Unempathetic Americans Sit Idle While Public Services Decay, In Favor Of Privatization

Americans falsely believe they can always get better service in the private sector. Americans increasingly laugh at and shun public services, calling them inadequate and antiquated. But these Americans are conveniently ignoring the role public services have played in building this great nation.

Robert Reich has an excellent article explaining why “America stopped caring about the public good.” I do believe I’ve opened a number of articles by offering great praise for a Reich piece, but this guy consistently makes sense. He speaks the truth and he talks about otherwise dry issues in a way that makes them interesting. And even if it’s an issue you’ve ignored, you will probably come away caring about it. In my case, I already recognize the decay of public services in America. We are a country that increasingly favors private over public, but for all the wrong reasons. As I said, too many Americans are ignorant to history and don’t understand how important public services were to building the most powerful and prosperous nation on the planet. And if we are now witnessing the decay of public services, what does that mean for the future of America?

Reich explains why we should care and support public services.

Robert Reich (Business Insider) — A society — any society —- is defined as 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.

Public institutions are supported by all taxpayers, and are available to all. If the tax system is progressive, those who are better off (and who, presumably, have benefitted from many of these same public institutions) help pay for everyone else.

If we want a strong, healthy and vibrant nation of productive citizens, we cannot adopt a “go it alone” attitude. Reich says we started down our path to privatization in the late 1970s, but I believe the strong push to privatization was cemented in the “me” decade of the 1980s, which by the way, is a decade I happen to be fond of. But the 1980s is the decade that laid the foundation of privatization, and born out of that decade is the era of hyper-capitalist thought and policy, something Reich called “Supercapitalism” in a book of the same name.

“Privatize” means “Pay for it yourself.” The practical consequence of this in an economy whose wealth and income are now more concentrated than at any time in the past 90 years is to make high-quality public goods available to fewer and fewer.

Many Americans have lost patience when dealing with sub par public services, most notably (and depending on location), public schools. So for those Americans who can afford it, they send their children to private schools without a care or concern for the other families and children in their neighborhood who don’t have the financial freedom to make that decision. Is this good for the future health of America?

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, the well-off pay premium rates for private care.

To repeat, this stems from ignorance of the root cause of the problem. We shifted our focus away from maintaining and enhancing public services and instead decided to offer bigger and better tax incentives and other perks to private companies if they brought their business and their jobs to our local community. We lost focus of the long-term goal for a short-term financial gain. And let’s face it, as voters, and as human beings living our lives, who wouldn’t say yes to an immediate economic payoff? Can we really be faulted for not seeing the long-term downside of putting too much emphasis on private business at the expense of the long-term public good? And when it comes to politicians, well, it’s in their DNA to only care about the next year or two.

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.

Since the late 1970s, almost all the gains from growth have gone to the top. But as the upper-middle class and the rich began shifting to private institutions, they withdrew political support for public ones.

In consequence, their marginal tax rates dropped — setting off a vicious cycle of diminishing revenues and deteriorating quality, spurring more flight from public institutions.

Again, ignorance. People felt financially squeezed, but they blamed the wrong thing. Instead of asking those in society who have most benefited from economic expansion to pay a little more to support good public services, people instead demanded a tax break for themselves, which in turn, meant a tax break for everyone, including those at the top. That only accelerated the decay of public services.

In consequence, their marginal tax rates dropped — setting off a vicious cycle of diminishing revenues and deteriorating quality, spurring more flight from public institutions.

And here we are in 2013, and most Americans are still oblivious, unaware of their participation in this vast feedback loop.

Part of what fuels this mass blindness and the decline of public services, as Reich points out, is that “Americans no longer value public goods as we did decades ago.” Many people who are now adults grew up in a post 1980s “me” America, and these people never had an understanding of what really built this country.

Education, for example, was less a personal investment than a public good — improving the entire community and ultimately the nation.

Exactly! This relates to Melissa Harris-Perry’s so-called controversial “kids belong to whole communities” statement in an MSNBC “Lean Forward” commercial. There was once a greater understanding that quality public education was vital to a healthy and vibrant democracy. Everything starts with a good education, and it should be in everyone’s interest to make sure every child has access to first-rate public education.

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 Soviet communism.

But then this changed, starting in the 1980s “me” decade, and extending to this day. “More and more of us no longer study up on public issues,” says author David Sirota in “Back To Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now–Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything.” “We trade in the responsibilities of democratic citizenship for the pleasure of a superfan’s hysterical enthusiasm by simply backing whatever is being pushed by the political Michael Jordan we like, and opposing whatever his or her archenemy supports.”

Americans are increasingly allowing others to do their thinking for them. Tune into Fox News or MSNBC, listen to a conservative or liberal radio show, and that’s all the thinking needed. No deep contemplation. No questioning of “Why are things the way they are?” and “Does it need to be that way?”

“More and more of us are outsourcing critical contemplation, vesting complete faith in others, and letting them do the thinking for us,” says Sirota. And let’s face it, in a nation where more and more Americans are struggling to get by, it’s not hard to understand we have very little time left over to educate and inform ourselves on the issues of the day. And this is exactly what the wealthy elites at the top want. This is why they fund the talking heads, to tell us what to think, to tell us how to vote. It’s yet another vicious feedback loop.

But another problem in America is that we haven’t been tested. We haven’t faced the immediate hardship of, for example, European nations during and in the aftermath of World War II. Sure, there were plenty of Americans who served in that war and other wars, but we have not faced life-altering challenges within our own borders. And so we have not been forced to choose between petty individual concerns or the greater public good. We have not been forced to set our differences aside. America is not the most empathetic nation. Because even while we pat ourselves on the back, and convince ourselves the we are the most charitable and giving, we turn around and tell our poor and impoverished that they can go ahead and die because they cannot afford health care.

Americans will begin to fix what ails this country when we collectively recognize our empathy deficiency, and allow ourselves to once again use the phrase “for the public good.”

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