Crowdfunding for the Public Good Is Evil | WIRED

Important article about the slippery slope from an underpaid teacher crowdfunding for classroom supplies to a bankruptcy city crowdfunding to clean up its parks. Crowdfunding is great when it funds new products that aren’t getting supported by more conventional forms of investment:

Public necessities, by contrast, are not awesome; they’re essential. Roads, health care, education: These are not the kinds of things that go viral and raise $2 million in less than a week. But if crowdfunding for the public good is allowed to continue unchecked, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which everyone votes on public works with their dollars—distorting priorities and giving those with deeper pockets more of a say.

Of all the crowdfunding appeals I’ve come across on facebook, a solid 90% of them are for healthcare expenses (and more often than not for dire conditions, like cancer or a terminal genetic disease). This is depressing not just because healthcare is also a public good (and these appeals make clear the inadequacy of our healthcare funding structure), but because it puts people in the position of begging for money at the most desperate time in their lives. Their very survival is now hitched not just to their own healthcare-employment situation, but to the wealth of their family members, classmates, and facebook connections. I’d like to call that evil too.

Source: Crowdfunding for the Public Good Is Evil | WIRED

Public and private money in San Francisco schools

Unlike some California school districts, which centralize and redistribute funds raised by parents, San Francisco so far has permitted all money raised at a school to stay there. This gives some schools an enormous advantage. School district data show that in 2011 (the most recent year tax records were available), parents of children at just 10 elementary schools raised $2.77 million — more money than those at the other 61 combined.

A very belated post on a great investigative series. This is what I want to research next, a really important issue particularly in California, where school funding is in the very bottom of state per pupil funding. Much of the debate in education centers around the impact of residential segregation on student outcomes and resource inequities between districts. As this investigation shows, inequities within districts are also prevalent: in San Francisco, there are vast differences in the amounts of money that individuals schools can raise from their student body and surrounding community.

By bringing in as much as $1,500 per student, the top fundraising schools appear to have been largely insulated from the effects of budgets cuts. Meanwhile, parents at high-poverty schools such as Junipero Serra are seeing shrinking resources for their children. This means laid-off staff, dilapidated libraries, outdated computers and a dearth of essential supplies like pencils and paper.

This happens in my own district, where there is no lottery or distribution of students as there is in Berkeley and (more halfheartedly) in San Francisco and Oakland. But here, in Albany, the PTAs have agreed to pool funds in response to outcry over the gaps in fundraising capacity between the schools.

Read more: How budget cuts and PTA fundraising undermined equity in San Francisco public schools

What it means to privatize the justice system

Great article about the consequences of turning over parts of the criminal justice system to private, for-profit companies. How do the companies make money? By charging offenders on probation for their own monitoring, and by racking up fines and interest charges on the cost of traffic tickets and small court fines. There are already many well-documented Kafkaesque nightmares emerging from this turning over of a basic function of governance.

Collection companies and the services they offer appeal to politicians and public officials for a number of reasons: they cut government costs, reducing the need to raise taxes; they shift the burden onto offenders, who have little political influence, in part because many of them have lost the right to vote; and it pleases taxpayers who believe that the enforcement of punishment — however obtained — is a crucial dimension to the administration of justice.

As N.P.R. reported in May, services that “were once free, including those that are constitutionally required,” are now frequently billed to offenders: the cost of a public defender, room and board when jailed, probation and parole supervision, electronic monitoring devices, arrest warrants, drug and alcohol testing, and D.N.A. sampling. This can go to extraordinary lengths: in Washington state, N.P.R. found, offenders even “get charged a fee for a jury trial — with a 12-person jury costing $250, twice the fee for a six-person jury.”

Read: The Expanding World of Poverty Capitalism –

More than one way for a city to die

There has been a lot of press lately, nationally and locally, about the skyrocketing cost of living and doing business in San Francisco. While all that money keeps the city in better fiscal shape than most places in the U.S., it doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of life for San Franciscans. In fact, it kills city life for those residents forced out by evictions and rising rents. It also hasn’t infused money into public infrastructure, as evidenced by the controversy over private bus systems run by Google.

“Community space” implies something that is open to, well, the community. Subverting of naming conventions to suggest public access and transparency, while providing neither, is troubling and increasingly pervasive. But this turning inward, despite the incessant drumbeat of “community,” is quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception.

