First, the Good News…
1) National: The bad news is that a relentless, massive, boosterish campaign to promote artificial intelligence programs and products funded by private billion dollar companies and billionaire activists is penetrating everything everywhere all at once, including, of course, the public sector. This rhymes with previous marketing and PR corporate think tank offensives promoting things like “Government 2.0,” where one Republican mayor even suggested he could run his entire city of one million people with only four contract managers. In the years since, the issue has exploded and now touches everything—education, healthcare, criminal justice, planning, warfare, financial risk, and much else. If the corporate world is pursuing The Privatization of Everything, then artificial intelligence will be its engine.
But here’s the good news part: pushback is also gaining strength, taking the form of specific criticisms of the damaging effects that AI is having and can have on real human beings in the real world; and broader critiques of the politics, ideologies, power strategies, and dominance goals of the AI and AGI (artificial general intelligence) corporate movements. The pushback even has spaces “for independent, community-rooted AI research, free from Big Tech’s pervasive influence.”
This is too big a subject to take on in a couple of paragraphs. But in the first category, that of specific AI risks to people in specific applications, “Denied by AI: How Medicare Advantage Plans Use Algorithms to Cut Off Care for Seniors in Need,” an article in STAT, written by Casey Ross and Bob Herman, is worthwhile reading. Yet although it might be worthwhile to look at this piece, it would cost you $399 dollars to do so. As our colleagues over at The American Prospect say, “The greatest threat to democracy from the media isn’t disinformation, it’s the paywall.”
Some shortened versions of access do exist, however, and these get the point across of how AI is damaging peoples’ healthcare. There’s an excerpt in the Boston Globe; and a podcast interview with one of the paper’s authors, Bob Herman. [Audio; about 35 minutes]. If you ever wondered why a health insurance claim was turned down, this fills in some of the blanks. It’s not comforting, and it’s sinking behind the usual privatization curtain of “proprietary information.”
In the second category—broader critiques of the dangers to the public interest of AI and AGI—the best place to go is to spend a few hours looking at the presentations and papers of the brilliant Timnit Gebru, who has a penetrating analysis of the key billionaires, scientists, and quacks in the AI world (spoiler alert: it maps into eugenics movements and bad science fiction). Though she doesn’t focus on public sector-private sector issues broadly, there is a lot in these materials about problems with AI and AGI in both sectors. For the politics and ideology, see her lecture on AGI here [Video, about 48 minutes], and AI and ethics here; and this Emile Torres piece in Truthdig.
2) National: States are pushing to make school meals available for all, Route Fifty reports. “Better access to free meals proved to be so popular during the pandemic, that at least seven states have stepped in to provide school meals to all students since the federal program ended in June. California and Maine have made their programs permanent. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont are providing free meals for every student just for the current school year. And Colorado voters approved a measure last fall, but it won’t take effect until next school year and districts can opt out. Other states could soon join the list.”
3) National: The U.S. EPA says the role of states in setting water and wastewater policy goals is secure. “The top Environmental Protection Agency official on water policy reassured senators on Wednesday that the agency will give states flexibility in deciding how to spend the $48 billion for water and wastewater funds that was included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. ‘The states are very much in the driver’s seat in selecting the projects that really meet the needs of their residents,’ said Radhika Fox, the assistant administrator for water at the EPA.”
4) Florida: It’s not good news quite yet, but the New York Sun is suggesting that DeSantis may veto the $200 million state school voucher bill because rich people would benefit too much from it and “they already have school choice” as he says. Perhaps the budget numbers are biting his rhetoric. The senate will likely vote on the bill this week.
5) Indiana: You know how activists are always encouraging people who feel strongly about an issue to get out there and run for public office to set things right? Well in Bloomingdale, Indiana, Jackie McGrath is running for the library board with a major focus on the threat of privatization. “I am running because I’m concerned about our library’s future. There is a nationwide movement to slash library budgets and remove books. Organizations like Awake Illinois and Moms for Liberty are behind a lot of the challenges libraries are facing and they are encouraging people to run for local offices. There is also a push to privatize public libraries. Library Systems & Services is the fourth largest library system in the United States and it is privately run. Who sits on a library board can mean the difference between a thriving library and one that is being dismantled. I want to secure my library’s future.
