Conversations with Charlie (11/23/2021)

Conversation 15:

Charlie’s Tuesday’s podcast had him talking with Donald Cohen, Charlie’s own cousin, executive director of the In The Public Interest (ITPI), writer and contributor at Writer and Main, and co-author of a new book The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back, (Nov. 23, 2021).

Charlie and Donald’s conversation begins with a recounting of the connection they share as cousins who have spent most of their adult lives on opposite ends of the political spectrum, even estranged. However, in 2016 they came back together and reconnected. Love cousin-talk here, really beautiful.

After they reconnected, Donald and Charlie sought to find where on the Venn Diagram they could find that they agreed. Where were the things they agreed on vs. disagreed on? Found out that they had a LOT more agreement exists than initially believed but they only found it by seeking it out.

I’d like to point out just how important that step here that Charlie and Donald too was. It is something we should all be doing, taking the actual time to figure out where were agree vs. disagree because I think most Americans have more common ground than we allow ourselves (and others allow us to think about) to believe.

Charlie pinpoints that sometime after 2010 the polarization in politics reached an acceleration towards the political extremes made him feel uncertain about political beliefs he had held up till that point. Something about the dogmatic extremes emerging gave Charlie doubt, and as Peter Abelard observed in the 12th century C.E., “by doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at truth.”

Then came the revelation, one I personally appreciate and want to embrace more myself, is that conversations and debates, particularly with those in disagreement, became less about scoring points in order to win but to just have a conversation, to learn from each other, and find common ground.

General Round-Up and Discussion

This, strangely, takes Charlie and Donald to topic of former New Jersey governor and current “savior” of the Republican party, Chris Christie.

Charlie notes his appearance on Fox News. Sure enough, he’s sliding back in the Trump world

Goes on Laura Ingraham and makes the claim that he would never NOT support Donald Trump if he was denominator on the ticket. He even says, “The line for supporting Donald Trump starts behind me,” so nothing has changed, he is still a sycophant.

Getting to something more substantive, in the aftermath of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, Charlie believes that there is room in one’s mind to keep TWO ideas at the same time. You can, A, believe and agree with the decision of Rittenhouse’s acquittal, while also, B, believing that what he did was ridiculously stupid.

I do not personally agree with the Rittenhouse acquittal but I do agree that one can hold TWO ideas in one’s mind at the same time. It does not have to come down to some simple black and white, either/or, binary conception. The world is complex.

As it regards to that notion of what Rittenhouse did being stupid, which is the point on the Venn Diagram where I could meet someone who agreed with his acquittal, there is very likely to add to the mix an agreement about the seeming glorification of Rittenhouse as some form of hero. It’s kind of like a symbolic obscenity.

I have said my peace on Rittenhouse and the trial in general, outside of willingness to debate about it more I am done in terms of making opinioned pronouncements.

However, with regards to discussions of models, I am more than willing to keep talking.

There are too many avatars of violence being promoted in our society today. There are elements of the media who appear willing to vilify Rittenhouse and there are other elements, mainly on the right, who appear just as willing make him a role models for others to emulate. He is being held up as a model for how others his age and older should act, not how he acts now in particular, but what he did in Kenosha that eventually got him put on trial: bringing a gun to a protest/riot, using it, and then claiming self-defense if it is used to wound or kill someone.

Interestingly, during Rittenhouse’s current publicity tour he was on Tucker Carlson, who apparently has been working with him on a documentary about his trial, where during a back and forth slammed a former attorney of his named Lin Wood. This guy is a character unto himself, but he is prominently identified with the conspiracy QAnon and Stop-the-Steal rallies after the 2020 Election.

Rittenhouse goes after Wood for raising money to get him out on bail but actually pushing to keep the money and convince Rittenhouse to stay in prison. He seems to understand something that appears very common in the far-right realms of conspiracy and Trumpworld affiliation: grifting. You know, the practice of making money off someone else, to swindle another.

