The new delight in my life is the subway. It has been bought, after great expense and great delay, to my neighborhood and so I take it. I arrive at work in a wonderful mood, no longer having to fight traffic and feeling virtuous for taking public transportation. The subway, like that first cup of coffee, does wonders for my morning.
And it has started me thinking. I have other delights in my life and some of them, even many of them, come to me from what is now called the public sector. It is an awful term, probably coined by the sort of person who works with graph paper, but to me it includes not only my new toy, the subway, but many other things as well.
It includes, just for starters, the park where I do my running. It also includes the museum where just recently I saw the incredible works of the French sculptor, Rodin. It also includes, of course, all other museums, especially ones with dinosaurs. They awed me as a child and now they do the same for my son.
These are not the essential things that government does -- such as police protection, hospitals and public schools. Instead, these are the perks, the extras -- not free elementary school education, but free graduate school education, not a crowded bus stalled in traffic, but a sleek new subway that zips you through the city, saving time and also lifting spirits.
All these things cost money, of course, and it is debatable whether some of them are worth what they cost. My new subway, for instance, has been a staggering public works program, and it could be argued (although not by me) that its costs outweigh its benefits. But the debate recently has not been about an occasional excess or even about a specific program, but seemingly about the worth of the entire public sector. It is always being compared with this thing called "the private sector" and found not only to be less efficient and very, very expensive but in some sense immoral. It's argued that there are things government should not do. The private sector will do them.
In a strict sense, of course, the private sector does not exist. It thrives or does not thrive because of government policy -- tax programs, grants, contracts. For instance, the vaunted revival of Baltimore, which is more myth than reality anyway, always is touted as the work of the private sector. But government provided legislation and grants and a host of other programs. Maybe the picture of developer James Rouse, which almost always accompanies a story about Baltimore, should be paired with one of Uncle Sam. He did as much for Baltimore as Rouse.
The concept of a partnership between the private sector and the public sector is what is missing today. Instead, the debate is framed as an either-or proposition, with the notion being that the private sector always can do things better than the public sector -- that it is legitimate while the public sector is some kind of ripoff. It is this sort of thinking that has produced vast cutbacks in federal aid to cities and states and which has caused two out of every three cities to lay off workers.
It does no good to argue that essential services will be maintained. That's wonderful -- if true -- but that is also what government is obligated to do. It is the very minimum owed and not, anyway, the point. Instead, the point is that there are things that only the public sector does that are neither essential nor provided by the private sector but are worthwhile nonetheless.
It is not the private sector that gives me my parks and maintains them. It is not the private sector that provides museums with huge dinosaurs to make a kid's jaw drop in wonderment. It is not the private sector that has pools for the poor and libraries for all and even bands that play for lovers on summer nights.
These things may not be essential, but they make life a bit sweeter. It was the loss of them, in fact, that took some of the fun out of Fun City. It may seem silly to blame New York's massive woes on what may seem like trivial matters, but for some people life simply got harder when the parks got dirtier and the flowers no longer bloomed in the spring. Now we all will get a chance to learn the lesson New York learned. After all, only God can make a tree, but only the public sector can maintain a park.