May we now, finally, once and for all, drive a stake through the heart of the tired old saw about how "government should be run more like a business."
Government exists to serve the people. Business exists to serve itself. Get the two confused, and neither functions properly.
A particularly striking example of that confusion may be rumbling by your house even now.
Tuesday, the top brass of the Utah Transit Authority collected the Salt Lake Chamber’s President’s Award for Excellence, given in recognition of, among other successes, bringing in the expansion of its TRAX light rail system significantly ahead of schedule and remarkably under budget.
The community’s primary business organization liked how UTA had done well by behaving "just like a business."
Then much of the same UTA leadership had to scurry up to the Capitol to be called on a very rough carpet by leaders of the Utah Legislature because a performance audit had caught the agency operating, well, just like a business.
Not a very wise or stable business, perhaps, but a particular variety of private sector attitude that pollutes the whole community.
The audit faulted UTA for being involved, directly or indirectly, in various deals and decisions that saw public money and public needs subordinated to private profit.
A giant parking garage that one developer was paid for but another ended up building. Land transactions allegedly spun to the benefit of a then-member of the UTA board. Swollen executive compensation packages. Product lines and fee structures that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.
Stuff like that is just another day at the office for many — not all, but many — in the private sector. It’s their money, after all, and their fiduciary duty to make more money, no matter who gets screwed over in the process.
What’s wrong with that? Not a thing. It’s a system that has invented, mass produced and delivered every tool, machine, service and practice we take for granted in modern life.
Any damage done can be blamed not just on the business, but on consumers, voters and government, for failing to see that the only way to stop some businesses from robbing or poisoning us is to manipulate the market so that hurting us costs them money — through lost customers, civil fines and criminal prosecution — instead of making them more profits.
Mixing public and private in improper ways is certainly not limited to the woes of the UTA. Other critical state audits of state programs intended to funnel public money into private business point out exaggerated claims, questionable successes and taxpayer money that just seems to have vanished.
Such luminaries as Gov. Gary Herbert express their full confidence in UTA, USTAR and other income transfers from the poor to the rich. Meanwhile, the state’s version of Medicaid expansion is held up because Herbert wants to impose a punitive and bureaucracy-expanding work requirement on those who would dare to apply for his Healthy Utah program.
The rich get bribes, because, obviously, it’s the only way to get them to do the right thing. They’re no chumps, clearly, or they wouldn’t be rich.
The poor get remonstrations to do the right things — skip their own meals to feed their children, go heavily into debt to get an education, go bankrupt to pay for health care, wait an hour, and pay proportionately more, for a bus route that was cut back to fund the rail services that their bosses ride — because they are the right things. Because of personal responsibility. Because suffering builds character.
If you really expect to benefit from the public dime, after all, you’d already be rich.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, outlined this column in his head while waiting for a train.
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