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Here's Why America Stopped Caring About The Public Good
August 26, 2013 5:49 PM   Subscribe

Not even Democrats still 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.”

Robert Reich on why high-quality public goods are available to fewer and fewer. (previously, etc.)
posted by Obscure Reference (64 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite

 
A lot of the arguments in this short piece, particularly about a squeezed middle-class are fleshed out in greater detail in Reich's Aftershock. I find it interesting that he leaves out military-industrial and wartime spending, which are massively wasteful drains of tax revenue that somehow manage to preserve their piece of the pie, even as that pie shrinks for everyone else. Neat trick, and one that probably does a lot to make this decay systemic.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:04 PM on August 26, 2013 [9 favorites]


Yes. This is exactly what I've been trying to say.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:05 PM on August 26, 2013


You mean entitlements?
posted by nikoniko at 6:05 PM on August 26, 2013


I've come to believe -- and I'm sure a historian has written about this, although I don't know who -- that racism is at the root of this. Sometime in the past sixty years, the word "public" became associated with minorities, with an Other that's lazy and breeding and shiftless and also plotting to take over. In the past thirty years, following the closure of mental institutions, public places are also those that collect more than their fair share of homeless mentally ill people. The result is that these days, large numbers of Americans have the vague idea that "public" resources are for awful people that don't really deserve them anyway.

Again, these are huge broad-brush notions and I don't have any citations for this kind of thing. But the resistance to Obamacare really crystallized my ideas about this.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:18 PM on August 26, 2013 [58 favorites]


Entitlements are called that not because the people who receive them feel "entitled," but because we are literally entitled to them under the law because they are owed to us in return for taxes we've paid.

Most of what people lazily call entitlements now were originally deferred compensation--literally, pay that people would otherwise have been owed that they agreed to give up in return for a future benefit.

Our culture is a piece of shit hateful mess right now.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:18 PM on August 26, 2013 [65 favorites]


The public good was transformed under Reagan to become supply side, not based on need or demand, but trickle down, given to the powerful lobbies directly for military supplies, or indirectly as tax breaks.
posted by Brian B. at 6:26 PM on August 26, 2013


The quoted part is the most important to me. It's something that even Obama only dances around. (The famous "you didn't build that" moment of conservative pearl-clutching was in the midst of a speech in which Obama was outlining the remedial version of this: that even the success of a private business is partially owed to an electrical grid and a series of roads and a stable currency.)

Reich ties it to the middle-class tax revolt; I'd also tie it to Americans' plummeting faith in government ever since the 70s. If you honestly believe (as many seem to) that government can't do anything right, then it's entirely logical that they not be allowed to manage hospitals or parks or education.

But it's easy to defend the idea of government as a force of public good. Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, FDIC, the Interstate Highway System, the G.I. Bill… these are the investments that made America an awesome economic force for the last 50 years.

Just once, when a left-leaning political candidate gets called "socialist" by his opponent, I'd like to see her run straight at it. Anyone who calls things like individual insurance mandates "socialist" is basically suggesting that all our grandparents were pinko nutjobs.
posted by savetheclocktower at 6:28 PM on August 26, 2013 [19 favorites]


Meanwhile my state's bridges are have brand new weight restrictions because the Republican state government can't be bothered to fund repairs. Seriously, if it's gotten to the point where the ruling majority doesn't think that fixing bridges is a public good, I'm not sure what hope we have.
posted by octothorpe at 6:32 PM on August 26, 2013 [14 favorites]


I find it interesting that he leaves out military-industrial and wartime spending, which are massively wasteful drains of tax revenue that somehow manage to preserve their piece of the pie, even as that pie shrinks for everyone else.

Agreed. Any discussion of righting the ship of the public good has to recognize the incredible sucking vortex of money military spending is. It is taking away the resources that should be going to supporting public institutions so that they are fully available to all and giving them to multinational corporations and killing machines.

"It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force needs to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber" is still as true today as it was then.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 6:33 PM on August 26, 2013 [11 favorites]


I'd also tie it to Americans' plummeting faith in government ever since the 70s.

