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Have we privatized a critical government task?
Revelations about Elon Musk's role in Ukraine raise valid concerns
Who cleans up the mess if institutions fall in American society? (Photo by Joshua Tsu on Unsplash)
During a wild rainstorm last week, a giant willow tree on the edge of our neighbor’s yard crashed to the ground, blocking the road through the neighborhood. Our neighbor was lucky — not only because the tree didn’t hit the house, but also because clearing a tree-blocked road is the responsibility of the town highway department, not the owner of the property where the tree stood. A crew showed up within hours to chop up the tree and haul away the debris.
If you were a local taxpayer, you might gripe that we all wouldn’t have had to bear the cost of that clean-up if my neighbor had taken down the old tree before it got so vulnerable. In fact, we’ve hired a tree service to do just that at our place this month. But it’s a public road, so it’s fair that the public would pay for its maintenance — right?
That sort of tug-and-pull between public and private responsibility exists in many areas of American life. Deciding to build a road is a job for government, for example, but the government contracts with private construction firms to do the work. Government-hired police officers and firefighters protect us, and government offers free public education through high school, but some businesses hire extra security guards to augment local police, and in some urban areas almost 40 percent of students attend private charter schools that are funded by taxpayers. Your trash and recyclables may be hauled away by government or by a private firm, depending upon where you live; your ambulance service likewise varies by community. My water comes from my own well; yours may come from a municipal source that you pay for with tax dollars.
So what is the right role of government? John Locke wrote in the late 17th century that government mainly exists to protect the so-called “natural rights” of people — the right to life, liberty and property, in Locke’s view. We give up some rights to secure that protection; mainly, that is, we pay taxes to get the benefits that we’ve decided that government can provide better than we can individually.
There’s inevitably conflict in where that line is drawn. Locke, whose philosophy was well-understood by America’s founders, urged politicians to “govern lightly,” yet he noted that the multitude is “always craving, never satisfied.”Those cravings have always generated controversy in America. These days, though, the argument has implications for our national security and even, perhaps, our very survival.
Take, for example, our nation’s defense, which we all agree is a fundamental role of government. That’s embroiled in debate just now because paying for defense — mostly through a record $842 billion Pentagon budget proposed by President Biden — is being held up by House Republicans who say they’ll cut off defense spending and shut down the government unless Biden gives in to various demands, including cutting the FBI’s budget and building a wall on the southern border. That irresponsible posturing is drawing attention at the moment, but we’ve long ignored the broader risk to our defense that is presented by privatization. That is, too much of our nation’s security has slipped into the hands of people we didn’t elect and who aren’t responsive to the political system.
For starters, we ought be uncomfortable with the power exercised by the South Africa-born billionaire Elon Musk, whose military experience seems limited to his well-documented role as a loose cannon.
Musk’s SpaceX rocket and spacecraft manufacturing company has in recent years launched more than 4,300 small Starlink satellites into earth orbit – a network that, among other tasks, provides the backbone of communication for Ukraine’s military in its defense against Russia’s brutal invasion. The author and historian Walter Isaacson revealed this week that because Musk refused to extend the Starlink service to Crimea last year, a Ukrainian attempt to launch submarine drones that might stop the Russian fleet from its attacks fell short, and the drones “washed ashore harmlessly.”
It was a seminal moment in the ongoing war launched by Russian aggression against an independent neighbor. Maksym Skrympchenko, who heads a think tank that advises the Ukrainian government, offered this analysis: “Musk just gave Russians another chance to use the Black Sea fleet to execute more attacks and kill more people.” Indeed, the ships have since been used to launch cruise missiles against Ukrainian civilian targets.
Yet early in the war, Musk donated tens of millions of dollars of Starlink equipment to Ukraine. He seems to have been prompted to deny the satellite service in Crimea by a conversation with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, who argued that Ukraine sinking the Russian fleet in the Black Sea would trigger a world war, just as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did in 1941. Musk responded by urging Ukraine to cede territory to Russia and remain a “neutral” nation rather than joining NATO — a “peace plan” that would be welcomed, surely, by Vladimir Putin. No wonder Putin this week called Musk an “outstanding person.”
Judging by his fumbling ownership of X, the social network formerly known as Twitter, we may be justifiably nervous about this display of Elon Musk’s amateur diplomacy in a matter of global security.
Yet it’s unsurprising. Musk’s reach is an inevitable outgrowth of an anti-government sentiment that took hold in this country during the 1970s, which has left Americans ever more comfortable with private industry taking on roles in pursuit of profit that were once the work of a government dedicated to the common good. Ronald Reagan became president while arguing, as he said in his 1980 inaugural address, that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”He followed up by launching a flurry of deregulation and a ceding of work once done by public servants to the private sector workforce.
