The Public Good

I read this column a few days ago by Robert Reich on the Huffington Post. As I read, my reaction was “this. This. This this this this this. Yes.”

I knew I had to write about it. At the time, I couldn’t do it without copying and pasting the entire piece. Let’s see how I do today, shall we?

Take this quote:

What defines a society is 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.

This is my America. This is what I believe society, at its most basic and visible level, should be. This is why I don’t mind paying taxes, even though my eyes pop a wee bit every time I take the time to glace at more than my take-home income when I look at my paycheck stub. The way I see it, that is the price that I pay for living in this society. I have benefited from each and every single part of that list. I’ve attended public schools. I’ve been hospitalized in my city’s public hospitals. I made good use of the public transportation system as a teenager, and probably will again in the future. I played in the parks as a child, adolescent, teenager, and continue to enjoy them as an adult. (You cannot convince me that there is a better park system than the one here in Louisville. Even if I get lost in Cherokee Park, without fail, every time.) I have lived in the public libraries. I attended a public university. I have taken advantage of the museums and the recreation available in my fine state quite often, and am the better for it.

All of these things have kept me alive, kept me sane, kept me fulfilled and learning, and have in a very big way, shaped me into the person I am today. It would be ungrateful of me to not pay society back for everything that it has given me–and it would be irresponsible of me to do anything less but to “pay it forward” so that those who come after me may take full advantage of them as well.

If I hadn’t made use of these things? It is still my responsibility, as a member of society, to support these institutions, including defending them from disintegration and dismantlement. Even if these things hadn’t personally, directly benefited me, they are valuable and vital parts of our society. The public hospitals have saved people’s lives. The parks have provided joy, delight, enjoyment, peace, and exercise to millions. The schools teach the community’s children, introduce them to a world bigger than they imagined, spark their imagination, and enable them to become informed, engaged, enlightened, and productive members that contribute to our society. The universities open up the world even more, and provide us with new knowledge, and give its’ students new experiences and knowledge that will stay with them forever. The libraries and museums do the same–provide knowledge, expand imaginations, as well as to allow people to connect with history and other people in ways that no other institution could. And public transportation allows people a cheap, accessible, reliable means of getting to all of these places and more. Even if these things hadn’t directly benefited me, the ways that they enrich the lives of everyone living within that society does benefit me. It also benefits society, which, in turn, also benefits me.

All of these things are for the public good–and that is why the public must support them, financially and otherwise.

Much of what’s called “public” is increasingly a private good paid for by users — ever-higher tolls on public highways and public bridges, higher tuitions at so-called public universities, higher admission fees at public parks and public museums.

These higher direct costs are making these public goods accessible to fewer and fewer members of society. This negatively affects the whole–not just those who can no longer afford to access these things. I’d add another to this list–the rising prices of bus tickets and passes, and the corresponding reduction of service.

The great expansion of public institutions in America began in the early years of 20th century when progressive reformers championed the idea that we all benefit from public goods. Excellent schools, roads, parks, playgrounds, and transit systems would knit the new industrial society together, create better citizens, and generate widespread prosperity. Education, for example, was less a personal investment than a public good — improving the entire community and ultimately the nation.

We idealize the individual–but some things cannot be accomplished by an individual. Some things cannot be provided for by an individual. There are times when a community must band together, whether that be to protect, provide, or to enrich each member of the community. These things? Are it, and more. For the public good.


Police Abuse: Using Wiretapping Laws to Avoid Accountability

This is frightening. Police have arrested and charged a man under wiretapping laws for recording his own encounter with police.

The man faces up to sixteen years, though the use of the law in this circumstance is more than stretching it. What is frightening is that rather than addressing problems within the police institution, reprimanding individuals who cross the line, and working with communities to improve relationships, police are using a law to protect themselves. Rather than face their own imperfection, police are arresting civilians whose recordings often force them to be held accountable for their own breaches of the law.

This is not indicative of a strong, healthy, institution with integrity. This is indicative of an institution with something to hide, and power to keep hold of.

Before I’m accused of police-hating, let me stop you there. I am completely supportive of the ideal of a peaceful police force, with the mission to protect and serve (the community). I do not support the militarizing our police forces are and have been undergoing, and I do not support police who abuse their authority. As a lover of freedom, I cannot support tyranny or abuse of the powerful on the powerless. I do not support a lack of integrity. I do not support a lack of respect.

As a lover of freedom, I must demand accountability on behalf of our police force, and of our courts. Police must not abuse their authority. They must not retaliate against citizens who hold them accountable for their wrongdoings. Courts, and the prosecutors that represent our states, must not use their authority to retaliate against citizens for attempting to keep their public servants accountable.

We cannot do it alone. Police must cooperate–in criticizing the failings of the police force, we are not decrying its existence. We are mourning the lack of good cops, the ones who work hard every day, the true public servants. In our criticism, we are calling for the good cops to come forward, to help the public in making the police a more peaceful, effective institution.

