There Should Be a Public Option for Everything. The idea has been popular throughout American history.

There Should Be a Public Option for Everything.

Despite the recent trend toward privatization, the idea has been popular throughout American history.

The struggle between capitalism and socialism is back. "America will never be a socialist country," President Trump tells us, even as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez champion democratic socialism. At the same time, a consensus is growing — from Ray Dalio, the billionaire hedge fund manager, to Joseph Stiglitz, the economist and Nobel winner — that capitalism needs major reforms if it is going to survive. Perhaps surprisingly, given the trend toward the privatization of public services over the last generation, American history offers a way forward: the public option.

Most Americans probably associate the idea of a public option with health care. When the Affordable Care Act was debated in 2010, proponents of a public option wanted anyone to be able to buy into a government health insurance option like Medicare that would compete with private health insurance plans. But the public option isn't a recent policy innovation, it isn't limited to health care and, historically speaking, it hasn't even been particularly controversial as an approach to public policy.

Americans love public options and have relied on them for hundreds of years. We just don't usually think of them with that label. A public swimming pool is a public option; many people have private swimming pools. A public library is a public option; many universities have private libraries. Public parks, public schools, public defenders in courtrooms — the list goes on. They are all public options, government provisions of goods and services that coexist with the private marketplace.

Throughout our history, Americans have turned to public options as a way to promote equal opportunity and reconcile markets with democracy. For example, public libraries allow anyone to read, check out books or surf the internet. This expands educational opportunities and guarantees access to information to everyone, but it doesn't prevent people from buying books at the bookstore if they choose.

Public options also benefit competitive markets and make capitalism work better. Public options in the form of public schools guarantee that we have an educated work force, and services like public transit and the post office support economic activity. The public option also competes in the marketplace with private options, expanding choices for consumers and acting as a check on monopoly power in concentrated sectors.

And whether it's a pickup game of basketball or a shared picnic table at a state park, public options bring together people from different walks of life. They also help make our democracy more vibrant by giving us a shared set of experiences and goals to talk over in the public sphere.

Without question, the history of the public option, like the history of America, includes shameful episodes of exclusion. To take just one example, in the Jim Crow era, public pools in many places were off limits to black Americans. But as the civil rights movement made strides in opening public accommodations to all, public options, including public pools, became more inclusive as well.

The public option can provide a way forward for an America that is torn between our urgent need for greater equality and the benefits of markets. Consider broadband internet. More than a quarter of Americans in rural areas lack access to even moderate-speed internet. Nationwide, almost half of neighborhoods have only one option for high-speed internet; 36 percent have no options at all. A public option can go a long way in expanding access while introducing healthy competition.

This isn't a pie-in-the-sky idea: Chattanooga, Tenn., a city with a population of about 180,000, has had a public option for high speed internet since 2010, and today more than 100,000 residents and businesses take advantage of it.

Or think about child care. In many places, the cost of child care for an infant exceeds the cost of public college tuition; it's simply more than many young families' budgets can bear. A public option could significantly expand access and help working families and their children — without constraining those who want to hire a nanny, have Grandma move in or send their kids to a private day care. It has the potential to transform American life and commerce. A public option like this would help businesses, whose workers have persistent child-care problems, as well as families that are financially squeezed.

Political leaders and policymakers are noticing that public options can help reform capitalism without abandoning markets. There are proposals for a public option for basic bank accounts run through the Postal Service or the Federal Reserve. These basic accounts would connect millions to the financial system and could include services like direct deposit, which would help account holders avoid the fees associated with the check-cashing industry.

The 2020 Democratic presidential primary already features a robust debate about moving toward a true public option in higher education so that post-high school training or college would be free for everyone. Proposals vary in the details, but they typically would increase funding and ensure that tuition is free (and sometimes room and board too) at public institutions — instead of leaving students with an increasing debt burden.

Of course, public options can be designed poorly and can fail for lack of resources, just like any other public or private service. Public defenders in the judicial system are routinely underfunded. And not all public schools provide the kind of high-quality education we want for all our children. Policymakers promoting public options also need to be particularly attentive to structural racism and regional disparities.

Americans don't need to resign themselves to vicious capitalism, just as generations before us didn't. And the idea that public action and markets are incompatible is simply false. We don't have to choose between competitive markets and equal opportunity. Public options are a way to mitigate the damage that comes with the worst aspects of capitalism while creating a common fabric that ties us together.

By Ganesh Sitaraman and Anne L. Alstott

The authors are law professors.

New York Times, July 6, 2019


July 7, 2019

Voices4America Post Script. This article makes clear that a "public option" is as American as Apple Pie. Read and retweet. It will give you an answer to your deplorable relatives. #PublicOptionsAreAmerican

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