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Why Aren't We Talking About Public Goods?

June Sekera

Public goods pervade our lives. They include clean air, clean water, police and fire protection, street lights, stop signs, 911 call service, disaster relief, a legal system, food and drug safety, children’s playgrounds and bank deposit insurance, which are but a few of the myriad goods and services that government provides and that benefit the population every day.

Yet outside of university classrooms, few know the term “public goods” or appreciate its significance. Public goods have been marginalized and misrepresented by mainstream economics, which considers them a representation of market failure and therefore labels them a “problem”. 

Instead of “public goods”, what we hear about from pundits, politicians, and social media are the virtues of “free enterprise”, “free markets”, “free trade," ”deregulation,” “privatization,” and how “government is the problem”—a vocabulary that reflects the market-fundamentalist frame that dominates American society today. 

While “the market” is sanctified, government is denigrated and defunded.

Local governments are being depleted of resources, teachers and first responders are being laid off, libraries closed or their hours cut back, benches and bathrooms in public parks left unrepaired.  Postal Service operations are being cynically hamstrung by financial burdens imposed by anti-government Congress members, cities go bankrupt and the federal government lurches from one fiscal crisis to another.  Federal government shutdown looms at month’s end and anti-government tacticians vow to put our country in default in October.

While government is degraded and dismantled, a poorly-informed and distracted public is unconscious of the widespread depletion and destruction of many of the public goods on which they rely day-in and day-out. The general public fails to understand that they will lose much more if this anti-government campaign is allowed to control our future.

“The history of civilization,” writes Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, “is a history of public goods”.

Public goods are funded collectively by citizens and produced by their governments. While economists label public goods a “problem”, in the real world public goods are the goods, services and benefits that individuals and businesses use every day, and often enjoy unthinkingly, while reflexively disparaging “government.”

There is a major disconnect. Patrick Bressette describes the

disconnect between the actual work of government and the superficial attitudes held by most people about its role... At one level, people do appreciate their schools, parks, libraries and other public services.  ut if you ask them what they think about government, you will not receive many positive responses.

So the same people who want nice parks malign “government.” It's like the polls that show that most respondents hate “Congress” but think their congressperson is just fine.  

The Public Goods Paradox

This disconnect results in a paradox: public goods’ absence from peoples’ consciousness but ubiquitous presence in their lives. Doug Amy at Northampton College notes that surveys show that a majority of Americans believe “government programs have not really helped me and my family,” but he brilliantly illustrates in “A Day In Your Life” on his “governmentisgood” website how people unthinkingly use government services from the moment they hit the alarm clock button in the morning, all day long until they go to bed at night.  

And in 2008, Suzanne Mettler at Cornell documented that huge percentages of Americans who use government programs like Social Security, Pell Grants and the home mortgage interest deduction insist that they “have not used a government social program.” Mettler shows how the state’s role has been intentionally submerged and shrouded, “making it largely invisible to ordinary citizens.” 

Exacerbating public unawareness is the paradox of public goods —their essential invisibility when they do what they are supposed to do.  Public goods are created to meet the unmet needs of a society or to solve complex social or economic problems.  But when the need is met or the problem solved, the public forgets that: a) there was a need or problem in the first place; b) the problem has been remedied or the need met; c) it was their government that made this happen; and d) it is their government that continues to maintain those solutions. Thus, success = the absence of presence.

Public services are denigrated and then defunded, government is hollowed out as talented leaders, managers and workers are replaced by contracts to private corporations who are guaranteed a taxpayer-paid profit.  Anti-government crusaders or business boosters impose market-based “solutions” on non-market government operations, usually making things much worse, as has been documented by scholars who have studied the “new public management” movement ushered in by Reagan and Thatcher, and alive and well today under different guises. 

“The pathology of ideological marketization,” Amartya Sen calls it in his new book about India and the failure to provide public goods requisite for basic well-being.

In the U.S. government leaders, managers and workers are told they must “run government like a business.” So the Postal Service plans to move more junk mail to raise revenues. Underfunded, Amtrak can’t survive on fares alone, so service is cut and fewer people can depend on the train. State park staff devote precious time to searching out corporate sponsors while picnic tables rot and hiking trails vanish in the weeds. “Lean” manufacturing techniques, useful in the right context, are applied unthinkingly to federal job training programs, sidetracking them from effective job placement. We have many more examples of what happens when government agencies lose sight of their public service mission and focus instead on business-minded “raising revenues.”  All too often the result is that government actually gets worse at supplying its essential services, which in turn gives fodder to those on the right who push for more contracting-out.

