Washington’s obsessive focus on the fiscal deficit has led to a 2014 budget, signed by President Obama, that reduces discretionary government spending below levels of the George W. Bush years. Ironically, the success of the fiscal deficit hawks has increased an ominous hidden deficit more consequential than the fiscal deficit, that of public goods.
“The history of civilization,” wrote Martin Wolf of the Financial Times in 2012, “is a history of public goods.” Public goods are what governments produce on behalf of their citizens: clean air and water, safe food and drugs, libraries and parks, highways and bridges, and scores of other services that citizens rely on every day.
Public goods are funded collectively by citizens through their taxes. The government produces them because the market does not or because a society decides that all citizens should have access because the societal benefits are so important.
We are now suffering a mushrooming “public goods deficit,” foretold as early as the mid-1950s by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who warned about our backwards budgetary priorities leading to a disgraceful combination of “private opulence and public squalor.” Since Galbraith’s time, we have been disinvesting in our public goods — infrastructure, social welfare, public safety, and public education — at an astonishing clip, reflecting Washington’s brand of anti-deficit passions.
The result is that we are losing public goods that are vital to national and personal well-being. The public goods deficit remains largely hidden, an invisible crisis without a name. But how can such a catastrophic hidden deficit remain hidden? There are three explanations.
One is the paradox of public goods — their essential invisibility when they do what they are supposed to do. Public goods are created to meet the unmet needs of a society or to solve complex social or economic problems. But when the need is met or the problem solved, the public forgets that: a) there was a need or problem in the first place; b) the problem has been remedied or the need met; c) it was their government that made this happen; and d) it is their government that continues to maintain those solutions. Thus, success equals invisibility.
Second, the hidden deficit remains hidden by design, a deliberate strategy developed by conservative elites with enormous power over the public discourse. Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler has argued that influential, monied groups do not want people to know how much they are getting from government. If people recognized how many personal and social benefits come from government spending, it would threaten the conservative anti-government position, a stance long at the center of right-wing ideology. In 2008, Mettler showed that of all who deny ever receiving benefits from US government programs, over 90 percent had participated in at least one such program. As Mettler writes, the state’s role — and thus the existence of public goods — has been intentionally submerged and shrouded, “making it largely invisible to ordinary citizens.”
A third reason is that we lack the language to discuss the hidden deficit. You cannot see what you lack the words to describe. Neo-classical economists and conservative corporate interests have taught that only private businesses can produce lasting and true wealth, and that government is inherently unproductive since it displaces private enterprise and is only useful as a temporary corrective to transitory “market failures.” Such ruling orthodoxy undermines the very possibility of a “public good” produced by government, and helps explain why people heavily reliant on public goods claim they get no government benefits.
The solution, then, is, first, to introduce the language that allows people to recognize the existence of public goods and of the public goods deficit. As Betty Friedan showed in her path-breaking 1950s discussion of women’s plight as “the problem that has no name,” women needed words to name their predicament before they could understand it and act to fix it. Intellectuals, including economists, journalists, and political leaders, must all help advance the new language and ideas to name and make visible the hidden public goods deficit.
Second, those most hurt by the hidden deficit must mobilize to fix it. This is a daunting political challenge, but since those harmed include most of those on the wrong side of the inequality divide, there is a constituency ready to listen, learn, and act. Moreover, the stakes are extremely high for everyone, as failure to address the public goods deficit guarantees the creeping deterioration of the quality of our lives and the decay of society itself.