Reviving Public Action

In our book, we sought to make a broad and accessible case for public provisions of many kinds—and we agree that neoliberalism has failed. A response to Vanessa Williamson.

By Ganesh Sitaraman Anne L. Alstott

Tagged Public Option

In The Public Option, our primary goal was to convince readers that public options—universal, affordable public provision of goods and services that coexist with private options as an alternative or supplement—exist everywhere in our society and have for a long time. We wanted to write an accessible book, not a technical policy or academic book, because we think making this case to a general audience is important for two main reasons.

First, we want to persuade people that government provision is neither unprecedented nor frightening—and we think showing the pervasiveness of public options throughout American history and contemporary American society will help. For a generation, market subsidies (including vouchers and tax breaks) have been the dominant policy tool for liberals as well as conservatives. And the dominance of the market ideal is reflected in our law: Federal programs for retirement pensions, worker health insurance, and families all run through the tax system. After decades of privatization and market subsidies, our aim was to challenge the dominance of market subsidies in public policy and revive the idea that public action can be a valuable approach.

Second, we think policymakers should see the public option as a policy tool that exists alongside other policy tools—whether tax policy, regulation of conduct, public utility regulation, or public monopolies—rather than a proposal limited to health-care policy. Our hope is that when policymakers see the tool as broadly applicable, they might identify useful applications for it elsewhere. An important consequence of both these points is that our goal was not to be the last word on the subject, but rather to spark conversation, research, and policy development.

Given these goals, we were surprised by many of Vanessa Williamson’s criticisms of our book, particularly her criticisms of our offering new ideas and our focus on establishing the public option as a more commonly used policy tool. For example, Williamson objects to our offering new proposals in the retirement and higher education sectors, as opposed to simply pushing for more investment in existing public options like Social Security and public colleges and universities. In fact, we explicitly state our support for, and discuss investing more in, both of those existing public options. But we also offer additional ideas in both of these sectors to show the value of a public option framework. Williamson is correct that we do not adjudicate between our new policy ideas and investing more in existing public options. We do not do so for a simple reason: We think there is value to putting new, helpful ideas on the policy menu, even if they are add-ons or supplements to other good ideas that already exist.

Williamson also wishes we had done a comparative assessment of when public options are optimal compared to what she calls the “public mandatory” (or what we would call “exclusive public provision”). While we agree there would be merits to a book on exclusive public provision of goods and services and to a book comparing different regulatory tools—from taxes to regulation to public provision—this was simply not our aim. We also did not compare public options to a wide variety of other regulatory tools, from performance- based regulation to design specifications to structural separation rules (but she didn’t criticize those omissions; oddly, only the “public mandatory”). Again, our point was to outline the contours of the public option in order to jumpstart conversations that would be helpful in making it a more commonplace policy tool across subject areas. We do spend much of one chapter contrasting the public option with market subsidies, and that focus is in line with our goals of making the case for government action and unseating the market approach as the go-to for policymakers. A comparative study of every regulatory tool might be the book Williamson wants to read, but it isn’t the one we wanted to write.

More surprising is her insinuation that we are clearly opposed to exclusive public provision. That is simply not the case. We stand by our position that while public options need not be considered “socialism” (a slippery term in common parlance these days), there is nevertheless nothing inconsistent about believing that some areas should be exclusively in the public’s hands while others need not be. Indeed, we discuss mandatory public provision at various points in the book, and state that public utility-style regulation might be a persuasive alternative to public options in some situations. Why policymakers—or citizens—have to choose one or the other model escapes us. We think the better strategy is to assess what tools apply best in different situations. That’s a hard question, and we say so. The answer, we think, requires a great deal more research and study than we could offer in a short book for a general audience—research and study we hope our book will help further by making clear that the public option is a distinct tool from others that exist.

Williamson also criticizes us for not offering a solution to the problem of segregated schools. This is a particularly puzzling criticism because the chapter on K-12 schools is in the section of our book detailing the history of public options. One of the central points of this chapter, which is also our chapter on housing policy, is that public options have mixed results when they operate within a context of official and unofficial racial discrimination and segregation. We point out the damage done to the public schools by decades of racial segregation and discrimination, including Jim Crow. We discuss school funding through local taxation, residential segregation, and political boundaries that isolate the poor and people of color. We criticize laying the blame on poor-performing schools and teachers rather than seeing the broader context. Indeed, we state that improving public education requires not just major structural change in school funding, but also other reforms to economic policies, and to policies that have led to discrimination and segregation. It is true that we do not canvass the options for how to address all of these structural problems, but that would certainly have taken us much further afield from discussing the public option as a policy design.

In addition to Williamson’s criticisms of our exploring public options as a policy tool, she also seems to object more generally to our attempt to offer a persuasive narrative of public options—and to address concerns that self-described moderates might have about public options. For example, she says we “dismiss policy proposals to the left of [our] recommendations with Reaganesque pablum about the dangers of ‘big government.’” This too was puzzling to us, as we start the book with the point that the neoliberal approach to policy has failed (and we root that historically with the rise of Reagan), and we reference a variety of policies that might be considered “left” (including Medicare for All) as what we call “baseline public options.” (In the book, we define baseline public options as those in which everyone gets a baseline benefit but additional benefits are permitted, as with Social Security and Medicare. These are distinct from competitive ones—like using the post office versus FedEx.)

