Why Run With The Herd?

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Robert Reich and the Public Good

Robert Reich, President Cliinton’s Secretary of Labor, published an article in January 2012 which seems to be getting quite a bit of recent advertising and reposting. The article can be found here at RobertReich.org.  Reich’s basic contention is that Americans “… no longer values public goods as we did decades ago”.

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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.

Let me start off by saying that I disagree with most or Reich’s policy prescriptions. He’s too far on the left for me. I do, however, respect his intellect and his opinions are usually well thought out. In this case, I think Reich is correct – American’s don’t value the public good as we once did.

Reich suggests a number of reasons for this. The recent squeeze on government coffers due to the financial crisis is one, but not as important as tax revolts by the middle class starting over 3 decades ago.

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.

Finally, Reich gets to the crux of his argument as to why Americans no longer value the public good:

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

So there you have it. Americans no longer value the public good, basically because of the following:

  1. Income disparity – By not taxiing the rich and upper middle class more, the middle class, no longer able to afford the cost of public institutions, withdrew their financial support as well.
  2. Campaign finance laws (or lack thereof)
  3. New immigrants easily cast as “them”. (Presumably “they” would be big users of public institutions, and “we” don’t want to pay for “them”. I admit that Reich did not say this in his article, but the implication is pretty obvious.)

As I said before, while disagreeing in general with Reich’s policy prescriptions, I think he makes some valid points in his article. I think he is right – American’s don’t value the public good as much as we used to. I also think he has a valid point in saying that the middle class did feel stressed three decades ago about having to fund public institutions – I distinctly remember family gatherings where this was a topic. I’m sure that campaign donations play a part in all this – although I am not so sure the negatives outweigh the positives as he apparently does. Finally, I don’t think there is much to his rationale about immigrants and “us vs them”. If anything, our treatment of immigrants has, at a minimum, not gotten any worse over the last 100 years, and I suspect has gotten quite a bit better. Our treatment of immigrants (while certainly better than other nations) has not been that great over our history,  and certainly was not that great during the time that Reich argues we did value the public good.

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.

Reich fails significantly however in one key area – he refuses to even address potential liberal reasons for a decline in American’s respect for and need of the common good.

Much of the rest of what’s considered “public” has become so shoddy that those who can afford to do so 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, the better off buy memberships in private tennis and swimming clubs. As public hospitals decline, they pay premium rates for private care.

The reality however is that much of the flight from public schools began back three decades ago when the “public good” known as a common education became a social testing ground for liberal activists and a highly polished political ground army (the teachers union) for the Democratic Party.  The White middle and upper classes left, not because they were stressed financially, but because there kids were being bused. Religious people left because they felt their morals were being threatened by an increasingly leftist perspective on sex education and other moral hot buttons.  Look, you can agree or disagree on these particular hot button moral issues, but was what worse – if you did disagree with the prevailing liberal wisdom, you were either a bigot or a holy roller. Yes, money and taxation played a roll in our schools becoming “shoddy”, but so did liberal social activists overreach. The schools ceased to improve “…the entire community” and. were viewed as beholden to liberal politicians, and liberals like Reich need to accept that.

America has 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 the money out at 3 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.

He’s right – but why not mention the bailout for the auto industry too – with its large Democratic-supporting union constituency? We all know the reason – unions are good, Wall Street bad.

The reality is we, as a people, do need tangible, concrete public goods. It helps bind the nation. What Reich and others on both the right and left need to understand is that a public good must “…improve the entire community, and ultimately the nation”. Once that public good is co-opted by either party, it ceases to be a public good – and it should.

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