This Friday, the internet was treated to a highly amusing spectacle: “La Sombrita”, a new piece of infrastructure created by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, in cooperation with the nonprofit Kounkuey Design Initiative:
What you’re looking at is a combination sun shade/lamppost. After traveling to several global cities, the good folks at the Kounkuey Design Initiative reached the amazing and counterintuitive conclusion that people waiting for buses need shade during the day and light at night. This would also advance gender equity, they reasoned, since, well, women are in greater danger from lack of light. So for a total cost of $200,000 — including $10,000 for the structure itself, not counting the existing pole it was bolted onto — they developed this innovative structure, “La Sombrita”. The L.A. Dept. of Transportation released this helpful diagram demonstrating how the shade component would function:
The question of what would happen if two people want to wait for the bus in the shade was not addressed. But LADOT did think about the possibility that someone might want to sit down while they wait. Their answer was that La Sombrita would also cast its protective shade onto a nearby bench during “some times of day”. Unfortunately, it was quickly observed that the structure’s shadow only passes over the benches for a very short period of time; the rest of the time, it looks more like this.
It also isn’t particularly good at projecting light.
As for why the city didn’t simply install a standard bus shelter combined with a (much more powerful) standard lamppost, the city explained that this would cost over $50,000, which they apparently viewed as a defense of their thriftiness in creating La Sombrita rather than an admission that they can’t build even the simplest infrastructure for a reasonable cost. More cynical observers suggested that the city may not have wanted to create a structure that homeless people could sleep in.
It’s tempting to see this as just one small, cherry-picked example of wasteful government spending in the name of progressive causes. $200,000 is really not that much money as city budgets go. But those who follow politics in San Francisco, or any number of other big progressive American cities, know that La Sombrita is emblematic of a very widespread and deeply entrenched practice: outsourcing essential government functions to nonprofit organizations. Nor is the practice limited to cities; at the state and federal level, handing off government cash to nonprofits has become a standard tool of progressive policymaking, including the Biden administration’s new green industrial policies.
This is worrying. I am not claiming, of course, that all spending that goes through nonprofits is waste, or that nonprofits should have no role in helping the government do its job. But I think we’ve reached an odd political equilibrium in America where we overlook the failure modes of this form of privatization. And those failure modes present a real danger to the progressive project.
Outsourcing government functions to nonprofits is a form of privatization
Until the mid-1970s, U.S. government spending — including federal, state, and local — grew in tandem with the amount spent on the government workforce. This doesn’t mean the government did everything in-house, but it did a constant fraction of its expenditure via in-house work. Then in the mid-70s a gap opened up, and total spending left spending on government workers in the dust:
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