But that sense of "plummeting faith" didn't just happen, it was aided and abetted by those who commanded tremendous private wealth and wanted to undermine faith in government so it would be much easier to make a populist case against taxation.
posted by Miko at 6:33 PM on August 26, 2013 [25 favorites]


I've harped on about this before - and it's just a tiny facet of the gallimaufry of social theories flying around - but honestly, I think we are returning to an historical mean. The massive disruption represented by WWII resulted in a hitherto unimaginable equality, expansion of government, and regulation, and government services. This was probably not sustainable and may be one-off. It makes me sad. It will probably take another equally disruptive event to reverse the trend. Climate change will probably do it, imho, but I suspect the results/costs will be even worse than WWII for most of the world.
posted by smoke at 6:42 PM on August 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


Am I missing something, or does this article not even begin to provide the "why" that its title promises? That would be a really interesting subject — how the politics of austerity and the anti-tax/anti-entitlement mentality became such a force in the post-war era's politics — but the essay really only argues that this happened, not why.
posted by RogerB at 6:43 PM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think the destruction of the idea of there even being such a thing as the public good or the common weal is the most heinous legacy of the conservative movement. All because they wanted to pay less taxes. I hope they're happy with themselves.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:44 PM on August 26, 2013 [13 favorites]


Honestly, I worry that we aren't motivated to do stuff for the public good because we just don't like most other people very much. Why would you like a bunch of strangers?

We're constantly hearing and seeing how self-interested and juvenile we all are. We don't even like ourselves very much. Why would we go to any trouble or expense to make something nice for other people who might be even more venal, who drive SUVs and don't care how much gasoline they use, or how they make it difficult for us to see around them on the highway?
posted by amtho at 6:44 PM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


> But that sense of "plummeting faith" didn't just happen, it was aided and abetted by those who commanded tremendous private wealth and wanted to undermine faith in government so it would be much easier to make a populist case against taxation.

I do think that the Heritage Foundation bullshit accelerated things, but I'm going all the way back to Watergate and Vietnam.
posted by savetheclocktower at 6:49 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyone who calls things like individual insurance mandates "socialist" is basically suggesting that all our grandparents were pinko nutjobs.

Or in the case of people like John McCain (and a majority of conservatives from 1993-2007), themselves.
posted by zombieflanders at 6:56 PM on August 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


I do think that the Heritage Foundation bullshit accelerated things, but I'm going all the way back to Watergate and Vietnam.

I am too. It goes back before that, actually, to Nixon's first campaigns and his close advisers. The recent version of this, Heritage Foundation etc - they didn't make it up out of whole cloth. It's early '60s vintage.
posted by Miko at 6:58 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hope they're happy with themselves.

I imagine they're overjoyed with themselves. Every time a poor child ends up illiterate; every time a dude working three jobs has to get his car fixed because of a road in need of repair; every time a house burns down due to a pay-per-use fire department; every time two public schools are merged together to create un-airconditioned classrooms with 45 kids; every time a family slips into a poverty that they will remain in for a hundred generation... a conservative gets his horns and pitchfork.
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:00 PM on August 26, 2013 [12 favorites]


Maybe it was unsustainable. Maybe it was a one-off. But, I find that very hard to believe.

First, we've rolled the clock back on so many things that led to and/or resulted from our economic juggernaut that we may as will be discussing two different countries instead of two different eras.

Second, the areas where we are actually employing people are seeing their prospects improve. Hell, Mexico got basically "too expensive" to do business with in twenty years. (That's business' line not mine: Why pay an American worker ten bucks when we can get a Mexican for a dollar? And why pay Mexicans two dollars when they're more fully employed when we can pay the Chinese fifty cents? Oh, and now the Vietnamese will do it for a quarter.) That is not the sound of the free market; that's the sound of us being played.

The root issues and causes are, to my mind, painfully obvious. The distressing thing is how much the philosophy of big business and total-laissez-faire-government has become internalized by the American public. Every day, I hear otherwise sane people say things like "unions are leeches" and "taxes are theft" with the same level of certainty and belief that they would say "the sky is blue". We have seen the enemy, and he is us.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:03 PM on August 26, 2013 [13 favorites]


Just once, when a left-leaning political candidate gets called "socialist" by his opponent, I'd like to see her run straight at it. Anyone who calls things like individual insurance mandates "socialist" is basically suggesting that all our grandparents were pinko nutjobs.

We'd have lost the damn war without socialism.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:04 PM on August 26, 2013 [8 favorites]


Well yeah, we buy--and have been sold by a sophisticated media machine--the myth of the rugged frontiersmen and are too goddamn blind to realize the entire goddamn reason there were rugged frontiersman was massive, massive government spending, from the purchases of land like the Louisiana Purchase to the wars against Mexico and the Native Americans to the massive network of forts and outposts that made travel semi-safe to the land grants that set people scrambling to live on the frontier.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:08 PM on August 26, 2013 [13 favorites]


> I think we are returning to an historical mean. The massive disruption represented by WWII resulted in a hitherto unimaginable equality, expansion of government, and regulation, and government services.

