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Private Is Better

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Our next president will almost certainly be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

But I take heart knowing that America's founders imposed checks and balances, so there will be limits on what bad things the next president can do.


Most of what government does is expensive and useless, no matter who is president. Or governor. Or mayor.

Politicians say there are so many things only government should do -- explore outer space, provide airport security, supply utilities, etc. But even those things work better when the private sector does them.

NASA put rockets into space. But the private company SpaceX found a way to bring those same rockets safely back to earth. SpaceX now puts satellites in orbit for much less than NASA thought possible.

Private, competitive enterprises routinely find ways to do things more efficiently than lazy bureaucracies. After all, government can keep screwing up forever and just tax you more. But private companies must make a profit or die.

"Everybody loves the space program," says Lori Garver on my TV show this week. Garver was President Obama's former No. 2 at NASA, but now she admits, "It's a government bureaucracy. Their incentives are not to do things more efficiently."

Obama actually tried to privatize more of it. "NASA uses test stands that cost $300 million to refurbish, says Garver. "When I went to (Amazon's) Jeff Bezos's facility, Blue Origins, they were building the same quality test stand for $30 million. ...That is crazy."

Airport security also works better when government doesn't run it.

After 9/11, politicians wanted to show they were making airport security tougher. Republicans at least vowed that TSA workers would not be unionized. But a few years later, Democrats won, and TSA became unionized. Now, lines are extra long, and the union whines that it needs more resources. That would be more money wasted.


Fortunately, Congress allows airports to beg for the right to opt out of the government-run system. Security lines move faster at airports that have. At San Francisco International Airport, the largest to privatize, travelers even told us the screeners were nicer.

They're also better at finding stuff. The TSA tested them and found them twice as good at finding contraband as TSA screeners.

Private companies try harder. San Francisco's company has screeners practice racing to find mock contraband. The fastest wins $2,000.

More airports are asking the Department of Homeland Security to allow them to use private screeners. DHS stalls, because governments rarely relinquish power voluntarily.

In quiet ways, privatization keeps improving our lives. A thousand American cities have now switched from government-run to private water systems.

When the government-run system in Flint, Michigan, poisoned people, pundits made it sound like cold-hearted Republican politicians created the problem. But government at all levels, both parties, failed in Flint.

Government water departments routinely neglect basic maintenance. In Jersey City, New Jersey, they let the pipes rust. The water didn't taste good, failed government's own tests -- and kept getting more expensive.

City workers said there wasn't anything they could do.

"It can't be done" is an answer heard in bureaucracies everywhere. So the mayor put the water contract out for bid. A for-profit company won. Within months, the private company fixed pipes the government couldn't fix.


But the private company hired the same government workers. I asked some: Are you working harder now? "Yes. You're always on the go," one said.

"Were you goofing off before?" I asked. "Sitting around?"

"Well, occasionally, yes," one worker admitted.

"What if the private company screws up?" I asked the man who privatized the system back when he was mayor, Bret Schundler.

"They're fired. They're toast. If they blow it, we're going to give the contract to somebody else," said Schundler. "There's nothing like the prospect of a hanging to concentrate the mind."

Right. Private companies must do better because they get fired if they don't. Government never fires itself.

Most of what makes our lives better -- flush toilets, air-conditioning, Google, Facebook, cellphones, pacemakers, vegetables in winter, etc. -- comes from the private sector.

There's nothing stopping people everywhere from enjoying improvements like the ones in Jersey City, in San Francisco's airport and at SpaceX -- nothing except government bureaucracy and our outdated belief that many jobs just belong in government's clumsy hands.

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