6) Pennsylvania: Harrisburg is celebrating the paying off of its once onerous municipal debt. ““This is a historic moment in our city,’ said Mayor Wanda Williams at a press conference. ‘Harrisburg’s best days are ahead.’ The forbearance liability debt is money that the city owed to bond insurer Ambac Assurance after it defaulted on its Series D&F bond payments in 2011. The original D&F bonds were issued in 1997, under former Mayor Steve Reed. Harrisburg paid off those bonds in September 2022. Late last year, Harrisburg City Council approved the payoff of $12 million of what was $20 million in remaining in debt, at the time. While city administration officials had originally proposed paying off the total $20 million at once, council members were hesitant to spend down such a large amount of the city’s fund balance. Last week, council approved the final $8.3 million payment.” This would make financial room for “resident services, possibly street repaving, purchasing public works vehicles, and blighted building demolition.”
7) Think Tanks: A new workforce survey reveals what employees love about the public sector, and what’s driving them away. “Public sector employees report finding their work fulfilling and enjoy the benefits provided, according to a recent survey from the MissionSquare Research Institute, a nonprofit that studies government workforce issues. Just over half of respondents reported feeling “very or extremely satisfied with their current employer,” and 66% percent said morale at work was high.”
8) What we’re reading: In the Public Interest’s Donald Cohen writes about new and interesting research we’ve come across. “Every now and then, we’re going to gather together in this space new research, reports, articles, and datasets that have come across our screens from some of those organizations and individuals that we feel offer timely insights into current issues. The first item is fresh research from of a partnership between the Worker Institute and the Buffalo Co-Lab at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) and the New York State Public Employees Federation (PEF) called Diminishing New York State’s Public Mental Healthcare Sector: The Impact of Austerity and Privatization on wages and employment. The report outlines the results of a 10 percent drop in the number of mental health workers employed by New York State despite an increase in the overall number of mental healthcare workers. The team published a full report and a succinct factsheet that is well worth the time to read.”
9) National: Are expensive and/or censorious private, for-profit firewalls about to be placed in front of public library book collections and lending practices? Writing in The Nation, Maria Bustillos points to a potentially massive legal case against @internetarchive that could produce that result. “Jennie Rose Halperin, the director of Library Futures, a digital library policy and advocacy organization, told me: ‘If libraries do not maintain the right to purchase and lend materials digitally as well as physically on terms that are equitable and fair to the public, we risk further exacerbating divides in our democracy and society, as well as the continued privatization of information access. Just because a book is digital does not make it licensed software—a book is a book, in whatever form it takes.’”
10) National: Jennifer Berkshire joined Lilliana Mason and Thomas Zimmer on their podcast Is This Democracy to discuss the right wing assault on education and why Democrats struggle to defend the public good. “It comes in the form of an attempted authoritarian takeover of schools and universities, in hundreds of bills establishing state censorship, banning books, purging anything that dares to dissent from a white nationalist understanding of the nation’s past or present from the classroom, the libraries, the curriculum—but also as a radical push for school privatization, a dimension that has received far less attention.” [Audio, about an hour and 15 minutes]]
11) National: Diane Ravitch says we’ve got to support the cast of Abbott Elementary from “education reformer” attacks. “In season 2, the show turned to the topic of charter schools, because a big charter chain wants to take over Abbott. The staff is mortified. The staff lays bare the unfair practices of the charter school (e.g., pushing out kids they don’t want), and the series lays bare how underfunded Abbott is (in contrast to the charter school, which is equipped with the best of everything). Jeanne Allen, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Education Reform, lashed out on Twitter against Quinta Brunson for her negative portrayal of charters when Quinta had gone to charter schools “her entire education” in Philadelphia and had previously praised them. Quinta responded on Twitter: ‘you’re wrong and bad at research. I only attended a charter for high school. My public elementary school was transitioned to charter over a decade after I left. I did love my high school. That school is now defunct–which happens to charters often.’”
12) National: A new book published by the National Education Policy Center “demonstrates how schools throughout the nation are implementing equity-based approaches, even when broader systemic forces do not support their reforms. The book focuses on Schools of Opportunity honored for their focus on equity and excellence.”