Not only do I not buy that, but I tend to buy the notion that David Graeber espouses - the idea that our current state is "histroically inevitable" is a notion that has been deliberately constructed. Linky.

I mean, most of the labor movement happened before WW2, as did the real action in anarchism, communism, and proto-socialism.
posted by mjewkes at 7:10 PM on August 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


The economy doesn't just happen; there's no "historic default." We shape the economy through our policies, and based on our beliefs about it.
posted by Miko at 7:11 PM on August 26, 2013 [11 favorites]


I imagine they're overjoyed with themselves. Every time a poor child ends up illiterate; every time a dude working three jobs has to get his car fixed because of a road in need of repair; every time a house burns down due to a pay-per-use fire department; every time two public schools are merged together to create un-airconditioned classrooms with 45 kids; every time a family slips into a poverty that they will remain in for a hundred generation... a conservative gets his horns and pitchfork.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:00 PM on August 26


That's an entitlement program they are also trying to change, the socialist pinkos!

And you wonder why the republicans march further to the right - all those still to the left of them, with their hand out saying that they've earned their pitchforks... This is the hell now of the youth, and the youth apparently have higher standards for pitchforks. If you want your pitchfork, you're going to have to work harder - plus, its what the market will bare.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:13 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think we are returning to an historical mean. The massive disruption represented by WWII resulted in a hitherto unimaginable equality, expansion of government, and regulation, and government services. This was probably not sustainable and may be one-off.

I'm not big on American Exceptionalism. When so many countries - despite less favourable conditions - can sustain that prosperity and freedom for their peoples, I'm not ready to suggest the USA can't. But the USA is a big ship to try to turn around, and its bridge is held and controlled by terrorists (corruption).
posted by anonymisc at 7:17 PM on August 26, 2013


amtho: "Honestly, I worry that we aren't motivated to do stuff for the public good because we just don't like most other people very much. Why would you like a bunch of strangers?"

I like most individuals - even my racist co-workers - but hate humanity. However, it's good for me in the long run to have a strong society. The sociopaths that destroy the common good to line their own pockets can't even see *that* far off the end of their noses.
posted by notsnot at 7:18 PM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's interesting to read political theorizing that so completely fails to consider the role of elites, especially coalitions of decision-makers and financiers, in shaping policy. I don't quite understand what kind of political orientation this represents, but it certainly lets a lot of very plainly culpable individuals, groups and institutions off the hook rather blithely for making war on the public good.

Sort of odd, too, that he either doesn't know or doesn't want to use a term that succinctly characterizes the ideology of privatization and starving the public good which he describes. Now, why would he so assiduously avoid mentioning either decision-makers or ideology? I wonder.

I've harped on about this before - and it's just a tiny facet of the gallimaufry of social theories flying around - but honestly, I think we are returning to an historical mean.

Do not despair.
posted by clockzero at 7:22 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Countess Elena and anyone else interested in how certain public goods have become "otherized", I highly recommend you read Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen by David Hilfiker. It's a slim volume, but an essential primer on how these issues have been framed and legislated. I think I've recommended it here on MeFi before, but here are some relevant quotes.
74: The New Deal cemented into place the ultimately untenable distinction between "social insurance" and "public assistance" that has, in the end, prevented the US from developing a more comprehensive program of economic security similar to those in Canada and the countries of Western Europe. In the US, we consider programs like Social Security, Medicare, disability pensions, and disaster relief to be social insurance. All of us pay in and, in times of trouble, any one of us can take out. Usually, there is no stigma attached to taking help from a social insurance program; we think that that's what it's there for and that we should take it if we need it. Yet we consider payment to families with young children, food stamps, general relief, an Medicaid to be "public assistance," akin the charity, undeserved handouts given by a generous "us" to a handicapped or malingering "them."

75: As a consequence, federally administered "social insurance" programs have substantially better benefits than "public assistance." Compare the average $394 TANF payment for a family of three to the usual $515 payment for a single disabled person covered by the federal SSI program. As another example, in the 20 years before the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, AFDC benefits (adjusted for inflation) declined by 40% while Social Security benefits remained stable.
posted by spamandkimchi at 7:25 PM on August 26, 2013 [12 favorites]


As another example, in the 20 years before the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, AFDC benefits (adjusted for inflation) declined by 40% while Social Security benefits remained stable

As another example of how-fucking-far-down-the-rabbit-hole we've gone, this is true because the now-incredibly-liberal-looking Richard Nixon had the humanity to index Social Security. (Let that sink in.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:37 PM on August 26, 2013 [11 favorites]


I like most individuals - even my racist co-workers - but hate humanity

I am just the opposite!
posted by thelonius at 7:41 PM on August 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


Wasn't it John Lennon who said, "It's humanity that I love, it's humans I can't stand"?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:42 PM on August 26, 2013


the idea that our current state is "histroically inevitable" is a notion that has been deliberately constructed.

