The word is an atrocity, but the most appealing notion in President Reagan's 1986 program is "privatization." Selling off some of the government's facilities or functions to private enterprise or individuals is a jim- dandy idea.
I am attracted to it in part because one of the things Reagan has in mind selling soon is the Bonneville Power Administration on the Columbia River, and I have been a Bonneville freak since I was 16. That summer, two buddies and I celebrated the end of the war and our escape from home by bumming around the West. Bonneville Dam was the biggest thing I'd ever seen -- a marvel to behold.
In the summer of 1969, when my own family was on the mandatory western trip, I dragged my four sons off to see the dam for themselves. They complained bit- terly on the drive over that they hadn't had time enough to gallivant around on Mt. Hood. But when we descended into the great dam and felt the pounding of its power-plant turbines, they were as awed as I had been almost a quarter-century before.
The sale, to be honest, does not come up at a convenient time. I have some unexpected expenses around the house, and the car has not been running smoothly. But if there is a chance to buy Bonneville, I'm going to buy it. In megalomaniac moments, I think what fun it would be just to stand there with my hand on the switch and say, "Goodnight, now, Portland," and turn out the lights.
But what I really covet is the fish ladder. It would be great to go down to the dam at the end of a trying day, and just watch the salmon go by. My salmon climbing my fish ladder. Feel like some salmon for dinner? Well, sure. How about that one? Help yourself.
Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) was quoted as saying that Bonnevilleuld be sold "over my dead body." But you know that in politics, money talks, and I figure Hatfield just wants to be sure President Reagan gets a good price.
It did bother me some that Fortune magazine, which might have been thought likely to understand the attractiveness of privatization, had an article by Lee Smith saying, "The administration's plan to sell off the government is a political, not an economic, measure." But as I thought about it, his proposition became less offensive and more accurate.
Indeed, nothing so clarifies the question as to whether something should be done by the government as to ask: Is it something you'd want if the government were offering it for sale?
There are many things beyond Bonneville I'd like to buy from the government, but "nonlethal aid" to the contras would not be among them. Far more appealing to me are a couple of lighthouses in northern Michigan or that underwater national park off St. John's in the Virgin Islands.
If the notion catches on, it could produce some healthy competition among Cabinet members. Suppose Reagan establishes an incentive program in which the more a department sells, the more money it will have to buy some new things. Cap Weinberger would have funds for the Strategic Defense Initiative lasers only if he could peddle several hundred of his Bradley Fighting Vehicles as being for freeway and RV use in California.
Similarly on the domestic side, there is much to recommend the privatization strategy. If you were running the Department of Agriculture, would you give out food stamps to good customers? I suspect that in order to keep the farmers going in these tough times, I would, and not grudgingly either.
I know it would be great to have the clinics for expectant mothers and for premature infants operating under my name, to say nothing of having an aircraft carrier or two at one's call. No mugger is going to give you any trouble when he understands you have your own aircraft carrier, just over the horizon.
If the Department of Transportation underwent privatization, there might still be subsidies for mass transit -- but not for any city with so little pride that it tolerated graffiti on its subway cars or Mayor Koch at the controls.
The Department of the Treasury would give out toaster ovens to those patriotic enough to buy bonds, and if you made a really big purchase to help refinance the debt, you might get a compact disc player.
The Department of Justice could sell its own brand of affirmative-action certificates, in gold or silver, reading: "I'm so sincere in my belief in equality that I don't have to prove it."
There really is no limit to the privatization strategy. Except at the White House fence. I don't think we should sell the White House, no matter what complaints we may have about the way Donald Regan runs it. There has to be someone in America tough enough to fire Lee Iacocca, and Don Regan just proved he is the man.
Any week that liberates Anatoly Shcharansky from the Soviets' grip and the Statue of Liberty from Iacocca's embrace is a great week for privatization.