13) Alabama/National: A Montgomery public charter school “must repay $1.9 million after an audit found that the school did not accurately track more than 600,000 meals served in 2021 and 2022.,” reports AL.com. “In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture received an anonymous complaint alleging that Crave Cafeteria Solutions, the vendor supplying meals at LEAD Academy, “inflated the number of children and meals served” during the 2021-22 school year, according to documents reviewed by AL.com. Now, the school must find a way to repay the USDA its money, according to an audit conducted by the state Department of Education.”
14) California: Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools are set to be closed as school support staff in SEIU 99 plan to strike beginning tomorrow through Thursday, and the teachers union, UTLA, says it will respect the picket line. UTLA has a useful Solidarity Strike FAQ information article.
SEIU Local 99 says, “Solidarity is how we win the schools that LA students deserve, that our communities deserve, that front line education workers deserve!” Education workers have started a solidarity petition. Education Workers United/SEIU 99 says, “Despite LAUSD having a budget of nearly $13.5 billion—the largest school budget in the nation—essential school workers struggle to support their own families on low-wage, part-time jobs. The average annual income of non-teacher school employees is $25,000, which is far below the California Poverty Measure line of $36,900/year for a family of four. LAUSD’s undervaluing of essential work impacts campus instruction as well. Staffing shortages have led to insufficient classroom support, substandard cleaning of schools, mealtime delays, and jeopardized campus security. It is time we invest in the families that make up the community of workers essential to LA’s public schools. This is why we are fighting for equitable wages, more hours, and more staff.”
Writing in Jacobin, Annie Jones says LA’s school district has a $5 billion surplus. It should spend it on students and teachers.
15) Florida: The Florida House has passed a bill expanding private school vouchers to all students, reports WCJB.com. “House members voted 83-27 along almost-straight party lines to pass the bill. The Senate could consider a similar bill (SB 202) as early as [this] week. The proposals have sailed through the legislature, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has pledged that he would sign a vouchers expansion. Opposition to the House bill centered, in part, on eliminating income-eligibility requirements that are part of current voucher programs. Families would be eligible to receive vouchers under the bill if ‘the student is a resident of this state and is eligible to enroll in kindergarten through grade 12 in a public school in this state.’ Rep. Marie Woodson, D-Hollywood, echoed many other opponents Friday when she criticized the possibility that wealthy families would receive vouchers.”
16) Idaho: Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of Idaho business leaders dedicated to education excellence, says “let’s hope lawmakers aren’t fooled by the privatization advocates.”
17) Montana: The state is considering two bills to expand charter schools. “51 Republicans and 1 Democrat in the House voted for both HB 549 and HB 562, while 10 Democrats voted against both. 11 Republicans voted only for HB 562, while 21 Democrats and 6 Republicans voted only for HB 549. The Montana Federation of Public Employees, the union that represents public school teachers, has frequently opposed charter school proposals that they see as diverting public education funding. This year, MFPE President Amanda Curtis says they’re strongly opposing HB 562–in part because of the exemptions from things like teacher certification and the public pension system–but not taking a strong position on HB 549. However, she argued neither bill is necessary, because state rules already allow school districts to launch charters.”
18) New York: Assembly and Senate Democrats are opposing Gov. Hochul’s charter school plans. “With the Democratic legislature digging in its heels, it is expected to lead to lots of last-minute wrangling between the governor—who says parents want the choice that charter schools afford them—and many Democratic legislators, who go along with the United Federation of Teachers who strongly oppose them. The new budget must be passed on April 1st. Last year’s budget was not passed until April 9, 2022, nine days late.”
19) Oklahoma: The charter school movement, which has denied for years that charter funding would end up as a back door to funding of religious schools in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state, is itself split on this issue now. “The Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City has created a schism in the charter school movement with its application for the nation’s first openly religious charter school. Activists and policy experts supportive of charter schools in general are divided over the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School application currently under consideration by the Oklahoma charter school board, with a meeting on the subject set for Tuesday. Charter school advocates have struggled for years to convince skeptics that the privately run, publicly paid-for institutions are equivalent to government-run schools.”
20) Tennessee/National: In their desperation to escape from federal education standards, top Republicans in Tennessee, the home of the Scopes Trial, are considering rejecting federal education money, a lever the federal government can and has used to enforce antidiscrimination practices in education.
21) National: So, what’s going on in the municipal bond market as the banking crisis unfolds? Munis help finance public services, public infrastructure, school districts, public pensions, and much else.