Hmm, I don't think I was being clear enough; I neither mean that such a change is inevitable, nor that it is accidental.

The economy doesn't just happen; there's no "historic default." We shape the economy through our policies, and based on our beliefs about it.

Indeed, and through most of history, that economy has been shaped by, and largely for, powerful entrenched elites, at the expense of the vast majority of the population. That is the mean (not the default) What I believe is that many of the relatively unique conditions engendered by, and/or causing WWII, prompted a relatively unique development. Really I'm pushing back against Hegelian ideas that social development is a continuous upward trend. It's not - and any gains made were bitterly fought for.
posted by smoke at 7:43 PM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've come to believe -- and I'm sure a historian has written about this, although I don't know who -- that racism is at the root of this. Sometime in the past sixty years, the word "public" became associated with minorities, with an Other that's lazy and breeding and shiftless and also plotting to take over. In the past thirty years, following the closure of mental institutions, public places are also those that collect more than their fair share of homeless mentally ill people. The result is that these days, large numbers of Americans have the vague idea that "public" resources are for awful people that don't really deserve them anyway.

Again, these are huge broad-brush notions and I don't have any citations for this kind of thing. But the resistance to Obamacare really crystallized my ideas about this.


Lee Atwater actually explicitly laid this out as a tactic underpinning the Southern Strategy. It's one of the single most important quotes for gaining an understanding of late 20th century America to the present, imo.
posted by jason_steakums at 7:44 PM on August 26, 2013 [9 favorites]


Wasn't it John Lennon who said, "It's humanity that I love, it's humans I can't stand"?


No, I believe that was Linus Van Pelt.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:49 PM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, linus. Not the best link maybe, but it does have an image of the whole strip, which seems to be from November 12, 1959. Could have been an influence on Lennon I suppose, not sure if it was syndicated over there though.
posted by hap_hazard at 7:58 PM on August 26, 2013


As another example of how-fucking-far-down-the-rabbit-hole we've gone, this is true because the now-incredibly-liberal-looking Richard Nixon had the humanity to index Social Security. (Let that sink in.)

Well, of course! That commie pinko signed the EPA and nationalized the railroads, whadda expect?
posted by entropicamericana at 8:29 PM on August 26, 2013


He actually froze prices and wages in the US, too, literally taking central control of the entire US economy for a three-month period known as "The Nixon Shock."

And how did Americans respond then to the announcement that communism and central economic planning had been embraced by one of the US's most stalwart anti-communist crusaders?
The American public felt the government was rescuing them from price gougers and from a foreign-caused exchange crisis.[9][10] Politically, Nixon's actions were a massive success. The Dow rose 33 points the next day, its biggest daily gain ever at that point, and the New York Times editorial read, "We unhesitatingly applaud the boldness with which the President has moved."[1]
posted by saulgoodman at 8:52 PM on August 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


Paraphrase old NYr:

Everyone asks if there will still be an old-age pension by the time they retire, but nobody asks if The US Military will still exist then? Everyone wonders when Medicare will run out of money, but nobody wonders when The Army will run out of money? It all depends on how we allocate what we have.
posted by ovvl at 8:59 PM on August 26, 2013 [20 favorites]


"I think the destruction of the idea of there even being such a thing as the public good or the common weal is the most heinous legacy of the conservative movement. All because they wanted to pay less taxes. I hope they're happy with themselves."

Don't worry... they are!
posted by markkraft at 1:59 AM on August 27, 2013


I've harped on about this before - and it's just a tiny facet of the gallimaufry of social theories flying around - but honestly, I think we are returning to an historical mean.

I.e., the Hobbesian state of nature, in which life is nasty, brutish and short.
posted by acb at 3:58 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seriously, if it's gotten to the point where the ruling majority doesn't think that fixing bridges is a public good, I'm not sure what hope we have.

It's not that they don't think it's a public good. Of course they believe fixing bridges is a public good. Conservatives' issue is with government doing the fixing. Quite literally, this is part of the plan which has as its end-game the privatization of, basically, everything that government does (with the possible exception of providing a standing military.)

The idea is to so hamstring and marginalize government that the public will come to clamor for private business to step-in and fix everything. So, you slash taxes and spending to where serious cutbacks in infrastructure (like repairing bridges) become the norm, and wait for the public to start screaming about how government isn't working. Then, you introduce legislation to sell-off another chunk of "the public good" to the best-connected bidder. Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:31 AM on August 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


There's actually been a lot more interesting speculation than this article about the concept, but a lot of it applies to having a less culturally homogenous population. When the culture is relatively homogenous - with even outside immigrants striving to assimilate above all - then it's easy to conceive of the "public good" as something that is for you and people like you.