In my class on urban economics, we talk about the movement of firms back to central cities, explained by their desire to be near amenities that their workers value (in addition to other benefits of agglomeration economies). But increasingly, these firms then create private amenities out of semi-public spaces, which challenges our notion of what it is that makes cities desirable, to both firms and workers. These are not idle differences: the protests over how tech firms and workers use public space–including both physical spaces and the public spaces of governance.

In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” We’re losing that here. The further the tech sector gets from the reality of the problems it’s engaging with, the smaller piece of the problem they’ll end up actually fixing.
Read: WhatTechHasn’

What the end looks like

The New York Times is stepping up its coverage of Detroit once again, as the city’s emergency manager issues dire warnings to creditors and seems to be paving the way to bankruptcy.

There was a flurry of stories about the possibility of the Detroit Institute of Art perhaps being liquidated to help pay off Detroit’s debt (the museum is one of the largest municipally owned museums in the country, and includes several masterpieces, including Diego River’s frescoes). The museum is owned by the city, but funded primarily by an endowment and by a property tax levy approved by voters in 2012.

Much of the coverage of Detroit (in the NYT and elsewhere) has focused on these possibilities of cultural asset purging, but there has been far less coverage on the human implications of cutbacks, or of the assets not valued by the rising upper-income population of the city. The school district began selling off buildings last year with little notice.

DETROIT — As this debt-ridden city lurches toward a possible bankruptcy filing, residents and workers have been locked in a grim faceoff with creditors over how to preserve what remains of their services and benefits.

Contributing to the municipal anxiety is the possibility that some of the city’s cultural treasures could be sold off, including masterpieces in the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Belle Isle park in the Detroit River.

In a Chapter 9 bankruptcy — which is highly unusual, especially for a big city — it would be up to a judge, if asked, to decide on a request to sell assets like the art or cars. Even if a judge is so inclined, some creditors might be loath to appear too hard-nosed by going after municipal treasures.

“They’re going to want to take everything they can out of the city’s assets, but they won’t want to take the heart out of the body,” said James V. McTevia, a corporate turnaround expert who runs McTevia & Associates in Bingham Farms, Mich.

It will be interesting if other aspects of Detroit’s heart get similar treatment from creditors in their desire not to appear too “hard-nosed.” Or perhaps the ire of poor residents and retirees isn’t something they’re worried about.

Read: Anxiety in Detroit Over a Prized Car Trove –

The hidden toll of privatization

What governments save in salaries and benefits often “ends up on the government books through all sorts of programs,” said Paul C. Light, a professor at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, referring to unemployment insurance, Medicaid and other public assistance for workers earning low incomes.

Economists and other academics who study outsourcing are divided about whether it usually saves a government money. Recent data from Arizona shows that privately operated prisons often cost more to operate than state-run facilities. A study by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit Washington group, found that in 33 of 35 occupations, using contractors cost the federal government billions of dollars more than using government employees.

And some municipalities have brought outsourced services back into the public fold after determining they could perform the work as cost-effectively as private companies.

Read: As States Shift to Contract Workers, Savings Are Not Clear-Cut – (Nov. 6 11)

Privatization – how is it debated?

These New York Times debates are never wholly satisfying, but are an interesting indicator of what kinds of “debates” are coming to the fore of political conversation, and how those debates are framed (what are the central questions? how are the sides staked out?).

Interestingly, just as austerity policies are driving the outsourcing and privatization of many services and goods once provided by governments, the amount of research suggesting that governments are actually more efficient and better providers mounts. This tension is at least partly responsible for the growing debate about privatization (contrasted with the early 2000s and before, when it was generally considered common sense that the private sector did everything more efficiently).

Mildred Warner’s contribution to this debate cites some of the research on effectiveness and prevalence of outsourcing. It’s important for those of us who research and write about neoliberalism, austerity, shrinking governance, etc. recognize that the story of privatization is complex, and has not been linear. But it’s also important to recognize that “privatization” also encompasses the steady reduction in the scale and type of services offered by the public sector. The movement toward charter schools, the shifting of housing and support services to the nonprofit sector as public funding decreases, are also important pieces of the privatization story.