The Bond Buyer has an overview. “The crisis cut a wide swath across the market with pre-pay gas bonds feeling the pressure and daily shifts in tax-exempt movement sometimes aligned with Treasury fluctuations and sometimes against. Some believe regional banks could face intensified scrutiny that stands to impact their role in the municipal market, but that remains to be seen. Public pensions have already suffered some wounds from their holdings, but losses would be contained if the crisis is limited. Fallout still looms with the potential for regulatory actions that impact banks with municipal divisions or that provide direct lending and liquidity support.” [Sub required]
For more, listen to Bloomberg Intelligence’s Senior Municipal Strategist Eric Kazatsky break down the municipal market reaction. [Audio, about 6 minutes]. Also, Route 50 has a rundown on ground level impacts the crisis has had on, e.g., affordable housing in California, pensions in Ohio and California, and economic uncertainty and budget planning in Massachusetts and Colorado.
22) Colorado: The Boulder Daily Camera reports that “some Boulder residents who are not currently tapped into the city’s water service will soon need to find a new private water provider after a local carrier alerted several customers that it will no longer be able to service their area beginning next month.”
23) International: Public Services International informs us that this Wednesday there will be a launch of the Policy Brief “Municipalisation of Care Service Providers in South Korea,” prepared by the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU). The launch will be held online on 22 March 5pm KST | 9am CEST | 8am GMT | 7pm AEDT. [That’s 4 AM EDT/7 AM PDT.]
24) Think Tanks: Aaron Carr, the founder and executive director of the Housing Rights Initiative, says “everything you think you know about homelessness is wrong.” Needless to say, this set off a firestorm of comments on his piece. Carr believes that homelessness is a housing problem first and foremost. “While some, but not all, of the aforementioned factors are indeed factors in homelessness, none of them, not a single one of them, are primary factors. Because if you want to understand homelessness, you have to follow the rent. And if you follow the rent, you will come to realize that homelessness is primarily a housing problem. So, let’s go on a journey in which I will examine the validity of six common claims we hear about homelessness and the solution to our homelessness crisis: housing, housing, and more housing.”
25) National: The Wall Street Journal has weighed in with a review of Mariana Mazzucato’s and Rosie Collington’s The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens Our Businesses, Infantilizes Our Governments, and Warps Our Economies.
“The question remains, then,” Barton Swaim writes, “why do otherwise capable people in positions of authority so easily fall for the obviously self-interested counsel of consultants whose actual grasp of the relevant issues is anybody’s guess? (…) One answer to the question is that clients use consultants as much as consultants use clients. Ms. Mazzucato and Ms. Collington concede this point with regard to the private sector. One former consultant tells them that often C-suite executives ‘have already made up their mind’ before going to the consultant, ‘but they really need an external independent arbiter to validate their position or make the case on their behalf. They can go to the board and say, “Oh, Deloitte or McKinsey or EY said we should do this.”’ But that, as anybody who has worked in official policy-making for any length of time can attest, happens routinely in government, too. The authors note, in a passing comment, that consultants ‘can also be used by politicians as a means of sidestepping democratic accountability.’ By politicians? Yeah, and by heads of agencies, department managers, program coordinators, and anybody else authorized to spend large sums of public money. This is, indeed, the consultancies’ chief role in the sphere of government.” [Sub required]
For those following this interesting debate there’s a new interview with Rosie Collington here. [Audio, about an hour]
26) National: In case you thought there was some kind of Great Wall between those like Ron DeSantis who want government to control what you read, what you don’t read, where your tax dollars go, what to think, and whether you should give birth, and the “libertarians” who are supposed to be all about individuals (read corporations) choosing how to govern themselves free of government interference, think again. DeSantis, of course, is waging war on ESG, which The Bond Buyer defines as “the continued and increasing sway of environmental, social, and governance factors in the public finance realm.” But now here come the Big Government Libertarians in The Reason Foundation holding a gripe session with their right wing allies trying to force public pension funds to abandon responsible corporate behavior. This will be almost as difficult as trying to get corporations to behave responsibly has been for the last few decades in the first place. But it will be interesting to see if these new partners now reach for their favorite arm of government coercion, the conservative courts. First stop: “clarifying” the Department of Labor’s ERISA rulings. [Sub required]
27) National/Georgia: An ex-ICE Facility Operator has been hit with a forced labor class action suit. The facility’s “federal contract was terminated over poor conditions, [and former detainees claim] they were forced to work for $1 per day to earn basic necessities.” [Sub required]
28) Florida/National: Guess who stands to benefit from Ron DeSantis’ crusade against responsible corporate behavior? The GEO Group, a private, for-profit large corporation that makes its money by incarcerating immigrants and domestic prisoners for a profit. “DeSantis’ crusade against ‘woke’ banking comes after more than half a dozen of the country’s biggest banks stopped financing GEO and fellow prison operator CoreCivic Inc., amid pressure from criminal-justice reform activists and advocates for migrants seeking asylum in the United States. Though the big banks pulled out of the industry in mid-2019, the aftershocks continue today: GEO stopped paying dividends to investors last year and is still paying down its debt load. Records show GEO is registered to lobby on HB 3, although it’s not clear how much input the company has had on the legislation. Representatives for GEO did not respond to requests for comment. But DeSantis has repeatedly cited GEO’s plight while calling on the Legislature to take action.”
