With SCOTUS upholding the ACA today, I'd like to talk a bit about public goods and why we must disconnect them from the profit motive in order to have a functioning society. I admit that I am completely riffing off a Top Comment by Shawn Russell when I write this piece, and I thank him for the seed that sparked this diary, which I quote below:
Somethings must simply be separated from profitThis is too important to downplay, folks. It's time to challenge the idea that everything human beings use and consume should be structured and produced only in terms of profit. Shawn Russell identifies four public goods - healthcare, education, justice, and democracy - that ought to be exempt from the profit motive. I can think of several more - politics, for one - but let's start with those four. Jump past the fleur-de-Kos, would you?
Education being one, healthcare another, the justice system being a third and democracy perhaps being the strongest idea that must be separated from profit if it is to work for the common good of all citizens and not just a selected few.
When profits destroy human worth and dignity, erode society and divide it into haves and have-nots, and hold our future generations in chains (debt), then such profit is adverse and malicious to the welfare of society as a whole.
First, let's define "public good."
A public good, according to dictionary.com, is defined first as "a good or service that is provided without profit for society collectively," and secondly as "the well-being of the general public." I think we need to put those two together into one definition: a good or service that is collectively provided, without profit, for the well-being of the general public.
Conversely, a private good is a good or service that is provided for profit by and for individuals.
In short, a public good benefits everyone. A private good benefits only the people buying and selling it.
Therefore, law must be a public good, or we'd all be buying our court decisions. Education must a public good, or we'd all be paying the learn-to-read-and-write bills. So must health care, and democracy, and even the news media. So must simple things like public infrastructure, roads, bridges, etc. But more and more we've seen our society trashing the entire notion of the public good. That strong individualist streak in our nation's background and culture has been allowed to run roughshod over the notion that we are not just a collection of separate individuals but also a society. The problem is, a society deals in public as well as private goods. The more privatized those public goods become, the less likely we are to see them as obligations we have to one another.
Democracy, however, is built at least in part on the notion that we have obligations to one another. Otherwise, those who lost a debate or an election would have no obligation to obey the decisions of those who won, now would they?
Here are some public goods that have become more and more privatized over the past half-century.
The privatization of justice begins with the fact that if you are arrested, you need to win a case to go free again. In order to win your case, you need a lawyer. You also need a lawyer who has the time to do more than simply analyze your case for twenty minutes and then enter a plea bargain. Let's be clear, here - public defenders are not paid to defend you any more. They don't have the time or energy to defend you. They have the time and energy to, at most, create a paper for you to sign saying "yeah, I did it" but get a lower penalty or a shorter sentence. They do not have the time and energy to defend you vigorously in a courtroom, because their caseloads are enormous. Sure, the 6th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that you will have a lawyer provided for you if you can't afford one on your own, but that lawyer is the public defender with 370 other cases to deal with at the same time (1). It means the minimum. For a real, argued defense, you need your own lawyer, and that costs money.
Where are you going to find the money to pay a private lawyer? Unless you're already well-off, you're stuck with that public defender. I'm not dissing public defenders, but they are overworked, underpaid, and unsupported. They can't do the same kind of law that a private lawyer can. It's just not logistically possible.
Civil courts are also privatized. If you are harmed by a business and you file for damages, well, you'd better be well-off. There are no lawyers provided in civil courts. This has always been a big problem in terms of folks harmed by carcinogens dumped into their water, or by banks playing games with their money, or employers who create horrible working conditions. Sometimes you can get a government agency like the EEOC to help you, or maybe you have a civil rights case that the ACLU will take, but representation in court when it's not criminal is largely driven by the profit motive.
We're also seeing privatization of justice in the operation of prisons. More and more, states are turning prison systems over to private corporations, which operate these facilities for profit, at the cost of about $30 to $60 per bed per day to the taxpayer. How do they make a profit? Simple:
Reduction of medical care, food, and clothing
Reduction of essential services inside prisons
Reduction of staff and guards, and pay reductions for staff and guards
Cost-cutting wherever possible, in other words (2). What this produces is prisoners who are warehoused, not rehabilitated, and then let out on the streets more dangerous than they were when they went in. I'm not saying that publicly run prisons are much better, but at least they're accountable to the public in ways that private prisons are not.
Let's also talk about how privatizing justice creates an incentive to define more and more actions and behaviors as crimes. After all, the more beds in your prison, the more you can charge the state for running it, and the more money you can make, right? There is a perfect storm of connections between private prison operators and the War on Drugs - which, by itself, accounts for 22 percent of all incarcerated individuals in the United States today (3).
It's no accident that the United States is ranked number one worldwide on incarceration rates. We've made prison into a business, and it shouldn't be.
Education has been attacked on a number of fronts. Cost to the public is certainly one angle, but did you see the recent diaries on the new Texas GOP platform which actively opposes the teaching of critical thinking in schools? How about the ongoing denigration of those who want to get a college education, or those who have one? Intellectuals - the educated - have become the Right's bogeyman. All those elitist Left Coasters with their Ph.Ds in their ivory towers can't POSSIBLY understand you, the undereducated Everyman, right? So let's make sure that fewer people get those elitist highfalutin' degrees.
