The Real Chicago Way

A privatization scheme that's a loser for taxpayers.

When the entertainers of the right aren't declaring their disgust with President Obama for groveling before foreign potentates, they're pretending to fear him as a left-wing thug, an exemplar of what they call "the Chicago way." As imagined by the right, the men in the West Wing are like a demonic cross between the antiwar demonstrators who gathered in Grant Park in 1968 and the Chicago cops who cracked their hippie skulls. Tremble, men of commerce, before this infernal combination.

Myths like this are fun to invent. The problem, as ever, is reality.

Consider one of the actual news stories to emerge from Chicago of late: The city's decision to privatize its parking meters. Thanks to a deal finalized in 2008, Chicago's parking meters will be operated for the next 75 years by a group of investors put together by Morgan Stanley, including the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi.As it happens, Chicago is the nation's leader in municipal privatization efforts. That's right: The city that conservatives portray as the citadel of the power-grabbing, government-growing left has been selling itself off in pieces for years. It signed a 99-year lease for the Chicago Skyway, a toll road in the city's South Side, back in 2005. It did the same for its big downtown parking garages in 2006. Last year, it approved a deal to privatize Midway Airport; fortunately, the arrangements fell through.

The city's longtime mayor, Richard M. Daley, is such a keen enthusiast of privatization that he has promoted it as the budget solution for every government in the land. "If they start leasing public assets-every city, every county, every state and the federal government-you would not have to raise any taxes whatsoever," Mr. Daley told the Chicago Sun-Times in January. "You would have more infrastructure money that way than any other way in the nation."

Selling public property is the true Chicago way. Had Mr. Obama not been elected president, the nation's business journals would be falling over one another to praise his city for its daring, market-friendly innovations.

And if they chose, they would also find just as much to criticize in Mayor Daley's real-life privatization spree as they do in the brutality that they imagine President Obama shows his opponents.

The details of the parking meter deal, for example, were negotiated by the Daley administration with almost no public scrutiny. When it came time to approve the billion-dollar arrangement, the city council got exactly two days. It was a farce. According to a report issued by Chicago's inspector general, "No financial analysis was provided of the value of the parking-meter system to the City if it retained the system, since no such analysis had been done. . . . There was no public comment; no testimony from critics or experts; no presentation of recent studies" on privatization elsewhere.

It was not until months later that Chicagoans discovered what a lousy deal it was. The inspector general's report estimates that the private investors paid a little more than half the amount that the system would have generated had the city held onto the meters itself.

One alderman, described at length in the Chicago Reader last May, figures that the parking system might be worth four times what the investors paid. "The taxpayers had been hosed," the Reader concluded.

Meanwhile, the cost of parking increased dramatically, as the new parking-meter proprietor sought to maximize its return. Meters broke down from the unaccustomed load of quarters. Tickets were handed out with abandon. Chicagoans were furious.

What they eventually learned is that they had handed over a component of self-governance to a private company that is, by definition, unconcerned with the public interest. Chicago police will still hand out parking tickets; the state of Illinois will still suspend drivers' licenses; but for the next 75 years all of it will be done to ensure that citizens render proper tribute to Wall Street.

And now comes the inevitable denouement. Last week, the Chicago City Council voted to plug a hole in its 2010 budget using funds remaining from the billion-dollar parking-meter haul, despite earlier plans to invest the money for the long term. Almost all of it will be gone by the end of next year.

It may not fit the myth, but that's the real Chicago way. Sell off public property without public scrutiny. Prohibit public input on an essential public service. Rationalize the whole thing, as Mr. Daley's administration has done, by insisting that government can't run such things as well as the private sector can.

And then, when the money runs out, privatize something else: The water supply, maybe. The sewer system. An airport or two.

Why not privatize a U.S. Senate seat, too? Just imagine what Abu Dhabi would pay for that.

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