“Public-private partnership” is a phrase that purports to have meaning for business, government, and social spheres, and is unclear to all.

Speaking Truthfully, and Knowing It

May 1, 2017
We live with a lot of uncertainty, but we should work — where we can — to resolve doubt with truth Who are the partners? Compatible working arrangement? Guaranteeing credit, for what?

Sometimes a word or phrase will take up space in our minds and in our conversations without registering a clear meaning. We adopt the usage rather subconsciously, seemingly via osmosis from all the other people we encounter using the term, and it fills up a gap in our vocabularies so that we can continue communicating on this or that subject — and all this without any fixed definition. We may feel smarter for using such terms — like, “solution” or “utilize,” or lately in a political context “community” — and never really ponder what we’re saying.

I tend to flag these terms in my mind because I want to be clear in my writing and conversation. Does anyone really understand what I mean if I choose the term “solution” in describing a product? How can they understand me if I don’t understand the word?

A phrase I’ve been flagging lately is “public-private partnership”:  it’s one that operates in the ether between the business and manufacturing sphere on one side and the political and social sphere on the other. With a businessman elected to the highest office in the land, and with huge enterprises absorbing the minutest details about our individual inclinations and tendencies, it’s a term that seems to have some saliency. But does anyone have a clear idea of what it means?

I recall hearing it the first time more than 20 years ago – in connection with a stadium/arena development scheme: the public paid the cost, and the private entities paid the rent. Whether it was an equitable arrangement or not seemed unimportant in view of the fact that it was a “partnership,” suggesting a compatible working arrangement. I doubted that then, and as we now live amid something approximating a civil war with the control over our federal government as the contested stake, it seems public-private partnerships are something we should understand more clearly.

This concerns more than local governments underwriting developers’ big projects. Your health insurance (and mine) is structured on a complex of regulations that define actuarial tables, which help private companies determine how much we will pay for throat culture or a coronary bypass.

An important and relevant emblem of this is the U.S. Export-Import Bank — a federally chartered financial institution that for decades has guaranteed export-credit financing of large capital projects that U.S. businesses undertake offshore. If the foreign buyer should default on its contract, the ExIm Bank would insure the contractor’s investment against loss. So, if a corporation is building a fleet of aircraft for some unappealing regime, or an electric power plant someplace where a typhoon or military coup could wipe out their investment – the ExIm Bank may cover their risk more leniently than a private bank might charge for that coverage.

Proponents of the ExIm Bank argue that it supports the U.S. balance of trade and stabilizes employment at large companies, while critics object that taxpayers are underwriting private investors’ high-risk schemes. The program has been under some threat in recent years, but its future seems safe now that President Trump (who many supporters had expected would extinguish the ExIm Bank, based on his anti-establishment message) has indicated his support for the program.

So this exemplar of public-private partnership will carry on, and yet the full implications of that vague phrase remain obscure. We should know the contributions and liabilities of the public in these arrangements, and the responsibilities of and rewards due to the private parties. And we should know whom these partnerships are competing against for the benefits they purport to gain

We live with a lot of uncertainty, which is our human nature, but that should not intimidate us. We should work to resolve doubt with truth where we can. We should know the meaning of the ideas we are taught and that we express. More than that, we should target obscurantism — those efforts to conceal ideas with euphemisms — that fosters much of the distrust and cynicism that has become the spirit of our present age.