But more broadly, we do think it is worth attempting to persuade people of the merits of public provision of goods and services, and our book includes sections that try to give readers who might be uneasy about this variety of counterarguments to assuage their fears. We respond to common attacks on public options by offering answers to questions including “Isn’t big government bad?” and “Won’t bureaucrats screw up the implementation?” The reason we do this is that these questions come up all the time. Liberals who support public provision must be equipped to respond (and we wanted this book to help them do so), and moderates and conservatives who have concerns might find our responses persuasive. Williamson seems to think any attempt to persuade anyone is futile because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is ideological and can never be persuaded. We don’t understand why she thinks we expect the Chamber to be persuaded (we don’t) or even why she thinks that’s our audience. But we do think there are many people, including on the center-left, who are skeptical of public provision but persuadable. Giving up before we try seems to us like a good way to guarantee failure.

Williamson also objects to our pointing out that businesses can benefit from public options. She seems to think this is futile because they will ultimately object (again, the point about the Chamber). She also claims that we are blind to the problems of corporate power in our society, and she instead wants greater discussion than we offer of the moral case for these public option policies (though she does concede that we do offer some discussion). Williamson is, of course, entitled to her own tactical choices on how she’d like to present policy arguments, but we think it is a mistake not to argue that a public policy choice is both morally desirable and economically valuable.

Of course, some people worry that there are trade-offs between morally desirable policies and economically beneficial ones, so, we try to rebuff those concerns by showing that market competition, entrepreneurs, and businesses could benefit a great deal from public options. Sure, the Chamber might not pay much attention to these arguments, but small businesses that feel squeezed by monopoly pricing and individuals who face no choices in their Internet service, for example, might find this case persuasive. We also don’t think there is any contradiction between deep concern about corporate power and economic inequality and making the case for public options from an economic and business perspective. Indeed, one of us has written extensively on economic inequality and the concentration of economic and political power, including advocating for breaking up tech companies and warning, in these pages, of the spread of oligarchy at home and around the world. Perhaps Williamson thinks there is no possibility whatsoever of ever persuading anyone who is skeptical of public action. But we don’t, and we are not going to give up.

Williamson also dislikes our history. She objects to our gloss on the history of the mid-twentieth century, which we find a bit surprising because we explicitly note that we are talking about “a model, a framework,” rather than on-theground reality. We think it’s fair to talk about the Treaty of Detroit, breadwinner liberalism, and neoliberalism even if those paradigms didn’t apply to all people or apply perfectly. “Not everyone was included in [the Treaty of Detroit model],” we state, “and it didn’t fully succeed even on its own terms.” Our quite explicit aim was to describe the general policy mood of the time.

Where Williamson is absolutely right, however, is on one passage that she calls us out for, which starts with the line, “Since the founding of the country, the government has acted to secure the preconditions of freedom for all Americans.” Williamson notes that this broad statement glosses over the United States’s shameful and lasting history of slavery, the persecution of Native Americans, and misogyny, among other injustices. We agree that this attempt at breezy rhetoric is inaccurate and indefensible, and we regret writing this passage with insufficient acknowledgment of the facts.

For the record, we agree with Williamson that we should have done more to describe the reality of our history: Although our nation has aspired to freedom and equality, it has also systematically excluded African Americans, Native Americans, women, and others, sometimes with force and violence and sometimes more subtly.  We should have written that line and that paragraph with greater acknowledgement, up front, of the gaps between rhetoric and reality.  Homesteading, industrial employment, and the family wage—just to take a few examples—all privileged whites and men and inflicted cruelty and brutality on others. As we re-read the passage in light of Williamson’s comments, we also immediately saw that some of our language is even susceptible to (or worse, naturally read with) the opposite meaning from what we intended. We offer no excuses for this passage, and are disappointed that we did not live up to our own standards for clear, persuasive, and accurate writing—particularly on these crucially important issues.

Indeed, we are particularly disappointed because part of our aim in the book is to make the point that universal programs have the benefit of being universal—not excluding anyone, whether by race or geography or anything else. At the very beginning of the book, we identify several dimensions of fairness that we think give public options real potential, and we include solving “racial and geographic inequality” as one of those motivating ideals. At various points in the book, we note a range of failings in public policy, from the troubling and persistent racial gap in wealth to the legacy of racial discrimination in Social Security to public swimming pools where segregation was “enforced by private violence and intimidation.” We could and should have done more. But we think it is still worth noting that one of our main points is that public options can provide a basic level of access to important goods—retirement security, child care, banking, and Internet connectivity, for instance—to everyone, and that it is precisely those who have been excluded who can gain the most from new initiatives that put real resources—for housing, for child care, for retirement, for education—behind the promise of universality.

Overall, it is fair enough for Williamson to be disappointed we didn’t write a different book—one, say, on proposals for exclusive public provision of various goods or on comparing different kinds of regulatory models. But we believe the book is clear from the start that our target is the market subsidies that dominate current law and many policy proposals from the center-left. We think policymakers need more and better options—and that public options are a useful, not futile, path forward.

Read more about Public Option

Ganesh Sitaraman is Chancellor Faculty Fellow, Professor of Law, and Director of the Program on Law and Government at Vanderbilt Law School.

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Anne L. Alstott is the Jacquin D. Bierman Professor in Taxation at Yale Law School.

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