Neoliberal, market fundamentalism reigns in the US and rains down on the lives of all of our population constantly, in the form of an unseen mist that seeps into peoples’ consciousness without them even being aware of it.

Readers of PolicyShop know this pathology prevails, of course. I am not telling you something new.

But I am suggesting that there is an alternative. I am proposing that the term and concept of “public goods” can provide the positive frame and basis for a proactive, forceful new vocabulary that we desperately need.


Words and Ideas Matter

“Concepts influence how the world is viewed. They shape human expectations and actions” says Meghnad Desai in “Public goods: A Historical Perspective.”  Michael Ignatieff calls for a “liberal theory of public goods” and Marc Wuyts challenges the orthodox economic formulation, proposing instead a socially- and politically-derived definition. In a paper describing the little-known origins of the public goods concept in 19th-century Europe, Maxine Desmarais-Tremblay talks about “the issues at stake in public goods” and the need to better understand the history of the concept.

Theda Skocpol, in her 2011 American Prospect piece on “Time for National Greatness Liberalism” says we need to “unite around some common label” and undertake “persistent messaging.” John Halpin asks “how progressives can shift public discourse towards a wider focus on human well-being.” George Lakoff tells us that progressives need a new “counter-frame” if they are to get their messages across.

Words and ideas matter. As a term, a concept and a crucial presence, public goods are immensely important. 

  • The absence of a widely-held, constructive idea of public goods in public discourse denies citizens the ability to have an informed conversation, or to make informed decisions – including voting –  about things that matter mightily to their fundamental well-being and the quality of their daily lives. 
  • Its absence robs public policy makers, leaders and managers of the concept that is central to their reason for being.

I have launched a “Public Goods Initiative” which is engaging scholars, students, public policy experts, think tanks, media specialists, organizations and individuals across the U.S. The Public Goods Initiative has three over-arching, inter-related goals.

  1. Reclaim the term “public goods” from neoclassical economics with its pejorative connotations, and restore its original but severed connection to the political process and the public economy.   
  2. By rethinking theories public goods and non-market production, supply a conceptually sound and pragmatically useful foundation for an improved practice of governance, including better ways of measuring and messaging what collective payment produces.
  3. Infuse the term “public goods” into popular discourse and begin to reclaim our democracy. Develop a counter-frame and a new vocabulary around the public goods concept as an alternative to the market-fundamentalist vocabulary and ideology that dominate in our country today.

In coming posts I will be writing about various aspects of the Public Goods Initiative:

  • Creating a new “instrumental” definition of public goods, one that recognizes their origin in collective decision-making (voting) and that undergirds democracy.
  • Developing a theory of non-market production to replace the destructive “new public management” ideology and its sequels that pervade and enfeeble government agencies today.
  • Increasing visibility and improving measuring and messaging.  We hear a great deal about accountability and transparency; what is vitally needed is “visibility.” Transparency is the view from the outside: calls from those outside government wanting to know what government agencies are doing. Visibility is the perspective from the inside: pubic managers ensuring that citizens know what goods and services have been provided to them.

Measures of success in a non-market environment must be tied back to the purpose for which the public good or service was created – the enabling legislation. This connection has gotten lost, or been severed, in the movement to impose market-fundamentalist practices on government.  As a result, current US “accountability” systems derive from practices designed for profit-driven businesses, grafted onto mission-driven organizations.

  • Organizing “charettes” on how to use film and social media to advance the term and concept of public goods.  A charette is a collaborative session in which a group of participants works on a solution to an issue or design problem.  We’ve held one in San Diego and are looking to hold more.

We have a citizenry in this country that has looked on from the sidelines or been distracted or misinformed by market-fundamentalist economists who lie behind the rhetoric of market-myopic pundits and politicians, while Washington gridlock erodes our democracy and our public goods are dismantled. The issues at stake are enormous and urgent. We need a new frame, one that encompasses all the myriad functions of government that benefit our population and that re-legitimizes the non-market, public economy.

June Sekera is leading the Public Goods Initiative, a project to develop and advance a new concept of public goods that supports democracy and the public economy, and a non-market-based concept of production to support improved governance. This project derives from her experience in management and leadership positions in federal, state, and local government for over 25 years. Ms. Sekera, MPA, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is a consultant to government agencies on policy and program development, performance management and program evaluation.

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