Charlie to Kyle Rittenhouse: “Welcome to the grift.”

Donald Cohen’s book: The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back

It boils down to a dispute over the privatization of public services and where the issues that exist in those decision.Donald is a firm believer that democratic societies need a strong public sector and this leads him to a strong dislike for over privatization. 


What is wrong with privatizing certain sources that some might argue could be done better privately than publicly?

Is the private sector less trustworthy than the public?

Donald responds that he does not feel that private organizations are less trustworthy than public, it’s a more nuanced answer than a simple yes or no. He notes that his book is not an anti-business read. His issues can be boiled down to the way contracts are created between cities and private organizations from the turnover services. 

The objection is turning over public services and public decision-making to a private organization without full consideration of short and long-term impacts, especially with some contracts being signed for decade plus terms.


In 2009–10, Chicago announced a deal where they received $1.1 billion upfront to turn over control of parking meters to a private consortium for a term of 75 years. This was a dumb investment. After the decision was made the reality was that despite the large sum of money city received they actually got hosed in the long-term by giving away future decision-making input over employment, pay of works, and control of street parking all for ready cash and a short-term solution to a financial crunch.

To elaborate, Donald points out that if the city ever wanted to make modifications or get rid of certain parking meters spots for a bus lane, or to close office section, or to put a bike lane, they have to buy it back in order to make those modifactiona. They have lost control of that function. Future urban planning, transit, etc. are now constrained by that contract. 

What about efficiency? 

It is often considered that private industry is more efficient.

It’s not that public institutions or services like the DMV, and he references California because he lives in LA, cannot be made more efficient because they can. California is a case in point where a public instituation can be and has been made more efficient.

The efficiency of the private industry is a bit of a myth because it’s not as true as people believe it to be. Often times after private organization signs a contracts there can be something new that comes up and they’ll come back and ask for more money from the public government. It can end up being a bit like extortion.

Efficiency is essentially doing more and spending less. How is this possible if upper management compensation in certain private organizations is massive or drive is to pay out shareholder divadends? 

There is of course government waste too, especially in the military, there can be featherbedding of costs. Privatization is often still held up as a way to get away from this and supposed public cost. The reality is that it is a fallacy to assume that all public services are less efficient and private services are efficient. It is not that binary.

Donald says it’s not just government or private thing, it’s about competence. There are still people who make the argument that: “Government should be run like a business.” No, it should be run at its most efficient. Public service providers need to know what you are doing when they contract with private organizations. Contracting is difficult, the public sector needs skilled people to look at the whole issue before signing it. Governments need more people to monitor contracts. It’s not an either/or but a need to do things well.

This moves to further examples:

Negative- Private Prisons 

Donald notes that this is a strong area where his critique really hits the pavement. Efficiency in private prisons tends to result in high turnover, lower pay, and corruption. It becomes something that should not be privately contracted at all. There are two big companies in this market. When they do financial disclosures each year they note the risks in their investment. One of the listed “risks” is “reduced crime” or things like the “legalization of weed.” They are “risks” because they are not good for the company’s bottom line. They have deals with bed rates that leads states to actually pay these companies to keep more people in jail. These companies pay big time to influence policies and keep the flow of criminals coming to them to maintain profit.

Positive- Garbage Collection

Government sanitation works are now privatized organizations in many places. Feels like a positive example of privatization that has brought down costs and not affected efficiency through the contracting. 

When you contract for things, you have to do it right. There needs to be a clear picture of the motivations of the private sector contractor to not simply gut things in search of profit.

There are people motivated by service as much as any kind of profit motive. People do have legitimate fears about concentrating power in the hands of government. The real need is to not simply swing the pendulum one way or the other, but realize that all power, public or private, needs oversight. Public sector is more responsible to public pressures and can be better tempered by good oversight while contracting with efficient and responsible private partners to eliminate waste where it exists in the public sector.

All for now.

J C Evans


The Bulwark Podcast: “Donald Cohen: The Privatization of Everything”


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