Our Fading Understanding of the Common Good

At the top of this blog is a quote from the late Senator Paul Wellstone, who describes our “nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”  Wellstone is defining the idea of public responsibility—the common good.  A quaint notion these days. Think about the verbs in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the People… establish… insure… provide…promote… secure… to ourselves and our posterity.”

More and more often today we seem to accept a very different notion: that good people are the ones “who give back.”  They have done well, and so they contribute through their charitable foundations or donate to the many causes or services they choose to support.  Notice that the operative verbs in this transaction are “to give” and “to choose.” A gift is very different than an obligation because giving grants power to the donor who gets to choose the recipient the giver deems worthy.  People who present gifts also get to choose what to give and and how much. The Preamble to our U.S. Constitution defines the recipient a little differently: “ourselves”—all of us—and “our posterity”—all of our children their children.

In Monday’s NY Times, in response to the disaster of Flint, Michigan’s lead-poisoned drinking water, Paul Krugman distinguishes between government spending on social insurance programs, Medicaid and Social Security—topics he explains are of understandable public debate due to ideological conflicts about the philosophy of government—and public goods:

“There should, however, be much less debate about spending on what Econ 101 calls public goods—things that benefit everyone and can’t be provided by the private sector.  Yes, we can differ over exactly how big a military we need or how dense and well-maintained the road network should be, but you wouldn’t expect controversy about spending enough to provide key public goods like basic education or safe drinking water.  Yet a funny thing has happened as hard-line conservatives have taken over many U.S. state governments.  Or actually, it’s not funny at all.  Not surprisingly, they have sought to cut social insurance spending on the poor.  In fact, many state governments dislike spending on the poor so much that they are rejecting a Medicaid expansion that wouldn’t cost them anything because it’s federally financed.  But what we also see is extreme penny pinching on public goods. It’s easy to come up with examples, Kansas, which made headlines with its failed strategy of cutting taxes in the expectation of an economic miracle, has tried to close the resulting budget gap largely with cuts in education.  North Carolina has also imposed drastic cuts on schools.  And in New Jersey, Chris Christie famously canceled a desperately needed rail tunnel under the Hudson.”

Michigan, where a state-appointed austerity fiscal manager sanctioned the cost cutting that has poisoned Flint’s children and where a series of fiscal managers have run up the long-term debts of Detroit’s public schools to a total of $3.5 billion, is this week’s poster child for slashing spending on public goods.  But there is another state that is currently very much in the news: Illinois, where conservative Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, is embroiled in a state budget fight with a super-majority Democratic legislature—a budget fight that has dragged the state through months without a budget.  In Illinois the political fighting is so ugly that it is hard to parse out exactly what what may be posturing, but it is evident that the students of the Chicago Public Schools and their teachers are the losers. Chicago Public Schools face a deficit that has accumulated over many years: “This year, the district has a $480 million hole to fill in its current budget.” Notice that our society’s sense of public obligation to our poorest children—in cities like Detroit and Chicago—seems to slip away pretty easily.

Last week, according to DNA Info, “The district said it was cutting 433 administrative positions, including laying off 227 employees Friday… ‘We are gonna make Central Office cuts and reforms so we don’t have to impact the classroom, where we’re making significant educational gains for children,’ (Mayor Rahm) Emanuel said.”  Through these and other cuts, CPS seeks to cut $45.1 million.  In the meantime, the school district will have to borrow, despite that its credit rating has been downgraded to “junk” status.

Chicago’s mayor and the CEO of the school system, Forrest Claypool, blame the state and a Chicago teachers’ pension system that has been underfunded by previous administrations and that, unlike the pension system for teachers in other Illinois school districts, receives no state contributions.  And they blame Illinois school finance: “‘The governor is defending a school funding system that is separate but unequal. Our children are facing systematic discrimination.  CPS represents 20 percent of state enrollment, but gets just 15 percent of state funding, even though 86 percent of our children live in poverty.”

Like many other states, Illinois is failing to drive state funding to the neediest school districts serving masses of children in poverty. The Education Law Center’s Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card awards the state of Illinois a grade of “F” for funding distribution.  The report explains, “The level of funding should increase relative to the level of concentrated student poverty—that is, state finance systems should provide more funding to districts serving larger shares of students in poverty… Student poverty—especially concentrated student poverty—is the most critical variable affecting funding levels.  Student and school poverty correlates with, and is a proxy for, a multitude of factors that increase the costs of providing equal educational opportunity…”

Of course, in Illinois as in lots of states, the school districts that are in trouble are those that serve masses of poor children.  This reality means that the debate about provision of public goods is affected by what Krugman calls the “values” debate about how much money ought to be spent on the poor:  “In the modern world, much government spending goes to social insurance programs—things like Social Security, Medicare and so on, that are supposed to protect citizens from the misfortunes of life. Such spending is the subject of fierce political debate, and understandably so. Liberals want to help the poor and unlucky, conservatives want to let people keep their hard-earned income, and there’s no right answer to this debate, because it’s a question of values.”

Krugman separates the issue of provision of public goods from the values question about whether and how we protect our most vulnerable citizens, but in real life, what he calls the “values question” gets mixed together with with the definition of what public goods we need to pay taxes to provide.  Our debate about the obligation to provide public schooling—a public good—is very often colored by the political debate about equity.  How much should the state have to add to help the children in Detroit and Chicago where the costs of educating masses of impoverished children are far greater than the costs in middle class school districts?

And in Chicago there is another ideological debate, this time about increased privatization as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school CEO Forrest Claypool continue to post requests for proposals that offer charter school operators the chance to expand the number of charter schools, which then draw children and the state’s per-pupil funding from the city’s struggling public schools.

I worry, however, that underneath all the politics and underneath the clash of ideologies, the understanding of public obligation is fading.  Do we imagine that, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, we all get to choose the way we give back?  Or are all of us—including Gates and Zuckerberg—expected to contribute through progressively assessed taxes for basic public goods?  Are we losing the understanding that the common good—represented in clean water, good schools, sound infrastructure, and good roads— is everybody’s responsibility?

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6 thoughts on “Our Fading Understanding of the Common Good

  1. Your argument about public goods and public responsibility is, I believe, crucial to our future as a nation and as a world, and I’m glad you took Krugman’s article further, although I think he was just being judicious. I hope, not just to pass this post along, but to build upon it in terms of public goods, common responsibility, and generational responsibility (which has been dangerously eroded, I think, by anxious baby boomers guarding what we have at the expense of younger generations). I value many of your posts and share quite a few through Facebook, but especially thank you for this one.

  2. Here’s a piece of trivia I stumbled upon that may mean nothing, or a lot. Google books reports that the use of the word “obligation” in English publications has declined by over 1/3 between 1800 and 2000.

  3. You have perfectly captured the Illinois battles being fought between our multi-millionaire governor, the Democrat controlled legislature, and the city of Chicago. The children, especially the poor children of Chicago, are paying the heaviest price, but the mess is spreading throughout the state as services we would list under the public goods and responsibility are left to flounder while Bruce Rauner fiddles.

  4. Pingback: Our Fading Understanding of the Common Good | PAChurchesAdvocacy.org

  5. Pingback: What Does the So-Called Corporate Takeover of Government Mean? | janresseger

  6. Pingback: Washington Post Report Highlights Problems with State Takeovers of Schools | janresseger

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