29) Iowa: State auditors across the country have played an important role in exposing and controlling the waste associated with privatization, especially in the case of charter schools. Well, it’s quite a coincidence, then, that just as Iowa is introducing a massive school voucher bill, Republicans are seeking to weaken the role of the state auditor.
30) Texas: The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court has hired LaSalle Corrections, which was fined $405,000 last year for neglecting and mistreating a disabled man in Louisiana, “for approximately $13 million to operate a currently empty jail in Willacy County for the first year of a four-year contract.”
31) International: End Canada’s outsourcing of Veteran’s Affairs rehabilitation and mental health services, says Carol Hughes, Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing Member of Parliament. “Canadian veterans often have a difficult time accessing mental health and rehabilitation services. Wait times for assistance can be long and accessing those services can often be confusing. However, it’s become more problematic in recent months, as Veterans Affairs has outsourced a contract to a private for-profit company that has created additional challenges for veterans attempting to access services.”
32) International: Human rights and other NGOs are taking on Palantir for its role in Britain’s National Health Service. “Campaign groups acting on behalf of doctors and patients have threatened legal action over NHS England’s procurement of a £480 million ($582 million) ‘federated data platform,’ as questions about patient consultation and compliance with data protection law remain unanswered. Lawyers acting on behalf of the Doctors’ Association UK, National Pensioners’ Convention, and Just Treatment have also questioned whether plans for the platform—as currently described in tender documents—could lead to tech giants such as Amazon and Google creating fitness apps to sell back to the NHS for ‘the public good.’ In a separate development, news outlet openDemocracy has revealed hundreds of NHS hospitals have been ordered to share patients’ confidential medical records with Palantir—the US spy-tech company which considers the FDP a ‘must-win’ contract—under the scheme for ‘Faster Data Flows.’” The Financial Times has reported that “German states are rethinking how their police forces use software made by Palantir over privacy concerns, as the US data group’s ambitions to expand its European business come under strain.” [Sub required
33) Alabama: Looks like an Alabama county is bringing back the tax collection private bounty hunters, though nowadays we call it “outsourcing.”
34) Pennsylvania: When is “elected officials’ power to govern and make decisions for the city” not “the power to govern and make decisions for the city”? When a federal bankruptcy judge says so. “Over the objections of the city government and a major bondholder, a federal judge has ruled that the state acted properly in taking the economically distressed Chester into a rare municipal bankruptcy. The decision by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Ashely M. Chan in what has become at times a bitterly contentious process represented a significant legal victory for state receiver Michael Doweary, appointed in 2020 to oversee the city’s troubled finances.”
35) Texas: After years, if not decades, of clamoring for home rule and protection from big government, Texas Republicans are now drawing up plans to pass state preemption laws to roll over local ordinances, especially on gun control. “In several of these cities and counties, ordinances establishing regulations above levels set by the state have been passed. A few years ago, the cities of Austin and Houston both passed $15 minimum wage mandates, safety training requirements, and employee benefit directives for construction companies as a precondition for approving bids or fast-tracking permitting. Multiple cities passed paid sick leave ordinances, none of which ultimately became effective after a legal challenge, but did cause the industries to comply as they awaited the litigation’s outcome. The contemporary example that has drawn ample criticism from Republicans at the Capitol is Dallas’ consideration—not yet adopted—of a phased-out ban on gas-powered lawn equipment.”
Image credit: XKCD