We are decrying the friendly fire, and calling for both police and civilians to work together to improve our communities-the communities that both police and civilians work, live, and play in.

Arresting civilians who work to keep our police accountable is not the way to do this. Pass the link at the beginning on–it has a lot of good information and links.

A Disenfranchised Liberal

I’m but one person. However, I’m part of a group, several groups, in fact: Liberals, feminists, democrats. When people of similar beliefs unite to accomplish something, it’s a beautiful thing. But it’s hard to feel like I’m truly a member of a group when the leaders, and a large part of the membership of these organizations ignore your existence.

Last night I attended a meeting of my university’s chapter of FAN—the Feminist Action Network, for the first time. My feminism has largely been focused in the virtual world, and in on the ground, person-to-person relations. It was a small group, and locally focused. It’s one with few resources, the most valuable and numerous one being its members. Why? Feminist organizations aren’t interested in Kentucky.

Kentucky is a conservative state, located in the South. I’ve always known that those two facts were why these organizations I claim to be a part of, aren’t interested in me. It is the same for other states that fit one of those criteria, or both of them, as the case may be. My state, along with the others, is mentioned only when the organizations lists just how Bad Things Are. Or when something Bad is about to happen, legislatively or otherwise, then these organizations swoop in, with the majority members, to attempt to save the day. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. Regardless, after the media frenzy is over, the organizations, along with their out-of-state members retreat, and my state is ignored until the next big crisis.

It’s easy to sympathize with conservatives when they ramble about the “liberal elitists” as I ponder this issue. In a way, they have a point. I’m not going to name names, or point fingers, but when liberal (I’m using this as a general term here) organizations focus their efforts largely in majority liberal states, it bothers me. It’s troubling.
It’s easier to get things done in those states. Red-state liberals can easily see that. It is in part because of the majority of the population has registered Democrat. However, it is also because there is a large and established organized effort to push liberal ideals. There is also a large and established support system for the effort. There is no such thing here in Kentucky. Oh, we organize. We push. We donate to causes and politicians. But the large, national organizations that work to pull everyone under a single banner, and the out-of-state support system that exists in blue states does not exist here. So we, I, are left to do our work individually, or in small groups. We do the same work as our blue-state brethren. But we are not as successful.

Cause and effect is not easy to determine here. Do we not succeed because the state is conservative, so the national effort does not waste their resources? Or, do we not succeed because the national effort ignores us, leaving the state to become more conservative?

Every liberal, in every state, is working toward the same cause. Ignoring some in favor of the other hurts more than it helps. The states are becoming more and more polarized—ignoring the conservative states, save in the direst crisis, will only make it harder to push for the change the country needs, when the national effort finally gets around to the red states.

Taxes: Why I Don’t Mind Paying Them.

It seems like everyone has something to complain about in regards to taxes. It’s a pain to pay them, we shouldn’t have to, my tax refund isn’t big enough, etc etc etc.

I don’t mind paying taxes–no, really. Look at everything local, state, and the national government does with our tax money.

My taxes allow the government to allow me to take out loans to pay for my schooling; something no bank would do-give thousands of dollars to a seventeen year old woman? Pshh, silliness! The government banks on the idea that higher education will increase my productivity to society, and thus, my ability to pay them back. The bank loans solely on my ability to pay them back, with a lot of interest.

My taxes allow the government to fund food stamps. Mere dollars are taken out of my paycheck, and cents on the dollar out of my purchases , and I’m helping to feed thousands of people.

Iroquois Park, in Louisville, KY, gives residents a place to hike, bike, play, and enjoy Mother Nature. All paid for by our tax dollars.

My taxes pay for roads, for the government to oversee and regulate public services, our services members: students, active, and retired.

In paying my taxes, I’m giving back to a society that gives to me. I have clean air, relatively cheap tuition, roads and sidewalks to use, police to keep me safe, EMS to come to my rescue when I have a[nother] seizure in public, and many other things that I’m probably taking for granted.

It’s easy to take for granted the things that taxes pay for when we’ve never lived a life without them.

Stop and think for a minute–could we live the same lives if we kept our tax money and had nothing that those taxes pay for? No. We function as a community, a society. We live a life of relative comfort because of this. We are individuals, but we function as part of a group. I take care of me and mine, plus a whole lot of others, too, by paying taxes.

As a community, we can’t decide who to help, who deserves to benefit from the things taxes give us, or who should pay more or less depending on some arbitrary judgment of “goodness” or “worthiness.” Our neighborhoods are communities which are part of the city’s community, which is part of the state’s community, which is part of the nation’s community. Each individual is one of many, and unless we pool our resources, very few of us will succeed. Very few. Those who currently do not need “help” cannot stand in judgment of those who do. We have pooled our resources for a reason–because we are all equal. We are all equal, we are different, but the same, and we are part of the same community.

We think a lot about how taxes hurt; but how do they help?