The President’s House Is Empty: Losing and Gaining Public Goods

Source: Boston Review, Forum III, 2017
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Many of the critical issues of our time—from clean water to health care to schools—are about public goods, things that are owed to the members of a democratic society. In the United States, these goods are endangered and access to them is constricted by class and race. Against this background, Trump’s nearly empty White House stands as a symbol of the crisis our democracy faces. In this Forum we consider public goods: what they are, how to provide them, how to ensure equitable access. The debate about public goods is at heart a debate about what it means to be an American. What is at stake is not only what we owe to each other but who we are.

Articles include:
Losing and Gaining Public Goods
K. Sabeel Rahman

To build a tangible, inclusive, meaningful, and durable community, we must begin with public goods….

Free College for All
Marshall Steinbaum

The movement for free college has gained considerable momentum in the past year, in no small part thanks to the sad state in which many college graduates currently find themselves. …. The United States has never had free, high-quality college education. But that does not mean we can’t. In the past, we have included world-class public education in our understanding of public goods, and we have successfully expanded public education on the premise that society as a whole benefits from a well-educated population. Previous generations and social movements fought hard to create good educational institutions at public expense. The current generation is discovering why that matters. ….

A Public Good Gone Bad: On Policing
Tracey Meares

….However, the best way to solve the epidemic of police violence against black Americans is far from obvious, and it should not be surprising that the solutions advanced by communities of color often run counter to conventional solutions. In some communities marked by extreme levels of violent crime—those one would think most in need of police—residents are calling for a complete and total end to policing….

Draining the Swamp: On Mar-a-Lago
Julian C. Chambliss

….Mar-a-Lago is the apotheosis of the Florida Dream in which wealthy interests degrade the environment and hollow out prospects for the poor. But as Hurricane Irma shows, this dream was never sustainable….

The Third Rail
Elaine Kamarck

….Although we are a long way from the pioneer era, a nation’s DNA dies hard. A substantial number of Americans still glorify the individual and believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to work hard and take care of their own. It’s why, for instance, America has never had a successful socialist party while Europe has. Progressive or liberal policy that ignores this strain in the public consciousness will always be vulnerable to the argument that government that takes from those who work and gives to those who do not is illegitimate. Fortunately policy that is constructed with an understanding of this tension can stand the test of time…..

Saving the Commons from the Public
Michael Hardt

Sabeel Rahman’s argument against the privatization of public goods and services contributes to a rich stream of contemporary critiques of neoliberalism that rightly focuses on how privatization creates and maintains forms of exclusion and hierarchy. In response to privatization, Rahman calls to make public goods public again—that is, to design and bolster government programs that foster social inclusion and equality, broadening both our conception of public goods and the populations whose membership grants them access to those goods. Rahman’s argument, however, rests on a notion of the opposition between public and private that obscures the full range of political possibilities. …. Fortunately the private and the public are not our only options. The common—defined by open access to, and shared democratic management of, social wealth—provides an alternative. ….

All Good Things
Jacob T. Levy

….What do we want in the provision of a good? Is it sufficiency, equality, progress, or simply more? Different answers to these questions call for genuinely different kinds of responses. If we want sufficiency, as we do with dignity goods and necessities, very often we should not pay much attention to the provision of the goods themselves; we should pay attention to the problem of poverty, and worry about economic growth, barriers to entering the labor market, redistribution and poverty relief, or some combination of these. (Direct public provision of food, or indirect provision through food stamps, is certainly not better for recipients’ dignified membership in the community than their having enough money to be able to simply afford food.)….

Naming the Villain
Lauren Jacobs

Sabeel Rahman’s essay is a call to action. Progressives should take seriously the coming political struggle over public goods generally and infrastructure specifically. They should also be better skilled in the administration of government and learn how to use the tools available to incrementally transform the material conditions of our current system. But as a lifelong organizer, dedicated to the dignity and economic security of all workers, I know that this is not enough. It is also critical that we see the big picture: the corporate power and its accompanying dogma of the supremacy of profit that brought us to this brink. They are the enemies we face. And they must be named. From fairy tales such as Rumpelstiltskin, to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, many of the stories of our childhood teach us the same lesson: we must name the villain before we stand any chance of defeating it. Any discussion of public goods is ultimately a discussion of values. How we define who is included in the notion of a “public”—and what we think is in the best interest of that public—are inherently political and therefore always contested. Those definitions live at the intersection of race, wealth, gender, and work….

A Beautiful Public Good
Joshua Cohen

Sabeel Rahman’s democratic conception of public goods is founded on the idea of a public responsibility for ensuring the essentials of a democratic society. Public goods are among those essentials. They answer to the basic needs of persons, conceived of as free and equal members of a democratic society. What those public goods are and the best methods for providing them vary across time and circumstance. In our time and circumstance, public goods should include clean water and air, good schools, broadband Internet access, and quality health care. Discharging the responsibility to provide those goods is not only a core public responsibility, Rahman says. It will also help to foster a sense of commonality—of a we with a common fate. Rahman calls this dimension of public provision the “constitutive” aspect of public goods.
I agree with much of Rahman’s view, but found his account of this constitutive aspect surprisingly thin. In a collaborative spirit, I propose to thicken this aspect of the democratic conception with a story about how the ambition to foster democracy and democratic sensibilities helped to shape the design of Central Park, one of the country’s truly great public goods…..

The Last Word
K. Sabeel Rahman

Throughout this forum, the idea of public goods has been linked to water, housing, parks, and more. Taken together, the thoughtful responses highlight two crucial questions about our understanding of public goods. First, what types of goods qualify as “public” in a democratic conception? Or, more precisely, what makes a good “public,” as opposed to merely ordinary? And second, what kinds of policy tools—including but not limited to direct state provision—can we employ to ensure more equitable and inclusive access to these goods?….