What Ever Happened to The Notion of A Public Good?
Recently, a long term public employee about to retire from the government told me: “I know from working on the inside that the effectiveness of Government is at its lowest level in my 30 years of service.” An American individualist who went into government in the name of “public service,” my acquaintance told me how depressing it was to watch the dismantling of the “public service” side of government during his career. In many ways, he is an old fashioned American - out of place precisely because he believed in working hard for “the public good.”
For years I worked for a faculty union in higher education as an “arbitration specialist.” It was my job to defend “academic and faculty rights” as they were defined in both the collectively bargained faculty contract and the University policy documents. Many of the difficult cases I worked on such as denial of retention, tenure or promotion, disciplinary actions, and allegations of age, racial, and gender discrimination, involved a complex hierarchical social setting with articulate and highly educated intellectual workers who were also employees.
Although the job was stressful I always felt that the faculty union was providing a public good by bargaining and enforcing a contract, defending faculty rights, and protecting academic freedoms. Giving people a “due process,” a right to be heard before a neutral arbitrator, was considered a public good. Today, this essential right of “due process,” the right to face and challenge your accusers and to be protected against arbitrary punishment, is under attack everywhere from Abu Graib to Guantanamo.
This notion of serving the “public good” has been under attack by a predatory corporatist and capitalist ideology called “neo-liberalism” for over two decades. The Republican Party, and its voice in the media, FOX NEWS, has been the chief sponsor of this frontal neo-liberal attack, although many Clinton Democrats have capitulated to it as well. “Neo-liberalism” is essentially a market fundamentalism that argues for the privatization of everything in order to reduce taxes for the rich and increase profits. In other words, less public revenues for the elderly and the poor, for public health ,education, and welfare, and more money for the deep silk pockets of the corporate millionaires.
The trend of reducing taxes along with public funds for health, education and welfare, has been central to the so called “Reagan revolution” since 1980. The Two Bush administrations have furthered the cause of this narcissistic neo-liberal empire, practicing what Naomi Klein in her book THE SHOCK DOCTRINE, calls economic shock therapy via "disaster capitalism.".
The defense budget also continued to grow alongside a gigantic private army (BLACKWATER), because the neo-liberal empire apparently needs endless war and “full spectrum” military dominance to maintain control of the world’s markets and natural resources. For many around the world, America is perceived as a tyranny that rules through fear and threats and punishes violently anyone who dares to be insubordinate to its “global interests.” Iraq is a showcase, an example of what happens to those who fail to comprehend that “what we say goes.”
The neoliberal shock troops want to privatize everything - our democracy, our culture, our health care, our educational institutions, our military, our work environments, and our food. And everything is in ruins! The entire American infrastructure is deteriorating, worn out, riddled with problems, and dysfunctional. Katrina showed us just how dysfunctional it has become. We can’t rescue a city in distress; we can’t even seem run a clean election anymore.
In the words of Ralph Nader: “Disintegration is everywhere. Public works are crumbling-schools, clinics, public transit, libraries, drinking water and sewage-treatment plants. Tax dollars are being used to destroy more of Iraq and to subsidize or bail out companies recklessly run by obscenely overpaid CEOs. Public deficits are soaring.”
Meanwhile, as everything deteriorates at home, corporate CEOs remain unaccountable and continue to rake in record amounts of money. Do we have to experience more ENRONs to make corporate America accountable?
America needs a new enlightenment where science, reason, the promotion of public service, the monitoring and regulation of corporate malfeasance, and a secular tolerance is a matter of public policy. We need a “truth movement “that is based on an American citizen’s right to know and receive accurate information. We need a politics where vacuousness is not treated as a virtue and intelligence a threat.
This would mean reforming our shameless corporate media that sold us the false bill of goods on the Iraq war, that continues to this day to be a mouthpiece for the Pentagonians and the Bush administration, and that continues to be a source of obfuscation, misinformation and disinformation instead of enlightenment. The complete “black out” of the antiwar efforts of the peace movement and the WINTER SOLDIER testimonies this mid-march only shows us how far we still have to go.
A new enlightenment would also entail creating a real democratic Congress that would hold the President accountable for failing to uphold the Constitution and Bill of Rights. We need a Congress that would have the courage and strength to impeach a President for waging a war of aggression, what the Nuremburg trials labeled a “crime against humanity.”
A new enlightenment should also have an eastern dimension of compassion and ecology focusing on our understanding of our connectedness and interdependence in a conditioned world. We have to find a way to live in this world together.
We also need to elect a Congress that would protect our civil liberties and our right to investigate facts and speak openly and critically. We need a Congress that would protect citizens from the kind of autocratic arrogance we have seen in Bush and Cheney.
So far we do not have such a Congress and the public opinion polls reflect it. To get such a Congress we would also have to have what Jim Hightower and COMMON CAUSE have called “clean elections” where all candidates receive no strings attached public funds to run their political campaigns. This would loosen the stranglehold that corporate money has had over the electoral process.
Currently, we live in a world run for profit by Washington, Halliburton, Exxon, Wal-Mart, Network News, and the Pentagonians. They are poisoning our world and our minds. They are destroying our hope. It is time to change, to reassert the notion of public good, and to take back our American society so that the politicians and private businesses work for us in a sustainable economy and a real democracy precisely “because people matter.”