So thus, the decline of the common ideal of "the public good" has correlated with our expansion of who precisely is referred to as "the public."

Previously, while something might have been for "the public", in reality, there were large segments of the population who were kept away from it. Vagrants and homeless were kept out of public parks and many other public facilities such as libraries and swimming pools and such. Segregation meant that these facilities were largely not available for African-Americans. A police force actively antagonistic to the poor meant that these things were available only to people who appeared relatively "respectable." Public universities also had strong standards - both of grades and of citizenship. Known criminals were prevented from access to many public areas.

In turn, people who wanted to use these things enjoyed and felt safe using them. Public pools were clean. You could feel comfortable sending your children to the park. If you sent your child to a public university, you could be assured they would have a relatively rigorous education. Public schools largely catered to the reasonably well-off tax base that supported them.

While the expansion of access in many cases was good, it also meant that these commodities became less pleasant. They became more crowded. With the addition of many new children without the corresponding increase in tax revenue, schools became less sanctuaries and more prisons. With the inability to keep the homeless out, public areas also became dirtier. (No moral judgements here, it is very difficult to keep clean if you have no home.)

And so if you don't want these things for your children, how can you consider them a public good? If these things are inherently vile such that you want to move as far away from them as you can, why would you work for them?
posted by corb at 6:57 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't know - blaming this on Nixon or the increase in immigrant populations seems kind of simplistic. Isn't it just as likely that we're seeing the result of years of reading Ayn Rand novels and getting our political philosophy from The Cato Institute? I mean there's a whole industry out there dedicated to propagandising the world about the value of the individual and the evils of government. Just the most obvious example: "[on] April 2, 2009, Atlas Shrugged ranked #1 in the "Fiction and Literature" category at Amazon and #15 in overall sales. Total sales of the novel in 2009 exceeded 500,000 copies. The book sold 445,000 copies in 2011, the second-strongest sales year in the novel's history."

Isn't the current situation exactly the desired result?
posted by sneebler at 7:27 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


While the expansion of access in many cases was good, it also meant that these commodities became less pleasant. They became more crowded

That's a cynical, uninformed and incomplete analysis. You both create an imagined, clean-pool past that never existed and blame increasing inclusion for making those facilities "less pleasant." This story is not so simple at all - your analysis leaves out an enormous set of social and economic conditions that caused change in those facilities, ignores the fact that decline in investment often preceded, rather than followed, white flight, and overlook that even a simple read of something like Jane Jacobs or other writing from the time positioned as ideal here will show that there was never a time everyone could feel comfortable sending their kids to "the" park.
posted by Miko at 7:50 AM on August 27, 2013 [10 favorites]


The article is pretty short, so it doesn't have the space to get into the broader issues, historical trends, and context of various past decisions. How have investments in public goods tracked with increased population, changes in the tax base, movements and dispersion of populations, etc?

For instance, "the largest public works project in history" (the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, an effort to improve access "Through Darkest America") started at 41,000 miles (66,000 km) of road, and extended to 47,182 miles (75,932 km) by 2010. Are the roads designed and laid out in 1956 still suitable a half century later? Or are there some old four-lane highways that need to be maintained, but are only serving half of the traffic they did at their peak, as populations have shifted in the decades since the roadway was first built? What about schools and infrastructure in cities that are shrinking?

Then there's the fact that many utilities are taken for granted, until they don't work. Funding maintenance of existing infrastructure is as important as funding expansion. Again with roads, public-private partnerships are then ways to utilize funding from major companies located along certain roads. In some cases, industries have pitched in millions to keep roads they use open and in good working order, without turning the roads into toll roads.

In summary, this is a big topic, and this particular article only skimmed the surface.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:51 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


> But that sense of "plummeting faith" didn't just happen, it was aided and abetted by those who commanded
> tremendous private wealth and wanted to undermine faith in government so it would be much easier to make
> a populist case against taxation.

"Aided and abetted" in the same sense as some guy standing in the street, puffing out his cheeks, and blowing in the same direction as the hurricane aids and abets. The hurricane itself did just happen--declining trust in government is an entirely rational and predictable knock-on consequence of declining government trustworthiness combined with increasing public knowledge of it.

