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America as One Big Private Gift Shop

From private parking meters, to private jails, to the entrance fee for the private 9/11 Museum, to the cost of running for public office with private dollars, the private market is swamping public goods.

I know that if I take my five year old son to an aquarium, an art museum or a planetarium, we have to negotiate the gauntlet of commercialism either on the way in or out. More often than not, we physically have to exit through the gift shop or risk setting off fire alarms because there is no other way out. For two years he went to pre-school at a local children’s museum, which was excellent in many ways -- exposing him to art and science at an early age under the tutelage of gifted teachers -- but it also had the downside of his traipsing through a gift shop to get in and out of his educational environment. My son learned early: there’s always something for sale.

Of course, not everything should be for sale. This is the argument backers of expanding public spaces and advocates of public financing for elections have been making for years. Making the wrong places private or putting the wrong thing up for auction can do real harm.

The argument over what should be public and what should be private has recently heated up in lower Manhattan. As the 9/11 Memorial Museum opens, the public is debating the propriety of the $24 admission fee, which applies not just for entrance into the museum, but also for the privilege of visiting the final resting place of so many. Also causing offense are the expensive tchotchkes that are being hocked at the gift shop, which recently led to a change in policy on which items would be sold, but did not result in closing the gift shop.

New York City is the home of the cover fee. What would be free anywhere else in America, like entering a building or sitting to rest for a moment, can come with a price tag in New York. There’s a good reason for this cover fee culture — City real estate is, as the French say, “très cher.” And the 9/11 Museum pleads economic reality as the driver of its admission fees and the gift shop. It is a private museum that relies on private donations and sales of trinkets to keep the doors open and the lights on. (The families of 9/11 victims are allowed in for free).

And I appreciate the difference between the Pentagon getting hit and the World Trade Center getting hit. The former was public land and the latter was private land. Or even more complicatedly, the former was public land and the latter were privately leased buildings on land owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

But a national tragedy occurred both places that day and we might want to rethink whether the public/private line should hold in lower Manhattan, which many consider a tomb of the unknown.  Congress has debated financing the museum to some extent, without success. Proposing a bill in Congress to make the 9/11 Museum part of the Smithsonian or making it a national landmark curated by the National Parks Service so that admission would be free or at least not be cost prohibitive for visitors, doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

But the 9/11 Museum’s gift shop problem is symptomatic of much bigger privatization culture which we might conceive of as the “gift shopping of America.” As author Matt Taibbi put it in Griftopia: “There are now highways, airports, parking garages, toll roads—almost everything you can think of that isn’t nailed down and some things that are—for sale, to bidders unknown, around the world.”

For example, the Windy City suffered from embarrassing episodes of privatization under then-Mayor Richard Daley (the younger). First, because the city was broke, it leased the Chicago Skyway bridge to a Spanish firm for 99 years for $1.83 billion. According to the GAO, the increased tolls under such privatization deals “can be frequent and automatic.”  The Chicago Skyway contract allows “toll rates to increase each year, based on a minimum of 2 percent...” and the GAO found that the “tolls on the Chicago Skyway will be permitted to increase in real terms nearly 97 percent from 2007 through 2047.”  Senator Jeff Bingaman has criticized such multi-generational leases as a “sell off vital components of the interstate highway system.” Mayor Daley also privatized the parking meters in Chicago for 75 years in a $1 billion deal with businessmen from Dubai that has left local motorists with higher parking fees and the City owing money to the private company for closing the streets for street fairs or repairs.

But while Chicago has grabbed many of the privatization headlines, they are far from alone. Whole states have privatized aspects of law enforcement including private security forces and private prisons, which can place bizarre profit motives into the criminal justice system. This led to the extreme “cash for kids” scandal in Pennsylvania where a judge was caught taking bribes to send children into privately owned juvenile detention. For an overview of the privatization hydra, thumb through In the Public Interest’s report, “Out of Control: The Coast-to-Coast Failures of Outsourcing Public Services to For-Profit Corporation.”  There is a problem with selling public goods like key infrastructure or elements of our justice system into private hands, especially overseas private hands.  Namely, the private owners are keeping an eye on the bottom line and may undervalue the public interest which cannot be easily monetized.

Mayor Daley and the governors who have jumped on the privatization bandwagon are elected officials. Perhaps this urge to privatize what should be public (instead of allowing great public access to what is private) is a natural consequence of electing public leaders with private dollars. Few candidates can get elected with merely three chords and the truth.  More and more, those that can run for office successfully are either independently wealthy because they mastered the private market or they are buoyed by well-heeled supporters. When running for a public job costs 10 times or 100 times more in campaign cash than the salary it pays, only few will make the gamble. Public financing of elections is actually the norm worldwide. But in America, public financing is the exception, not the rule. Public financing should broaden the spectrum of who can run for office and the policies they might enact once there.  

From private parking meters, to private jails, to the entrance fee for the private 9/11 Museum, to the cost of running for public office with private dollars, the private market is swamping public goods. I can cope with the average gift shop attached to the average museum. But even in our society, there should still be a short list of things just shouldn’t be for sale. Elected offices and mass graves from a national tragedy should be on that short list. That’s where the gift shopping of America should stop and the public interest should prevail.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Flickr)

(Editor's note: This post was updated June 7, 2014)