This is not really a post about the debate where Romney suggested cutting funding for public broadcasting.
Instead, it’s about the symbolism of the debate, and about the very real and still very urgent risk that we lose our collective understanding of what the commons means, and why it matters.
We spend a lot of time at public parks. Even now, in the winter, thanks to climate change. Really.
But much of what my kids know, even still, is commodified. The only television they watch comes through Netflix, which we buy. Their favorite places to play are the indoor play centers, which charge entrance fees. The youngest ones go to private preschools, and even my son in public school doesn’t really know what public school would look like without the additional services paid for with private dollars, from parents’ contributions, like the counselor and his Spanish class and the extra field trips.
They wouldn’t at all understand the significance of eliminating PBS, because they don’t really understand the idea that valuable things can be provided, free to the user, through our shared investment.
Today, it seems that nothing is ‘sacred’ from privatization and retrenchment.
My students did a presentation last fall on the private prison industry and its influence on public policy that shocked even me. More of the mental health system has shifted to private providers, leaving an emaciated community mental health system incapable of dealing with demand. One of my client organizations saw a would-be client commit suicide after experiencing a six-week wait for an initial mental health assessment.
The city where I live recently changed its policies to allow neighbors to reject sidewalk projects, after homeowners complained that having public sidewalks on their streets hurt their property values.
What does it mean, for those of us who believe in the commons, and for a sector like ours, which thrives there?
If there is at least a sizable percentage of our society that is willing to sacrifice Big Bird in the name of austerity, what is in store for much less fuzzy things we value, like the Older Americans Act and Medicaid expansion and early childhood intervention programs?
Are there lessons to be learned from those pieces of the commons that we do still prioritize? From universal programs like Social Security, that have woven their way into inevitability? What do we need to be doing–with our organizing, and our messaging, and our advocacy–to position ourselves to emerge unscathed from the budget cuts that still stretch across the horizon, in this new year?
What will it take to rebuild the commons, and to recapture the imaginations of children just like mine, who–despite Mommy’s infatuation with public libraries–still think that most things that are worth something have to be bought, and brought home, just for us?