skilled craftsman over unskilled labor and unskilled capital. The remnants of it are why our collective national gut still thinks it’s a bad thing for mom-and-pop stores and family farms to fall by the wayside.

In modern American society, however, the privileged class is the consumer. There is substantial debate and skepticism about whether government should intervene if businesses are being hurt, or if workers are getting the shaft. But it is more or less generally accepted that if the consumer is being hurt, government can and should intervene. “Let the buyer beware” no longer applies; we expect the government to protect us from unjustly high prices and shoddy products (see, for example, the current furor over gas prices).

In our lives as producers, meanwhile, we receive little active and systematic attention. We do get legislation controlling all forms of discrimination, and minimum wage laws, but those laws are the constant subject of debate, and don’t provide for systematic protection of any segment of the productive sector. Antitrust law, however, is generally not debated in principle. Businesses try to make cases that their business is too unique to be subject to antitrust law, but they don’t attack the fundamental idea. This is because the monopoly equation creates goods for the large capitalist while screwing the consumer, and the consumer is a protected class. Globalization is a lot more controversial because it creates goods for the large capitalist while screwing over the worker, and neither of those are protected classes.

I was a budding socialist when I was younger, and I think the sentiment that spurred that was the fact that although I’ve been unimpressed by socialist institutions, I think that the workers should be a protected class. I don’t think capital is particularly worthy of protection, and I’m disturbed by the notion that our society protects us as consumers but not as producers. I would prefer to think of my identity as a consumer being secondary to my identity as a producer.