The rise and fall of the public good
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,' Reich writes, the notion of the public good has faded.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.
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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 Soviet 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, or that the largest public works project in history was called the National Interstate and Defense Highways 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 still 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.”
Outside of defense, domestic discretionary spending is down sharply as a percent of the economy. Add in declines in state and local spending, and total public spending on education, infrastructure and basic research has dropped dramatically over the past five years as a portion of GDP.
America has, though, created a whopping entitlement for the biggest Wall Street banks and their top executives — who, unlike most of the rest of us, are no longer allowed to fail. They can also borrow from the Fed at almost no cost, then lend out the money at 3 percent to 6 percent.
All told, Wall Street’s entitlement is the biggest offered by the federal government, even though it doesn’t show up in the budget. And it’s not even a public good. It’s just private gain.
We’re losing public goods available to all, supported by the tax payments of all and especially the better-off. In its place we have private goods available to the very rich, supported by the rest of us.
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