Yes, Vietnam was the first great wind in the storm. But since then its been just one damn thing after another, down to recent times featuring the Iraq invasion(s) and their little tailpieces like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the Afghanistan invasion, the Wall Street bailouts, the Department of Homeland Security, the "wars" against drugs and terrorism, the incarceration state, the surveillance state that has grown from J. Edgar Hoover stalking Martin Luther King to the three-letter agencies stalking everybody, a "peace" president who authorizes drone strikes and personally chooses the assassination targets... I don't need to prolong the dismal list because any of you could do it for me, and in other threads have done so at great length.

But not in this tiresome, preening one, because in threads about how great it is to pay your taxes quietly and support the public good nobody ever breathes a word about the enormous public evils you support at the same time. Because that might make your "bad, selfish people!" conclusions less facile.
posted by jfuller at 9:24 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Aided and abetted" in the same sense as some guy standing in the street, puffing out his cheeks, and blowing in the same direction as the hurricane aids and abets. The hurricane itself did just happen--declining trust in government is an entirely rational and predictable knock-on consequence of declining government trustworthiness combined with increasing public knowledge of it.

Yes, Vietnam was the first great wind in the storm. But since then its been just one damn thing after another


Yes, because those that aided and abetted had nothing to do with everything you mention. No military contractors wanted to make a profit off of war and surveillance (and Snowden never worked for Booz Allen), no Wall Street firm wanted massive deregulation, no drug manufacturers and tobacco/alcohol wanted continued criminalization, no security firm made money off of arming police and setting up prisons, and so forth. Nope, they're just bystanders that contributed oh-so-little to the situation, it's all dat eeeeebil gubmint.

But not in this tiresome, preening one, because in threads about how great it is to pay your taxes quietly and support the public good nobody ever breathes a word about the enormous public evils you support at the same time. Because that might make your "bad, selfish people!" conclusions less facile.

/Checks first comment, rolls eyes, sighs.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:36 AM on August 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


I think we are returning to an historical mean. The massive disruption represented by WWII resulted in a hitherto unimaginable equality, expansion of government, and regulation, and government services. This was probably not sustainable and may be one-off.

Nonsense. Since WWII the US's GDP has risen steadily. It's just that since the 1980s, the distribution of the national income has changed.
posted by Gelatin at 9:58 AM on August 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


jfuller: "Bad, selfish people!" or not, it's just stupid. This civilization thing doesn't work without a commitment to the ideals of the public good. Period. The problem is, the alternatives to civilization, no matter how Hollywood and others might romanticize them, are even uglier for most people.

The wrong response to losing faith in your institutions is to scrap the very concept of institutions. The better response is to push relentlessly to reform them or build new ones. There's nothing preening about it: the conceptual technologies of the state and taxation are indispensable if we want to enjoy any standard of living over the long-term that's an improvement over constant struggle for survival, the default state.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:02 AM on August 27, 2013 [10 favorites]


Another question that I'm honestly not up on enough history to answer: pre-Civil War America, how much of "the public good" meant from federal to states, versus things being kept in-state? I wonder how much of the difference here is not just in the idea of the public good, but also in the idea of what that good precisely is.
posted by corb at 11:14 AM on August 27, 2013


If only there were some sort of public good that housed many books on many subjects where one could borrow them and learn about history. (Man, this is like a free ride when you've already paid.)
posted by entropicamericana at 12:37 PM on August 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


That's crazy talk! It'll never work.

Well put, saulgoodman.
posted by Miko at 12:53 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


If only there were some sort of public good that housed many books on many subjects where one could borrow them and learn about history.

If you think anyone has enough hours in the day to become well read in minute detail about every historical event and time period ever, library or no library, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you.
posted by corb at 1:44 PM on August 27, 2013


"In the presence of [ethnic] diversity, we hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us."—Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam
posted by TSOL at 2:54 PM on August 27, 2013


> Yes, because those that aided and abetted had nothing to do with everything you mention. No military contractors
> wanted to make a profit off of war and surveillance (and Snowden never worked for Booz Allen), no Wall Street firm
> wanted massive deregulation, no drug manufacturers and tobacco/alcohol wanted continued criminalization, no
> security firm made money off of arming police and setting up prisons, and so forth. Nope, they're just bystanders
> that contributed oh-so-little to the situation, it's all dat eeeeebil gubmint.

I can't see any of those you listed those wanting to undermine faith in government so it would be much easier to make a populist case against taxation, which was miko's complaint. All of them have the strongest possible interest in there being a large and growing tax-supported public trough to slurpdivert value from, not to mention a far greater facility at grabbing the levers of government than you or I have. "eeeeebil gubmint" includes what's done by government that's been captured by eeeeebil corporate and military/industrial interests. If you've got a way to separate them from it then for Ghod's sake tell. (If it's only another "we should all..." then never mind. "We all" don't work like that and it's lunatic to hang any hopes on it.) (If you were going to say "with a crowbar" then yeah, maybe.)

