Eco-Socialism #1 : Public Service, Private Profit

Public infrastructure and utilities are the skeleton of the national economy; the spokes of the wheel; the walls of the house.

Private corporations can in many cases put muscle on the body, a tyre on the bike, and furnish the rooms, but without the basic public provision, private enterprise cannot thrive.

Without taxes being raised – asking everybody for their appropriate contribution – there would be no guaranteed health service, education system, roads, water supplies, power networks.

Federal or central government spending is essential, and often goes without question or inspection – including subsidies, cheap government loans, tax breaks and even rule-bending and regulatory exemption for specific sectors of the economy. This policy lenience also applies to private companies that take on the provision of public utilities.

This explicit, but often glossed-over, support for public services means that private business can rely on this national infrastructure. Small businesses can rely on a power supply and waste disposal services, for example. Large businesses can rely on a functioning postal service and road network.

It is questionable whether for-profit enterprise would be able to survive without the basic taxation-funded provision of public services and utilities.

I can understand why governments feel the need to get public spending off the balance sheet, and outsource public utilities to the private sector.

There is a lingering belief that private enterprise makes public services more efficient; makes manufacturing more reliable; makes construction better quality.

In some cases, this belief in privatisation is justified. Where companies can genuinely compete with each other, there can be efficiencies at scale. However, the success of privatisation is not universal.

Many parts of a developed economy are monolithic – there is no real competition possible. You get electricity through your power socket from a variety of production companies – you cannot choose. The road between your house and your office is always the same road – you don’t choose between different tarmac suppliers. Your local hospital is your local hospital, regardless of who owns and runs it – you have no choice about who that is – and the government contract tendering process is not something open to a public vote.

Added to this lack of competition, in some cases, it is impossible to make a profit by operating a public service by a private concern.

There should be no rock under which private business can hide when it claims to be operating profitable train and bus services – without public subsidies, public transport cannot be run at a profit.

Liability for daily operations may have been outsourced to the British private train companies, but not the full cost of the services. Costs for locally-sourced services cannot be driven down because they cannot be made fully open to global competition.

By contrast, the globalisation of labour has been making manufacturing industry significantly cheaper for decades.

In order for globalised trade to work, finance has to be liberated from its nation-bound shackles, and so along with the globalisation of labour to nations where it’s cheapest, there has been the globalisation of finance, to the tax regimes less punitive.

The globalisation of trade is a two-way bargain between those that want to see the development of primitive economies and those who want to create wealth for their companies and their shareholders.

Globalisation has created a booming China, for example, and filled the pockets of any Western company that imports from China.

However, the tide of globalisation has reached the shore, and the power of the waves is being stilled by solid earth realities. Labour costs in previously under-developed economies are starting to rise significantly, as those economies start to operate internal markets as well as maintain export-led growth.

It could soon be cheaper to have manufacturing labour in the United States of America than China. But when that happens a curious problem will arise. Manufacturing industry has been closed down in the so-called industrialised countries – as companies have taken their factories to the places with the cheapest labour and the most lax tax.

Wealth creation potential in developed countries has been destroyed. And it is for this reason that Western governments feel the urgent need to privatise everything, because their economies are collapsing internally, and public budgets may no longer be able to sustain current government spending.

However, privatisation doesn’t work for everything. It doesn’t work for health, education, water, public transport. The European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a vehicle to compensate for agricultural sectors than cannot make a profit. I would contend privatisation doesn’t work for the energy supply and distribution sector either – but for a special reason.

Normally, it is possible to run energy stations at a profit. The privatised sector inherited power stations and grid networks that were fully functioning, and the sales of power and Natural Gas were almost pure profit.

However, much energy plant needs to be lifecycled after decades of use – replacements are in order, and this demands heavy public investment, in the form of subsidies, or pricing controls, or tax breaks or some such financial aid, in order to avoid crippling the private companies.

Like the rail network, there is direct public investment in the power grids. This is to support new access for new energy plant. However, I think this doesn’t go far enough. I would argue that much more public tax-and-spend is required in the energy sector.

In future, most electricity generation needs to become low carbon and indigenous. The primary reason for this is the volatility of the globalised economy – it will no longer be possible to assume that imports of coal, Natural Gas and oil for power station combustion can be afforded – especially in economies like the United Kingdom, where much wealth creation has been destroyed by de-industrialisation.

It used to be easy to ignore this – as the North Sea was so productive in oil and Natural Gas that the UK was a net energy exporter. This is no longer the case.

To avoid the risk of national impoverishment, energy independence is dictated, spelled out by a deflating British economy and by the depleting North Sea reserves.

The easiest and fastest way to a power supply that is low carbon is by healthy investment in wind power and solar power. Yet with the turbulence in the global economy, spending on renewable energy has also been rocky.

Now is the time for the UK Government to stop tickling corporate underbellies to get them to invest in British energy, and to start collected tax revenues to spend explicitly on the energy revival.

It can be “matched” funding – the Renewables Obligation, for example, has drawn in massive levels of private investment into wind power. And the feed-in tariff scheme for solar photovoltaics had, until recently, been pulling in high levels of personal individual and private company investment.

This is the kind of public-private financing that works – create a slightly tilted playing field to tip the flow of money towards new energy investment, and watch the river flow.

Without public money ploughed into public infrastructure in non-profitable areas such as public transport and energy, private enterprise will not be able to make a contribution – they would quickly bankrupt themselves.

The result of capping public subsidies for renewable energy is a halt to renewable energy deployment. Those who resist wind farms are in effect destroying the country. Those who cap public subsidies for solar power want to break the nation.

We need socalist financing of new energy technology deployment, for the future wealth of our country.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *