Public Goods and the Public Goods

Max Fraad Wolff Jul 22, 2010

We are well over two years into a deep and difficult downturn. Whatever the GDP numbers tell us, and those numbers do matter, the vast majority of Americans are in pain. Recent work by the Pew Research Center reveals that 55 percent of Americans have lost jobs, hours, or pay. Numbers like these tell us that every family, community, church, club and workplace is full of those living under recession’s clouds. Times remain challenging for tens of millions of our fellow citizens. We know the stresses and tares that occur in our social fabric as jobs, raises, overtime, full-time work and sometimes the job, vanish. We also know that our continuing and serious housing market meltdown has trapped people in homes, neighborhoods and areas of high joblessness. Falling house prices, wages, jobs, benefits and 401Ks are the rule, not the exception. Our policy debates and policies ignore the basic and widely known realities listed above.

We need major investment in public goods. We need the public goods, but we need the jobs, hope and social cohesion far more. Of course our schools should and need to be better. Our public transit systems — where they exist at all — are outmoded, dilapidated and painfully behind those of other remotely developed nations. Our parks and public spaces should be the envy of the world. They need much work. Our city centers — public goods — are in need of serious repair and modernization. Public and affordable housing needs a lot of work.

So, yes we need public goods provision in this nation.

We need to invest in public goods to survive the divisive fallout from a deep and protracted recession. Students of economic history know that public goods create ties that bind citizens to each other and to the broader society. This is even more essential than the valuable goods and services produced. Public schools teach us how to understand ourselves and each other. These schools do, or do not, teach us our history and how to make sense of our world. Public transit forces us together and allows people and goods to move around. Public spaces and parks provide meeting places and build shared experience. In short, public goods create our sense of each other and the role of government — local, state and federal. The modern nation state and national economies are built on public goods. We have neglected this with rising cost for decades. In some many ways, now is the time to address this.

We need a major national jobs campaign and we need these jobs to supplement the activity of private firms. This argues strongly for public goods. Public goods are either not produced, or are under-produced by profit seeking firms. With 8 million more people out of work, the need to hire and strengthen social ties is overwhelming. We are already seeing what happens when we don’t do this. The nasty and increasingly mean spirited anger at immigrants provides an example. The rising tide of frustration and anger at government is another example. Hate group membership is rising. The level of anti-government anger is registering high levels in poll after poll. Might this be related to governments’ inaction on providing desperately needed public goods and the social cohesion public investment creates? When we don’t use public goods to build an “American we,” us versus them social movements rise.

I am writing this with a sense of urgency. I waited for someone else to write this for over a year. If they did, I missed it and I watched out for it. Our debate is about what to cut and what to keep. The arguments are for, or against, a particular proposed good or program. Micro debates devolve into screaming matches between budget concerns and boosters for a particular project or type of project. Economic history strongly suggests that such debates miss the point. We are slashing our inadequate public goods. We are doing this just as social strains are at a high and millions of people — particularly young men — are out of work for longer and longer periods of time. The austerity programs sweeping states and towns are just over the bloated deficit horizon in D.C. We are moving quickly in the wrong direction. Public goods are penny foolish and pound wise. Municipalities, counties and states are firing public works and parks employees. We are letting teachers, councilors, firefighters and police go from coast to coast. Public universities and community colleges are seeing tuition hikes and reductions in classes and programs. Strapped public transit systems are canceling trains, buses and rising fares.

We need public goods for the public good and this really can’t wait.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

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