What are public goods and why do you need to know right now?
Things have changed: since the election we need a new vocabulary, more than ever. If we are going to preserve the myriad essential goods and services that we all need, then we have to give them a name – so we can talk about them and act to keep them.
What are Public Goods?
How can we talk about that which has no name?
How do we comprehend the multitude of goods, services, benefits and protections we produce together through our democratic process and its public economy?
What name can we give to all those essential products that come from what we call “government,” long maligned and now so threatened?
A year ago we launched the Public Goods Post
to begin to address that question. There is more work to be done. In democracies, that work must be done by citizens.
We recently had an election in this country and many are in despair over what we are likely to lose because of many voters’ choices.
Those decisions were made without any concept of, or conversation about the basics - the fundamental things that we get through our public economic system, which is created, paid for and owned by all of us.
In his farewell address
, President Obama, echoing Justice Louis Brandeis, reminded us, "for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy - Citizen."
"The most important office in a democracy - Citizen."
That’s not just rhetoric. In democratic nations, the only real power of the 99% is through voting. This is where the direct connection to public goods exists: citizens vote for representatives and, in so doing, create – or eliminate – the public goods that their government produces.
“Public goods” are the goods and services we create collectively (by voting) and pay for jointly (with our taxes). They are produced through the public economic system we call “government.”
Private goods, on the other hand, are those things purchased individually, like a pair of shoes, a new car, or a diamond bracelet, depending on what people want and can afford.
More specifically, “public goods” are those things that everyone wants or that benefit the citizenry as a whole and that no one can buy (or assure) individually. Public goods include such things as safe water, clean air, clean rivers, well-paved streets, a 911 call system, legal protections.
Whether concrete products, services and benefits or more intangible legal protocols and civil rights, public goods are those goods that we create through our electoral choices and our taxes.
Public Goods are Mostly Invisible to Most Americans
You use public goods every day, mostly without thinking about them and often without recognizing your hand in creating them.
You can’t just go out and buy clean air for your community. You can’t just go out and buy an Interstate Highway system to get you from coast to coast with no tolls. You can’t just go out and buy a global positioning satellite network so that your smartphone tells you where you are or where your kids are. You can’t just go out and get a free, or affordable, college education. You have to make these public goods happen through the power of your vote.
But few of us notice, let alone savor, the myriad of public goods we rely upon daily. We don’t “see” them because we take them for granted, like roads and bridges, until they dangerously deteriorate, as with much of our current infrastructure.
Other public goods actually are
invisible, like illnesses or epidemics that do not
happen because of public sanitation and disease control measures. Or the deaths that do not
occur because the federal government mandates a high level of aircraft maintenance. You don’t see the food inspectors from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, or the state inspection agency assuring that the food you buy at the grocery store or are served in a restaurant is safe to eat. Nor do you read the state and federal safety standards that inspectors apply to industry. Each time you plug in your blender or turn the dial on your microwave oven and it does not catch fire, you don’t think about the regulations that ensure your safety.
These public goods exist only so long as we support them through our democracy.
The Private Taking of Public Goods
Given the expressed, and implied, intent of the new administration to demolish much of the public sector, or to hand over our common wealth to private corporations, it is time, more than ever, to name that which we need to preserve if we are to safeguard our well-being and that of the planet.
How do we talk about the vast array of goods, services, rights, benefits and supports that we are in danger of losing? As Betty Friedan showed half a century ago in her pathbreaking discussion of women’s plight as “the problem that has no name,” women needed words to name their predicament before they could act to fix it.
The name of that which we must now act to protect and preserve is our “public goods.”
The threat we now face is the private taking of our public goods
To name just a few of the threats we are facing:
- The private taking of public education, through school vouchers. Wall Street has long targeted what they see as the “education industry” and the “education market.” They have already had significant success through charter schools. But with school vouchers, we are about to see a quantum leap in the capture of our public education system for private profit.
The private taking of our public infrastructure. As with education, corporations have already had some success in privatizing public infrastructure like roads, tunnels and bridges. See here, here and here. But with the new administration’s planned infrastructure program, we will witness an unprecedented private taking of public goods and corporate capture of public revenue streams.
The privatization of our longstanding public Air Traffic Control system. This was the topic of our January Public Good Post.
The privatization of treasured and vital resources, from national parks to the Veterans Health Administration.
The decline and suppression of climate action to protect the people and the planet. Instead of essential action on climate change, what we are likely to see are vanity projects and so-called “market solutions” to complex, common-needs problems. Already in the works or being promoted are: construction projects such as raising road beds and building sea walls, geoengineering schemes and “third way” strategies such as technology-intensive carbon capture and storage and altering earth’s “albedo” by reflecting sunlight back to space. While these may appear to be exciting high-tech solutions they would do little or nothing to change our habits of energy consumption or reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
When public goods are taken for private gain the society soon finds that these goods are no longer equally accessible to all. Public goods in profiteering hands are no longer public.
Indeed, the very word “public” has been stolen from the people. The term “public goods” has for decades been hidden away in the fine print of economics textbooks where it is relegated to an afterthought of market model economics. Public goods are disparaged as an emblem of failure rather than explained as vital products of democratic, collective decision-making.
It is time to take back the term and give it credence and power.
Public goods come from your choices
Public goods are the things that citizens make happen, that you make happen. They are the things that advanced, modern, democratic societies have the ability to produce: they come from the joint decision-making of voting and the collective payment of taxes.
Everyone pays for public goods. But not everyone exercises their constitutional right to choose them.
Focusing his farewell address on the state of our democracy, President Obama stated,
“… our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.”
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation and the choices we make.”