A prime example: The mission statement of NASA, which landed Americans on the moon, was redefined in 1984 to require that it “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.” So space flights and satellite communications became mainly a for-profit concern. The Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. Now Musk’s SpaceX dominates the launch market in the U.S., and holds contracts with the Pentagon for communication services.
As a result, the mercurial Musk seems to have extraordinary influence over policies that voters might rightly assume they had entrusted to their elected government. Three members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee have asked the Pentagon to explain. One of the three, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, put it succinctly: “Congress needs to investigate how it is that one billionaire is off making public policy, and foreign policy for the entire world,” she said.
For a lesson in the hazard of turning over questions of war and peace to non-governmental players, we need to look no further than Russia, where the private fighting force Wagner took on an outsized role in the Ukrainian invasion. It ended badly, of course, with the mercenaries launching a failed coup against Putin that ultimately led to the death of the Wagner leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a suspicious jet crash last month. Those who wondered why Putin had ceded such power to Prigozhin in the first place may ask the same of the role Musk now plays in this country.
It’s reasonable to conclude that the Starlink fiasco is of a piece with the broader political crisis we face. Reagan’s anti-government campaign took root in a constitutional system designed by 18th-century leaders who were suspicious of the central authority wielded by a hostile monarch, and who had in mind Locke’s well-placed insistence on the right of self-determination. Nowadays, however, the right-wing zealots who are calling the shots for their party on Capitol Hill are turning that righteous respect for individual freedom into a cartoonish campaign against majority rule. They are targeting Biden, a fairly elected democratic leader, with rhetoric harsher than anything ever directed toward King George III. Even more disconcerting, they are insisting that safeguards aimed at protecting Americans — the right to vote without obstruction, the right to make decisions about one’s own body, the right to love someone of your own choice — be disabled in order to advance their own political ends.
You may call it an idealized view of democracy to say that the people are, in fact, the government, but it’s broadly true. So we do ourselves no favor by turning so much authority over to private hands that we effectively disable our government. Indeed, that leaves us at great risk — namely, of having to clean up a lot of debris that will surely be left when our great democratic institutions fall.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Sarasota, Fla. (Herald-Tribune, heraldtribune.com)
Peoria, Ill. (Journal-Star, pjstar.com)
Fort Collins, Colo. (Fort Collins Coloradoan, coloradoan.com)
Utica, N.Y. (Utica Observer-Dispatch, uticaod.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Manatees endangered by declining water quality
Over the last several years, the population of manatees off Florida’s coasts have declined, reports Catherine Hicks in the Herald-Tribune of Sarasota — largely as a result of red tide in the water and the air. Seagrasses, which flourish in shallow water, are the bedrock of coastal marine life, filtering pollutants and acting as a nursery to marine life. Segrasses offer manatees and sea turtles their main food source. But seagrasses have declined since 2016, in part due to red tide blooms, causing the starvation of perhaps half the population of manatees off the east coast. As a result, the gentle sea giants are now nearing the brink of starvation.
City takes aim at tobacco shops — but not all tobacco shops
By one estimate, the number of vape shops — places where people buy tobacco or stop by to buy hookahs and supplies — has grown in America by 20 percent a year since 2018. This is alarming to city leaders in Peoria, according to reporting by JJ Bullock in the Peoria Journal Star, so the city council is weighing a two-tier tobacco marketing ordinance that would restrict the number of businesses that focus their sales predominantly on tobacco sales, and charge those businesses twice as much for an annual. license to operate. The city attorney assured dubious council members that this would be friendly to “the types of businesses we want to attract to our neighborhoods,” including stores that sell products other than tobacco, but not to the expansion of vape shops.
Steps toward wolf reintroduction hit a snag
Environmental advocates have pushed the reintroduction of gray wolves in Colorado as a step toward more biological diversity with wide-ranging benefits, but the process has hit a snag, according to reporting by Miles Blumhardt in the Fort Collins Coloradoan: the state is having trouble finding wolves to relocate to the state. The federal government has just approved rules governing the experimental population — including the option to kill the predators in situations where wolves are chronically depredating livestock or are caught in the act of killing livestock. But Colorado is having trouble finding the 15 or so wolves needed to transfer to the state; Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have said no, and Washington says it can’t meet the end-of-year deadline. Officials are still trying.
State cracking down on do-not-call registry
New York is taking aim at telemarketers who violate the state’s do-not-call registry, according to reporting by Emily Barnes in the Utica Observer-Dispatch. A new law signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul amends New York's general business law to raise the maximum fine for violators from the former $11,000 penalty to $20,000. “New York won't tolerate these frustrating, unsolicited calls,” Hochul said. (Despite the use of call blocking, I’ve gotten four while writing this edition of UpsAm!)
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