Indefensible defense of ‘Government Water’

Indefensible defense of ‘Government Water’

The provision of “water is far too important to leave to the ups and downs of the marketplace or place in the hands of private investors looking to make a buck,” writes Joseph Sabino Mistick in his weekly Tribune-Review column of Oct. 20.

Really, Joe?

Now, first, in the interest of full disclosure, I edited Joe’s column for nearly 20 years as the Trib’s director of editorial pages. And Joe, a former Pittsburgh deputy mayor under Sophie Masloff, was a joy to edit.

Indeed, his viewpoints were not conservative. But, and backed by the discipline of this law professor’s legal writings, he expressed them in a scholarly fashion and with clarity.

I seldom agreed with his public policy viewpoints. But as Joe would be the first to tell his friends, neither did I ever reject any of his columns. Not one. After all, the Trib’s old Opinion & Commentary section (later redubbed The Review) was designed as a clearinghouse for myriad viewpoints.

But Joe’s nod-nod, wink-wink ode to Government Water (while dismissing privatization) whistles past the graveyard of what the troubled Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) long was – a cesspool of government-enabled corruption, a training ground for the study of political machinations and a textbook case of public dis-service.

Oh, indeed, Mistick refers to the PWSA’s “aging system, customer-relations failures and lead in service lines.” But that skims over the true Tammany Hall nature of what the authority long was.

Mistick sees 2017 legislation that necessarily placed the PWSA under the auspices of the state Public Utility Commission as the right and proper prescription to turn around the authority, a move that should forever discount any talk of a private takeover.

And he also whistles past the facts inconvenient to his defense of Government Water, namely that privatized water is the norm, not the exception, for most Western Pennsylvanians.

But what marketplace “ups and downs” and what “private investors looking to make a buck” have impinged on the ready and affordable provision of water in Greater Pittsburgh?

And do remember, as Mistick appears to conveniently not mention, that even private companies responsible for the provision of “public” water operate under state Public Utility Commission oversight.

Those salient facts unstated, Mistick argues further:

“Basic business practices – charging more and spending less to maximize profits – have been part of our economic growth, and they are legitimate tactics for private companies,” he states. “But, when used to manage essential infrastructure, they can work against us.”

But it’s that very lack of basic business practices – coupled with decades of government schemes, tricks, ruses and wiles that sent the PWSA to the precipice of an astoundingly tall cliff.

And, what, damn the profit motive that gives a private company the incentive to make its infrastructure work and – hold the phone! – serve its customers?

The marketplace quickly, and efficiently, will dispatch with private entities failing in their charge to provide a public service.

That can’t be said for government because “government efficiency” is an oxymoron and too many in government, and acolytes for it, believe markets do not, or should not, apply to government-delivered services.

After all, there’s always a tax trough to which government operatives can belly up.

Mistick opened his defense of Government Water with a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: “Water is the driving force of all nature.” That’s why he says it’s far too important to be “left to the marketplace” or those nasty purveyors of profit.

But here’s another quote to consider, from Shakespeare: “Honest water ne’er left man in the mire.”

At least as the PWSA experience shows, “honest water” has been difficult to come by. And the “mire” it has left customers in is a sad, sad part of Pittsburgh’s storied history.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).