Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!

Budget Debate is Not About Taxes, It's About Outsourcing Public Services

Iraq War shows us the huge profits corporations reap when they take over the role of government

The budget negotiations that led to the recent shutdown of the state government in Minnesota, where I live, are about much more than money. It’s even more than a battle over the role of taxes in society, or over social issues like stem cell research, a ban on which the Republican majority disingenuously attached to the budget bill.

If you look carefully at the other states that have been embroiled in controversy this year – states like Wisconsin, with the long battle over collective bargaining, and Michigan, where emergency managers have been appointed by the Governor to take over control of struggling towns and school systems—a pattern emerges.

The battles in these states—and the high-stakes debate about raising the federal debt limit just brokered in Washington—are part of a much larger ideological fight over the future privatization of services currently performed by government. It is a fight to open enormous new markets and opportunities for potential profit—profits that will be paid for directly by taxpayers.

For an example of how this might play out one need look no further than the war in Iraq. For the first time ever, much of the support work that had for generations been performed by the military was outsourced, almost all of it to a handful of companies that profited mightily from the war.

On close inspection one sees that the American taxpayer has not received a good value for the money. The largest military contractors in Iraq have been found guilty of fraud, overbilling, and waste of resources that has cost the government literally billions of dollars. Meanwhile, as our tax dollars are squandered, the profits of these companies soar. Adding insult to injury, one of the largest of these companies, Halliburton, moved its corporate headquarters from Texas to Dubai in 2007 to avoid paying U.S. taxes on much of its income and profit.

Imagine a future where our roads are maintained, our bridges are built, and our students are taught by employees of companies that perhaps do not have headquarters in Minnesota or even the United States, with shareholders that demand ever larger dividends and CEOs making hundreds of millions a year. Is this the future we want for Minnesota and our country?

Government is not a for-profit entity. Government at its best delivers essential services and responsible stewardship of community resources at a good value to its citizens. It is time we accept the fact that taxes—well-spent—are a necessary investment in our future, and that we should concentrate how to encourage efficiency and minimize waste. It’s also time that we return to proportionate taxation, where those who benefit the most pay the most. Doing this is an essential part of any long-term solution to the ongoing and divisive battles over the budget.

Essay and photograph both by Camille J. Gage, a Minneapolis-based artist. She is currently working on 10 Years + Counting , a collaborative, national project created in response to the upcoming 10 year anniversary of our nation at war. 10YAC invites artists and others to take this historic moment as inspiration and use the power of creativity to illustrate the costs of war and imagine a more peaceful world. Gage’s website offers more information about her work.