Narrow transportation

Many Americans view education and transportation as public goods, but they are in fact heavily privatized. Here’s why that’s a problem.

  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures and co-host of “Fork Economy“Podcast.
  • Recently, he spoke with Donald Cohen of the public works policy center In the Public Interest.

With the exception of a few radical libertarians a la Ayn Rand, almost everyone agrees on the importance of public goods. Americans use public parks and libraries, send our children to public school, and rely on regulations to keep our air, water, and food clean.

But in the latest episode of “Pitchfork Economics“, Donald Cohen, Founder and Executive Director of the Policy Center In the public interest, said that the economic definition of what is and is not a public good is surprisingly narrow.

If you look in an Economics 101 textbook, Cohen said, you’ll see the definition of public goods as “non-excludable and non-rival,” meaning an item or service from which no one can be excluded and that people and businesses can’t compete economically, like streetlights or the English language.

Many areas that ordinary Americans assume are public goods – public education, libraries, public transport – do not fit this strict description.

“In this definition, health care is a private good, not a public good,” Cohen said. “Can we exclude people? Yes we do – lots of people. In fact, there are only a limited number of hospitals, doctors and nurses, we are now learning, so the supply is limited. »

But that’s a problem, Cohen said, and the definition of public goods should be broadened and simplified for “the things we all need and need everyone to have: education, knowledge, health, clean air and water, community, parks, libraries.”

It’s not just about quibbling over semantics. In his new book co-authored with Allen Mikaelian, “The privatization of everything, “Cohen argues that the past half-century has seen private enterprise gobble up government services under the specious argument that if the private sector could theoretically provide a service, it should provide that service.

We all know the runoff request that for the sake of profit, corporations can deliver public goods more efficiently than government.

Unfortunately, this rarely works in real life. As an example, Cohen offers private charter schools.

“The original idea was [charters would serve as] innovation labs then share the ideas so all schools can benefit,” Cohen said.

But in practice, “there are charter schools all over the country that require their teachers to sign nondisclosure agreements to prevent them from sharing the school’s ‘trade secrets’.” What are these trade secrets? Lesson plans, teaching methodology,” he said — in other words, charter schools hoard and monetize the very “innovations” they were meant to bring to the public good.

In 2005, Senator Rick Santorum attempted to privatize public National Weather Service data by forcing the NWS to stop offering information and forecasts that compete with private sector companies like AccuWeather. (It’s the exact same AccuWeather, Politico notes, which “donated thousands of dollarsto Santorum’s political campaigns over the years.) President Trump even tried in 2017 to appoint former AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which collects the data the NWS uses in its forecasts.

2019 ‘Last Week Tonight’ host John Oliver uncovered an interview in which current AccuWeather CEO and Founder (and Barry’s brother) Joel Myers bragged about how his service has benefited a customer – Union Pacific Railroad: “We said [Union Pacific] that a tornado was heading towards a place. Two trains stopped two miles apart, they watched the tornado pass between them. Unfortunately, he went to a town that didn’t have our service and a few dozen people were killed. But the railways have lost nothing.”

Myers’ ruthless dismissal of the deaths of people who don’t pay to use AccuWeather’s service is a perfect explanation of why public assets must be protected from corporate looting.

So, is Cohen advocating for socialism? Not at all. “The alternative to private control over public property is public control over public property,” he said. This does not exclude private enterprise from the equation, but it does establish government as the regulator and enforcer of safeguards that ensure the public good is truly served.

Cohen added that proper regulation would steer for-profit companies toward solving the biggest problems facing America today — income inequality, systemic racism, the erosion of democratic participation — rather than simply digging into our dwindling pool of public assets in order to maximize shareholder value.

Ultimately, corporate self-interest can deliver efficient and affordable services to consumers who can afford them, but it doesn’t provide the security and support an interconnected population needs to function.

“It’s in our social, democratic and economic interest that every child be educated – not just mine – and that everyone has good health care, not just me,” Cohen said.