The Downfall Of The Public Good

The perennially thought-provoking Robert Reich writes on The Decline of the Public Good, leading us from a more progressive era in which public institutions were valued and founded and funded, through the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, where such institutions were deprecated, to the present, where the virtual absence of public funding for public institutions threatens to bring an increasingly lame, undereducated, underpaid society… a society incapable of producing or consuming, a society lacking (apart from the tiny sliver of the population that is very wealthy) in wealth of any kind, material or intellectual… to its knees and then to its downfall. Reich targets the focal fallacy of conservatism:

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.

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 communism. The public good was palpable: We were very much a society bound together by mutual needs and common threats. …

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.”

Reich then observes how, for example, Mitt Romney derides and despises the very basis of the public good, while threatening to render what he calls the “entitlement society” nonviable. If only we could depend upon Barack Obama to provide credible, effective resistance to this intentional destruction of the public good… but Obama merely mouths the same platitudes in slightly different language, and our public institutions are in the same danger as they are under Republicans. It is exasperating, and that is putting it mildly.

As a society, we have quite simply two choices. We can restore the concept and practice of the public good to its rightful place at the center of our governmental and institutional processes. Or we can watch ourselves descend into squalor, poverty and ultimately chaos. There are no other options.

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Comments

  • MandT  On Thursday January 5, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    We seem to be bypassing fascist corporatism and already have one foot deeply mired in the muck of a neo-medevial construct . America is failing fast. I’ve already noticed that those ‘supposed’ liberal/progressives of means comprising of personal wealth, property and rentier incomes have already chosen privilege and property over civil rights and Constitutional democracy. More shamefully these progressives are Obots and still spout spiritual beliefs about freedom etc. This is going to be a long, nasty, and eventually violent collapse of Empire. Hopefully I won’t be here to see the worst of it. For these people life has not changed much in the comfortable suburbs or second homes they frequent. Although they seem to be aware of what ‘average’ middle class people are experiencing through events like OCCUPY, their cognitive dissonance is stunning.

    • Steve  On Thursday January 5, 2012 at 8:45 pm

      MandT, on the whole I agree, but we are scarcely medieval, because in the Middle Ages, the relationship between the lord and the serfs, repulsive as we may find it, actually worked on some level; the lord had actual, defined responsibilities to the peasantry. By contrast, our emerging American relationship of the wealthy to the nonwealthy is expressible in one word: irresponsibility. Mitt Romney and the Koch brothers don’t give a flying fuck about the rest of us… and they don’t intend to pretend that they do.

      This is by no means a required feature of our society. America has always had the wealthy and the nonwealthy, and the relationship has by no means always been one of mutual disdain. Think of the Roosevelts, Teddy as well as Franklin… wealthy beyond imagining, but reared with a sense of noblesse oblige that today’s hedge fund managers, banksters et al apparently find inconceivable in their moral micro-brains.

      Where does Obama fit in? Damned if I know. Obama gives evidence of being intellectually brilliant, but his understanding of economics is defective, and his moral compass is biased by a strong local magnetic field, which Republicans are able to impose because of a deficiency in Obama’s own ability to assess honesty in dialogue… i.e., he is slow to recognize when the GOPers are lying, which is almost always. Obama is hopeless. Do I want him to become president again? Define “want”! No, I don’t want that, but I do see the alternatives as even more destructive of the hopes of ordinary Americans. I cannot vote for him… I simply cannot vote for someone so inimical to civil liberties. But I also can’t fault people who do vote for him, if they are operating in good faith as they do so. Could a Republican president be worse? Damned right he could, in the short term at least.

      The Occupy movement gives me some small bit of hope. The idea is right. The implementation is imperfect, but that is inevitable. The fact that local cops actually want to beat the crap out of Occupiers is, as horrifying as it may be, a good sign. No one said it would be easy, and so far, the overwhelming majority of violence has been done in behalf of the 1%, not the 99%. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” (Gandhi; one of many versions of this quote.)

  • MandT  On Thursday January 5, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    You are right. My snark attack was the result of New Hampshire’s legislature passing some crackpot legislation based on the Magna Carta. One of the great paradoxes of politics is that people operating in good faith also voted in the Nazis. There is no lesser of two evils. Except for here and there I don’t challenge family or friends in this matter anymore. Nothing will convince me now that Obama is anything but a wishy-washy sophist and a neo-liberal fascist. The weight of history and its integral complexities is destroying the American experiment in democracy with the willing and passion consent of its people.

    • Steve  On Friday January 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm

      MandT, I am very fortunate that (based on about four years’ tenancy) Stella’s and my landlord is not a lessor of any number of evils. 😈

      I am still uncertain what Obama is. A first African American president was guaranteed to be a troubled soul in some ways; I am surprised by the degree to which Obama’s eccentricities fall well within the norm for U.S. presidents.

      But I have to be careful what I wish for. If Obama, say, were not so spineless, he might behave even more like GeeDubya Bush, who had a unique anatomy: a spine, an asshole and no brains. OTOH, if Obama could get over his misbegotten notion of bipartisanship, it’s not impossible he could actually accomplish something… but I’m terrified of what may come of his attempts.

      As to history, for the first time in America’s history, its people are truly, deeply afraid… of terrorism, of course, but of every other damned thing as well. Lack of courage has never been an American characteristic, but it is now, and it may well lead to our demise as a nation. Dog help us!

  • MandT  On Friday January 6, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    Americans afraid of terrorism. I’m not totally convinced. Millions of us are not afraid and will turn on the government once the actual terrorists kill us in the streets and disappear us into camps. The terrorists will be cops and military doing their duty, just as they did in Germany and the Soviet Union. The neo-liberal trend is going to foment a civil war in America. Those cops and soldiers, may very well be family and neighbors.I recall diaries from my own family, who fought on both sides of the Civil War. It was a horrific and traumatic event for ordinary families.The fireworks will start as the homeland collapses and the bloated militarism round the globe will implode. JFC, doesn’t anybody read Roman history anymore? Panetta, was blathering away last night on how America could wage war with China and Iran simultaneously and win. What absolute insanity. While Obama fusses with appearances and false exit strategies the old neo-con war mongers continue to operate.

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