Donald Cohen, executive director of “In the Public Interest” and author of The Privatization of Everything discovered an important insight about public attitudes. Many people assume that private business is invariably more efficient than the public sector. But, as he shows here, the private sector’s highest goal is profit, and the pursuit of profit leads to cost-cutting that is inefficient and actually, in the case of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, dangerous.

Here is an excerpt:

Let’s dig into the basic “mathematics of efficiency.” It’s about spending or doing less to get the same or better (cost/time + efficiency = same or better.) In that formula, “efficiency” could either be “smarter” or “cheaper.”

The problem is that far too often it equals cheaper. Efficiency could mean fewer workers than are needed to ensure high quality or safe production on the shop floor. Efficiency could mean lower wage workers. Efficiency could be using lower-quality supplies and equipment. And sometimes, efficiency means fewer inspectors and less monitoring of safety protocols.

Sometimes “same or better” means outsized profits, expensive stock buybacks, high-dividend payments, and high executive compensation packages–in other words, the fruits of high productivity built upon a package of “efficiencies.”

So, I’ve come up with a new term. When efficiency means cutting corners for increased profits, we should call it: “Extractive Efficiency.”

That’s what happened in East Palestine and could happen again if the underlying extractive efficiency isn’t dealt with. In fact, over the last few years, all the railroad companies have focused on efficiency to increase profits, cheering Wall Street, but not the residents of East Palestine. Less than two weeks before the derailment, it was reported that Norfolk Southern, the train operator, had improved the average speed of its trains from 17.5 miles per hour to 20.7 between the second and fourth quarter of 2022, and by January was at 22.2 miles per hour.

Here are a few of Norfolk Southern’s “efficiencies.”

Fewer workers: Norfolk Southern removed a senior type of inspector from the track division that runs through East Palestine, making more work for signal maintainers. Over the past five years, employment among the nation’s largest freight rail carriers has fallen about 18 percent. With fewer workers doing more work, they may miss telltale signs of safety failures.

Harder work and more hours per worker: The industry, including Norfolk Southern, implemented “Precision Scheduled Railroading” that, according to The American Prospect“means no excess engines, no track not under constant use, no downtime in the yards, no employees not busy driving the trains or maintaining the tracks, and never have three one-mile-long trains when one three-mile-long train can be assembled.” Shockingly, railroad workers get no paid sick days.

The people who live near the derailment are paying the price of Norfolk Southern’s “efficiencies.” They will be dealing with the consequences of the toxic spill for years to come, affecting their health, the value of their homes, and the quality of their water.

But the railroad is returning handsome profits to its top executives and shareholders.