To David M. Kennedy’s perceptive comments on Michael Sandel’s new book [“The Root of All…” Issue #26], I would add a note on the utility of public programs. It is not just that public programs are better than “market solutions” on ethical or even aesthetic grounds, but that they often solve practical problems better than the corresponding private programs.
What, after all, is the market solution to crime? Bigger guns, higher fences, better bodyguards? None of these solve the problem because we don’t just want to be better protected—we want there to be less crime. This involves solving other people’s problems, not just our own, so it requires a public approach. Hence we turn to public police departments. The same applies to everything from garbage collection to public health. There is a public benefit from public programs that cannot be replicated by private solutions.
This public benefit is spread evenly over the entire population, rich and poor. All of us, no matter our income, benefit from well-run public services. These programs do promote equality and justice, then, but the reason they were set up in the first place was to benefit those who pay for them, including the wealthy. There is an economic logic in the public as well as the private sphere.
Our problem, though, has been that we don’t always demonstrate this benefit very well to the general public. Where is the data, for example, on how an individual’s support for public schools leads to a stronger economy, less crime, and lower taxes overall for that individual? There are studies that show these effects, but nothing to indicate to each taxpayer that it is happening in his or her case. It’s as if we were running a private program for the people currently using the public schools, not a public one supported by, and benefiting, the entire population. The same could be said about our public transportation programs, which benefit the general public, including the ones in their cars—a fact rarely documented or even brought up.
The goal is, as Sandel and Kennedy emphasize, a more equitable society, but the steps we take to get there require improvements to our own public programs as well as criticism of private solutions; we need a kind of “supply side” public policy. There the problems are more clear-cut and solvable, once we turn our attention to them.
New York, N.Y.
A New Lease
I read with considerable interest your article in the Fall 2012 issue about manufactured housing conversions [“Manufactured Housing: The Homeowners No One Thinks Of,” Issue #26]. I serve on the board of directors of one of the recent resident-owned community conversions discussed in the piece and can find very little downside to this growing movement toward resident ownership. Our cooperative is in its infancy—we submitted papers in July after a whirlwind few months of panic, chaos, tremendous anxiety, and a kind of triumphant exhilaration when we finally, figuratively, held our park in our hands.
We are an over-55 park with 270 homes. Many of us struggle on fixed incomes, supplementing Social Security where we can and worrying a whole lot every month about what’s going to happen the next. We were privately owned and faced a 4-percent rent increase every January, more if capital improvements legally allowed it. At $526 per month, ours had become one of the most expensive parks in the area without anything to show for it. Our infrastructure was deteriorating at an alarming rate and the owner had little interest in correcting anything. When our water system developed major leaks, the owner simply passed the increase in water bills on to us rather than incurring any repair expenses.
Since conversion, we have experienced many of the subtle changes Paul Bradley and George McCarthy describe. People have become closer, working together as never before. We see more neighbors chatting on street corners. We had a great party after the dust settled. Yards are looking better. Home improvements are on the rise. Because some of our residents are in failing health, they need help—and they’re getting it, from the guy down the street or the woman next door. Things are really looking up. I don’t know that I have ever felt such a close sense of community in my life.
There have been some bumps in the road. We are only a few months old and have made some mistakes (and will surely make more). We have a hardcore band of “Debbie Downers” who think everything we do is wrong. But, as the weeks go by, their criticism has become more and more irrelevant as residents realize how much better things are. We are about to start a major revamp of our septic and water systems, have instituted some safety and wellness plans for our vulnerable population, and are pretty excited about our future.
There are some things we wish had gone a little better. We feel we didn’t get enough information from our lenders or technical assistants in the early days (even now, our technical assistance is not quite what we would wish for as complete neophytes). We are also still establishing a working relationship with our project-management company. But nothing is unfixable. We do have the good fortune of having dedicated board members who are all committed to making this work and a capable and growing force of volunteers. Who knew we had all that knowledge and talent right under our noses?
The services that organizations like Bradley’s and McCarthy’s are providing are incredible and can have a huge impact on a forgotten segment of the low-income population. This is a movement that is ready to take off. When these conversions take place and democracy takes over, a bunch of old fogies like us get a whole new lease on life. This is one heck of a good idea.
Secretary, Board of Directors