No, the "aiding and abetting" I think has vanishingly little influence is the sort people apparently believe in who blame the decline in trust in government on Cato Institute propaganda and the like.


> The wrong response to losing faith in your institutions is to scrap the very concept of institutions.

Which I certainly don't do. But I'm also not married to any particular implementation of the concept. We could reach a point where people think all the value is going into the institutions (as currently implemented) and nothing's coming back out for except a little bread (inadequate) and a few circuses (boring.) It does seem that a fair number of people are already there, because they can add and subtract and not because of anything the Heritage Institute told them
posted by jfuller at 3:58 PM on August 27, 2013


I can't see any of those you listed those wanting to undermine faith in government so it would be much easier to make a populist case against taxation, which was miko's complaint.

Why can't you see that, exactly?

All of them have the strongest possible interest in there being a large and growing tax-supported public trough to slurpdivert value from, not to mention a far greater facility at grabbing the levers of government than you or I have.

A greater interest than cutting out the middle man with that pesky regulation voted for those ever-so-demanding constituents?

"eeeeebil gubmint" includes what's done by government that's been captured by eeeeebil corporate and military/industrial interests.

Well then, to continue your metaphor above, they're the causes of the hurricane rather than mere puffs of breath as you described, seeing as how they captured government instead of government capturing them.

If you've got a way to separate them from it then for Ghod's sake tell. (If it's only another "we should all..." then never mind. "We all" don't work like that and it's lunatic to hang any hopes on it.) (If you were going to say "with a crowbar" then yeah, maybe.)

Ever thus has it been, and ever thus shall it be. Even ancient Athens was run by the corporate interests, they just happened to be more open about it.

No, the "aiding and abetting" I think has vanishingly little influence is the sort people apparently believe in who blame the decline in trust in government on Cato Institute propaganda and the like.

Okay, but you're the one that said they were nothing compared to the horribleness of government that came before them.
posted by zombieflanders at 4:21 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you think anyone has enough hours in the day to become well read in minute detail about every historical event and time period ever, library or no library, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you.

Yeah, sounds exhausting. Don't know how I managed to learn anything about history, sooo hard! Much easier to make up your facts to support half-assed historical analyses that almost sound plausible until folks realize they're built on completely unsupported assertions with no historical basis.
posted by Miko at 8:23 PM on August 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


I felt a sense of impending doom watching Family Ties on the TV in the early 1980s with it's
cynicism and sneering at Liberal values. I felt some sort of just desserts happened
when Rush Limbaugh sank his teeth into Michael J Fox for "seeking sympathy for his Parkinson's".
Sadly Ronald Reagan was popular with the young of the time, my generation.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 2:54 AM on August 28, 2013


I've come to believe -- and I'm sure a historian has written about this, although I don't know who -- that racism is at the root of this. Sometime in the past sixty years, the word "public" became associated with minorities, with an Other that's lazy and breeding and shiftless and also plotting to take over.

Racism is the tool, not the cause to destroy belief in the public good. That Lee Atwater quote mentioned upthread is a good example; his motivations for embracing racism were purely to win votes for the Republicans, not because he believed in those racist bugbears he created.
The hurricane itself did just happen--declining trust in government is an entirely rational and predictable knock-on consequence of declining government trustworthiness combined with increasing public knowledge of it.

Yes, Vietnam was the first great wind in the storm. But since then its been just one damn thing after another, down to recent times featuring the Iraq invasion(s) and their little tailpieces like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the Afghanistan invasion, the Wall Street bailouts, the Department of Homeland Security,
None of these actually destroyed the belief in government in the voters who mattered, white middle class rightwingers and right of centre voters. The same Tea Party uncle upset about all the welfare checks going to these people also beliefs America needs more money for defence. Nobody cares about what happens to terrorists

If you read the wingnut propaganda, the main reason for the economic crisis was government loans to black people to buy homes, not the way the banks behaved or the bailout of same by the government.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:40 AM on August 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yeah, sounds exhausting. Don't know how I managed to learn anything about history, sooo hard! Much easier to make up your facts to support half-assed historical analyses that almost sound plausible until folks realize they're built on completely unsupported assertions with no historical basis.

Miko, I'm surprised - this seems uncharacteristically and unnecessarily snarky of you.