During the Cold War, STEM degrees were in high demand and overwhelmingly subsidized by the government. You could go to college on a grant-and-scholarship aid package and expect to be paying it off for a year to five years after you graduated, with low manageable payments, because most of your education was considered a public good and therefore subsidized by taxpayers. What you could do for society after you graduated was at least as important as what you could do for yourself. We needed - and still do need - scientists, lawyers, doctors, and researchers. We needed demographers and writers and poets and artists, too. We needed nurses, and engineers, and pharmacists, and managers. We needed, and still do need, all those things, so subsidized higher education was seen as a public investment in a public good known as an educated populace.
No more. Now we have graduates saddled with five- and six-figure debt who have no job prospects when they leave school, because we're so invested in the private market providing all. Most Ph.D. graduates are competing with 400 to 1500 other candidates for every faculty position that's open in their field. Government hiring of Ph.Ds is nothing like it was in the 1950s and 1960s. All that education, and what good is it doing any of us?
We must restore education to its former status as a public good, or we're going to be the biggest Third World country in the world sooner rather than later. We must fund education through taxes, and we must ensure that graduates have jobs to go to when they graduate that are commensurate with their education levels. And none of that is happening right now, and it needs to.
Here's the problem with the Citizens United decision. You can't have a democracy if the votes are purchased instead of given. And we have the problem of lobbyists buying lawmakers and handing them pre-written, friendly-to-corporations laws to promote and pass, compounded by Citizens United giving those who have a strong profit motive - corporations - the ability to essentially buy votes by drowning out their opponents through large media buys. Need we say more? This must end. Democracy is inherently a public good. The corporatists are privatizing it as quickly as they can, and if we don't find a way to stop it now, we're in such a deep hole that we'll never get out of it.
The first way we do that is by making sure Obama gets re-elected, so that when seats open up on the Supreme Court, we can get some liberal justices in there to counteract Citizens United. The second way is to get a constitutional amendment passed that clearly states that money is not speech and corporations are not people.
But the third way is to get our message out there. Remind people that democracy should be one person, one vote, not one dollar, one vote. Ask them if they aren't offended by the idea that lawmakers are being paid to promote laws that allow corporations to take away our rights in the unholy name of profit over all. Get people thinking, and get them outraged.
Ah, here's a biggie related to today's ACA decision. Every other modern industrial nation in the world provides government-sponsored (which is to say, single payer) health care to its citizens. It's just a no-brainer. You need a healthy workforce in order to have a healthy economy, so one of the best things a government can do is ensure the healthy workforce by providing government-sponsored health care. We see it here in limited, broken form - Medicaid for those who are very poor; Medicare for the elderly and disabled; and the occasional state-sponsored single-payer system as in Massachusetts. But nationwide, we don't see it at all.
This started with Nixon, who was the first President to support for-profit healthcare (HMOs) in a big way. In 1973, he signed the Health Maintenance Organization Act, which was designed to reduce frivolous use of the medical system by creating economic incentives for both providers and patients to find cheaper treatments and forgo those that were not urgent. Sold as a way to increase preventive care for Americans, what the HMO Act actually did was make it more likely that Americans didn't get that preventive care.
Ever since then, medicine and medical care have been viewed by most American profiteers as another way to make money, instead of an essential need that should be a public good. As a result of the HMO Act, cost-cutting measures kicked in the same as they do in any other business, and patients bore the brunt of those cuts through increased premiums, increased deductibles, and inability to get necessary services through HMOs deeming them "experimental" or "not medically necessary" or simply not providing those services at all. And let's not mention the whole "pre-existing condition" debacle which exed out millions of Americans from ever finding coverage.
This must end. The ACA is a good start - it no longer allows insurers to refuse services based on preexisting conditions, and it forces them to compete with other providers on cost to the insured, as well as requiring them to spend 80% of the premiums on actual care, not administrative overhead, and refund anything that isn't spent that way to the consumer. It's a big step in the right direction.
But in all four of these cases - justice, education, democracy, and health care - we MUST work to uncouple the idea that public goods should be subject to the profit motive. We MUST work to get these public goods to be truly public again, funded through taxes and run through government programs, and make people see that impartial justice, correct treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners, an educated populace, and a healthy citizenry are vital to the success of a modern democracy.
I'll leave the discussion of the privatization of the news media for another day (although feel free to discuss it in comments).
If you have ideas on how to get this message out, I'm all ears. Let's brainstorm ways to show people that not everything should be for profit. My first idea is to show people how having an educated, healthy citizenry and an impartial justice system benefits them personally. Any ideas?
(1) Donald Farole, Ph.D., presented at the Justice Research and Statistics Association Annual Meeting, demonstrating that in 2007, 15,000 public defenders had a collective caseload of almost 5.6 million cases. That works out to about 373 cases per public defender every years. http://www.jrsa.org/...