There is no such thing as ‘society’

Meryl Streep’s eerie reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” brings to mind Ms. Thatcher’s most famous quip, “There is no such thing as ‘society.'” None of the dwindling herd of Republican candidates has quoted her yet, but they might as well, considering their unremitting bashing of everything public.

A society is 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.

But much of what’s called “public” today is increasingly private. Tolls are rising on public highways and public bridges, as are tuitions at so-called public universities, and admission fees at public parks and public museums.

The great expansion of public institutions in America began in the early years of the 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.

Yet in recent years the idea of the public good has faded. “We’re all in it together” has been replaced by “You’re on your own” — as global capital outsources American jobs abroad, the very rich take home an almost unprecedented portion of total earnings, and a new wave of immigrants is described by demagogues as “them.”

Outside of defense, domestic discretionary spending is down sharply as a percent of the economy. With declining state and local spending, total public spending on education, infrastructure and basic research has dropped from 12 perent of GDP in the 1970s to less than 3 percent by 2011.

We’re losing public goods available to all, supported by the tax payments of all and especially the better off. In their place we have private goods available to the very rich, supported by the rest of us.

Even Lady Thatcher would have been appalled.

These are just a few snippets from a thought provoking article published by The Baltimore Sun and written by Robert B. Reich. You should go here to read the rest of it.

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