All the same, I'll answer - if you are in fact well versed in history, as I see no reason to doubt, you will understand that most people who are significantly interested in history tend to have a general knowledge of the broader swaths, and more specialized knowledge of the time periods, eras, and locations that they are interested in. If someone's focus is, for example, on a particular segment of Chinese history, there is no reason for anyone to mock them because they're not well versed in the history of medieval Europe. Or if they are well versed on medieval European history, but not in American history. Or well versed in American history, but of one particular time period rather than another time period. Or well versed in the history of gender relations at the time, but not the economy, or the economy but not the details of wars and battles.

Personally, when I find someone else has only a superficial knowledge of a time period that I have a more in depth understanding of, I think it's more interesting to talk about the time period rather than mock them for admitting that the particular period in question, or a particular aspect of the period in question, is not their field of study.

Unless you seriously believe that any historian - no matter how good - can be knowledgeable in exhaustive detail about each and every time period in each and every location?
posted by corb at 6:25 AM on August 28, 2013


But Corb, it is possible that Miko does not trust that you are asking in good faith. In this thread, you haven't really engaged with any of the criticisms of your first post. You just seem to be counter-attacking, in this case by being passive-aggressive, patronising and snide.

(Quite apart from your behaviour in other recent threads, where you were remarkably obtuse and unwilling to try to understand the perfectly clear and logical points that other posters were making).

If you are really interested in this topic, make an effort: go away, look it up, come back to the thread with some fresh information. Otherwise, you are just trying to get other posters to do your homework for you.
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:46 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another question that I'm honestly not up on enough history to answer: pre-Civil War America, how much of "the public good" meant from federal to states, versus things being kept in-state?

I wasn't going to say this earlier, but since you keep bringing it up, this is a really, really basic question that is covered in American high school history. If you did not attend school in the United States, I apologize for the snark. If you attended home school, I apologize for the hearty gut laugh.

If you think anyone has enough hours in the day to become well read in minute detail about every historical event and time period ever, library or no library, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you.

Can you not spend five seconds to Google the answer? People would probably have more time to do this if they weren't arguing on the Internet in favor of rolling back 100 years of progress.
posted by entropicamericana at 7:48 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can you not spend five seconds to Google the answer?

Personally, I think it's a particularly complex question - because I wasn't wondering how much states were providing financially versus how much federal was providing financially towards what would now be considered "the public good", I was wondering how much individual people's personal conceptions of the public good - their overall feelings - were affected by distance, regionalisms, etc, and to what degree.

I imagine that this would be particularly hard to google for, particularly in the "five seconds" you allot it - a good answer would probably need to involve scholarly analysis of journals, diaries, and personal letters of citizens in all walks of life across all of the states specifically focused on the notion of the public good, to determine how individuals conceived of it in each area - and how that was affected by their various statuses.
posted by corb at 8:05 AM on August 28, 2013


if you are in fact well versed in history, as I see no reason to doubt, you will understand...

I was snarky because I find your general contempt for facts tiresome. It's entirely true that I read your question as rhetorical, and not sincere. It's ridiculous to be so lazy as not even begin to investigate it, if you believe it is so important If you think this is a significant question that may yield insight into the development of your political philosophy, then start reading.

In general I find that your use of history to undergird your political leanings is shot full of holes, flimsy, and dishonest. You offer a lot of vague ideas and assumptions that are unsupported by evidence, to the point where I believe all you are doing is projecting your own worldview back onto the past and then looking for, or in the case of your fairy tale about public parks, making up, the evidence you'd need to support it.

I think it's a particularly complex question

Not really. It's complex only in that it does not have a single answer, but it's not unanswerable, and you're not the first person to ever wonder about such a thing. Many scholars have combed the journals and newspapers and investigated the relevant sources to arrive at an understanding of this issue. Negotiating the public weal is an important and commonly dealt-with topic in American cultural history. Your question itself is somewhat sprawling and unfocused, but you could refine it and start making progress toward learning about it. I mean, you might have to read a book or two instead of somebody's web page or Wikipedia to start getting some decently-grounded perspective on the question, but to not even bother to explore just doesn't seem sincere.

This isn't a specialty topic of my own, but I just Googled for a minute and found:

Philanthropy in America: A History, in which the author concentrates on"the relationship between private philanthropy and public policy "

DeVoto's West: History, Conservation, and the Public Good

Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History

And of course any such investigation probably should include DeTocqueville, both on voluntary association in America and on charity in his Memoir on Pauperism.

As is usual with such topics, often the first few sources you find are most useful for leading the way to the most important pieces of scholarly writing on the topic, so check the bibliographies and keep an eye out for other thinkers most cited on the topic. One or two books should offer reading suggestions for several more.

So no more fumbling in the dark! Enjoy the reading.
posted by Miko at 1:56 PM on August 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


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