It seems that as Washington, D.C. tries to privatize more and more of American life and turn it over to Big Business, there is a quiet but growing battle in the states trying to do exactly the opposite. Call it the Community Ownership movement – and hope that it comes to a town near you.
Here are the basics: we are in an era where the right-wing's free-market-for-everything ideology has been allowed to be turned into reality – and we are starting to see some serious downsides. Think Enron, where Corporate America abused the unregulated market to gouge consumers. Think Social Security privatization, where Wall Street will be allowed to rip off unsuspecting taxpayers for billions. And think Halliburton, where an oil company is being allowed to overcharge America for the privatized work it is doing in Iraq.
But far away from the out-of-touch confines of the Beltway where free market extremism reigns supreme, ordinary Americans are realizing that there's an alternative path, whereby community ownership of certain economic institutions and businesses are a pretty good deal. Instead of allowing Corporate America to reap the windfalls of everything, more and more communities are trying to get a piece of the action – all while making sure the public is adequately served, and not abused.
The highest profile example of this is in municipal broadband, where city governments are developing taxpayer-owned high speed Internet networks. Instead of allowing Verizon or other corporations to control Internet access and rake in all the profits from it, these communities are making Internet access a public utility and sharing in the profits. These communities can make some money at it, while doing the public a service by keeping rates low.
There are other examples. In Montana, a group of cities is making a bid to buy NorthWestern Energy. If successful, Montana taxpayers will actually own their own energy provider, meaning better protection against Enron-style price gouging.
The community ownership movement is moving into some non-traditional areas, too. Take Whitefish, Montana – the community helped build a physical fitness facility, and will help administer the facility and keep rates affordable.
Even in Washington, there have been a few courageous Community Ownership initiatives, such as those trying to make sure taxpayers get the benefits of profits they help generate. For instance, progressives have long tried to make sure that when taxpayers fund the research and development of a new drug, taxpayers get a share in the profits they helped generate when that drug goes to market.
Clearly, all of this is much different than what we're used to seeing. Usually, government is in the business of handing over huge amounts of our taxpayer money to corporations, so that the corporations can just take all the profits, and charge whatever they want to the customers. That's been the backbone of the recent spate of high-profile stadium deals, whereby city and state governments just fork over cash to private pro sports teams, while getting no share of the massive profits in return, and letting those teams charge higher and higher ticket prices to the fans whose tax dollars are supporting them. It has also been standard operating procedure in Washington, D.C., most recently with the Medicare bill that gives away billions to the pharmaceutical industry.
Make no mistake about it - Corporate America and its bought-off allies in Congress are trying to preserve this traditional privatize-and-giveaway-everything system. They are doing whatever they can to stop the burgeoning Community Ownership movement. In Congress, Members of the House and Senate are trying to stop the municipal broadband efforts, while the telecom industry is works feverishly to get state lawmakers to do the same. Similarly, Congress has made sure that taxpayers continue to be cut out of the profits taxpayer-funded R&D generates. Meanwhile, well-heeled executives at NorthWestern Energy are working overtime to avoid being bought out by citizens who are sick and tired of being ripped off.
The battle is sure to turn ideological: you can always count on the right-wing to ultimately scream "Socialism" or "Communism" whenever people propose making profits work for an entire community, rather than just a few wealthy fat cats. The only thing Corporate America wants government to own is services that don't make any profits, like policing and firefighting – things that Big Business desperately wants taxpayers to pay for, so that corporations don't have to. These corporate hacks want to socialize everything that costs money, and privatize everything that makes money.
Will the inevitable right-wing red-baiting against the Community Ownership movement work? Good question – but it is a good debate to finally start having. For too long, our side has rolled over and died when it comes to questions about how to manage the free market so that it works for ordinary people. Now it's time to have it out.
People know corporations right now have far too much power and far too much leeway to rip off ordinary citizens - but there is a feeling that that's "just a fact of life." The Community Ownership movement shows it doesn't have to be a fact of life, and that there is an alternative. In other words, this is a debate progressives should welcome, because it is a debate we can win.
David Sirota is a veteran campaign strategist and writer. Currently, he is writing a book for Random House's Crown Publishers about the middle class economic squeeze. Before that project, he was the chief spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, and before that, the spokesman for Congressman Bernie Sanders, the House's longest-serving independent. In 2000 and 2004, Sirota did press work for Brian Schweitzer, now the governor of Montana. Sirota lives in Helena, Montana with his wife.