So, who cares if governors like Chris Christie cut public services and lay off public employees? Isn’t small government better? Outsourcing government shows the private sector can do it more competently, right? Those are the mantras of conservative Republicans and neoliberal Democrats like Christie poodle Steve Sweeney. But a new report by Rutgers University researchers gives the lie to such fine 19th Century thinking. The failure to use government to oversee private contractors providing public services can cost lives and perpetuate endless personal nightmares like those created by Superstorm Sandy.
The extraordinarily informative study—“Overlooking Oversight: A Lack of Oversight in the Garden State is Placing New Jersey Residents and Assets at Risk”—demonstrates that government is not just some vague, amorphous mass out there that causes taxes to increase. They are the men and women who care for children in foster care, who supervise ex-cons, who provide services for disabled people, and who should be counted on for help when a disaster like Sandy strikes.
The problem is Christie and other like-minded politicians have laid off those people and have allowed government to shrink to the point to where it is hardly more than an instrument of the political ends and greed of governors like Christie and their friends in the private sector who get the jobs once held by, and do the work once done by, public employees. The Rutgers study doesn’t say it that way, of course—but I just did.
The study does blame much of the failure of oversight of private contractors on the reduction of the state payroll to a skeleton crew:
“Unfortunately, between 2004 and 2011, the size of the state workforce in New Jersey shrank by 36,319 while the total value of contracts held steady and in some years increased quite significantly. Management professionals in both public administration and private sector supply chain management agree that strong, relational contract oversight is critically important to ensuring that contractors are fulfilling their obligations and that taxpayers are receiving quality public services.”
That’s down from about 60,000 in the 1970s and 1980s—before tax-cutting and job-cutting governors, beginning with Christie Todd Whitman, created the myth that government can function by laying off public workers and hiring private companies run by friends.
If you don’t believe such policies literally kill, take a look at the section on the state Department of Corrections Residential Community Release Program (RCRP). There, the lack of oversight over poorly trained workers allowed convicts on release to kill and maim.
“They”—the RCRP centers—“ are staffed by counselors who make roughly $11 hourly, do not carry weapons and are not permitted to use force to restrain residents. RCRPs are a fast growing segment of the criminal justice system in New Jersey and were home to over 2,700 people by 2011,” the report noted.
Hmmm–do we know a governor who has a good friend in the rent-a-prison business?
The researchers concentrated on a number of poorly run private programs—those aimed at helping homeless children and the disabled. But, aside from the death and mayhem caused by government’s failure to properly supervise ex-prisoners, the most damning section deals with the victims of Superstorm Sandy who were betrayed by a governor who used their pain to project a national image of himself as a hero. It was the same sort of image that helped a loser like George W. Bush portray himself as a “compassionate onservative” who could combine the best of both ends of the political spectrum best summed up in—“Love thy neighbor, help thy friends, and get elected.”
No, it doesn’t happen that way. Government can’t function like that. The key isn’t compassion but competence. The Rutgers report shows that hiring private companies—like Louisiana’s HGI—to do what government should be doing in the face of a natural disaster only exacerbates the pain. While Christie and his family members pranced on the beach, performing for a taxpayer-funded political ad, real men and women off-camera were suffering from an inept company he hired that charged $50 million to mess up Sandy relief.
In the press conference rolling out the Rutgers study, Adam Gordon of the Fair Share Housing Center, called the Sandy relief project “chaotic and error-ridden.” Nearly 80 percent of the people who were denied aid actually deserved it—and the southern company especially liked to deny aid to blacks and Latinos.
The Rutgers study won’t say it—but it’s there between the lines: Christie exploited Sandy victims by concentrating more on how he could use the disaster for his own political advantage than on ensuring the men and women hurt by the storm were helped.
University researchers won’t make editorial comments like that. Rutgers, after all, is a state university so some politesse is called for. Indeed, one of the authors, Janice Fine, made it clear the lack of oversight “started long before anyone ever heard of Chris Christie.”
The study was the product of the university’s labor and employee relations department in New Brunswick and its public policy and administration department in Camden. In addition to Fine, the authors were Patrice Mareschal, David Hersh, and Kirk Leach.
There is, of course, another lesson to be learned from “Overlooking Oversight”—the essential nature of academic freedom. The study might not be written with narrative flair but its often dry depiction of contract procedures contains an indictment of the political ideology that can be reduced to the Reaganite canard government doesn’t solve problems, it is the problem. Rutgers itself has been under political attack by Christie and his thuggish South Jersey ally, Democratic political boss George Norcross.
Whatever else this study says, it sends this message—the independence of institutions of higher education must be protected.