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The Decline of the Public Good

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Meryl Streep's eery reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady" brings to mind Thatcher's most famous quip, "there is no such thing as "society.'" None of the dwindling herd of Republican candidates has quoted her yet but they might as well, considering their unremitting bashing of everything public.

What defines a society is a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions -- public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on. 

Public institutions are supported by all taxpayers, and are available to all. If the tax system is progressive, those who are better off (and who, presumably, have benefited from many of these same public institutions) help pay for everyone else. 

"Privatiize" means pay-for-it-yourself. The practical consequence of this in an economy whose wealth and income are now more concentrated than any time in 90 years is to make high-quality public goods available to fewer and fewer.

Much of what's called "public" is increasingly a private good paid for by users -- ever-higher tolls on public highways and public bridges, higher tuitions at so-called public universities, higher admission fees at public parks and public museums.  

Much of the rest of what's considered "public" has become so shoddy that those who can afford to find private alternatives. As public schools deteriorate, the upper-middle class and wealthy send their kids to private ones. As public pools and playgrounds decay, they buy memberships in private tennis and swimming clubs. As public hospitals decline, they pay premium rates for private care.

Gated communities and office parks now come with their own manicured lawns and walkways, security guards, and backup power systems.

Why the decline of public institutions? The financial squeeze on government at all levels since 2008 explains only part of it. The slide really started more than three decades ago with so-called "tax revolts" by a middle class whose earnings had stopped advancing even though the economy continued to grow. Most families still wanted good public services and institutions but could no longer afford the tab. 

From that time onward, almost all the gains from growth have gone to the top. But as the upper middle class and the rich began shifting to private institutions, they withdrew political support for public ones. In consequence, their marginal tax rates dropped -- setting off a vicious cycle of diminishing revenues and deteriorating quality, spurring more flight from public institutions. Tax revenues from corporations also dropped as big companies went global -- keeping their profits overseas and their tax bills to a minimum. 

But that's not the whole story. America no longer values public goods as we did before. 

The great expansion of public institutions in America began in the early years of 20th century when progressive reformers championed the idea that we all benefit from public goods. Excellent schools, roads, parks, playgrounds, and transit systems would knit the new industrial society together, create better citizens, and generate widespread prosperity. Education, for example, was less a personal investment than a public good -- improving the entire community and ultimately the nation. 

In subsequent decades -- through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War -- this logic was expanded upon. Strong public institutions were seen as bulwarks against, in turn, mass poverty, fascism, and then communism. The public good was palpable: We were very much a society bound together by mutual needs and common threats. (It was no coincidence that the greatest extensions of higher education after World War II were the GI Bill and the National Defense Education Act, and the largest public works project in history called the National Defense Interstate Highway Act.)

But in a post-Cold War, America distended by global capital, distorted by concentrated income and wealth, undermined by unlimited campaign donations, and rocked by a wave of new immigrants easily cast by demagogues as "them," the notion of the public good has faded. Not even Democrats any longer use the phrase "the public good." Public goods are now, at best, "public investments." Public institutions have morphed into "public-private partnerships;" or, for Republicans, simply "vouchers."

Mitt Romney speaks derisively of what he terms the Democrats' "entitlement" society in contrast to his "opportunity" society. At least he still envisions a society.  But he hasn't explained how ordinary Americans will be able to take advantage of good opportunities without good public schools, affordable higher education, good roads, and adequate health care. 

His "entitlements" are mostly a mirage anyway. Medicare is the only entitlement growing faster than the GDP but that's because the costs of health care are growing faster than the economy, and any attempt to turn Medicare into a voucher -- without either raising the voucher in tandem with those costs or somehow taming  them -- will just reduce the elderly's access to health care. Social Security, for its part, hasn't contributed to the budget deficit; its had surpluses for years.  

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http://robertreich.org/

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

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Reich claims that the banks borrow from the Fed at... by Ted Newcomen on Friday, Jan 6, 2012 at 8:07:54 AM
You make a good case for public goods; they are wh... by Ernie Messerschmidt on Friday, Jan 6, 2012 at 9:47:31 AM
Right in line with Mr. Messerschmidt and Mr. Reich... by Evan Stevens on Friday, Jan 6, 2012 at 11:12:13 AM
Messerschmidt and Stevens are on exactly the right... by manifesto 2000 on Friday, Jan 6, 2012 at 12:19:43 PM
But Prof Reich was an insider and participant whil... by BFalcon on Saturday, Jan 7, 2012 at 2:49:01 AM
have been that we have allowed the bankers, not th... by Richard Girard on Friday, Jan 6, 2012 at 3:25:04 PM
Wonderful article, Robert.  I am 65 years old... by Bayard Waterbury on Saturday, Jan 7, 2012 at 12:26:23 AM