Reviving Public Power through Public Options

April 29, 2019

Why This Matters is a series from Roosevelt staff connecting our individual work—from papers to reports and everything in between—to our broader vision of creating a better, more equitable economic and political system. This series will give readers the top takeaways from our latest writing and thinking, with a focus on why they matter as we redefine the rules that guide our social and economic realities.

Despite individual policies polling better than conservative proposals—on health care, education, and taxes, for example—the public has yet to fully comprehend what progressives actually stand for. Progressive policymakers need a worldview that connects laundry lists of policy solutions to people’s daily lives, and a new issue brief by our colleagues offers just that. In “Increasing Public Power to Increase Competition: A Foundation for an Inclusive Economy,” Sandy Darity, Darrick Hamilton, and Rakeen Mabud outline a renewed, robust vision of government that can guide policymakers, journalists, and voters in thinking cohesively about when and how to deploy public power.[1]

The biggest barrier to using public power to improve Americans’ daily lives is our country’s assumptions that government is always ineffective and that its interventions are too costly. Even when we agree that government should intervene, we often do so in marketized ways that paper over existing market disfunction and often further entrench inequality and corporate power. Sandy, Darrick, and Rakeen demonstrate that the government has an essential role to play in people’s well-being and that it can actually do some things more effectively than markets can. Ultimately, they show that some goods and services should be guaranteed by the government because they are essential for people to thrive. For the goods and services that can’t or shouldn’t be taken out of markets completely, government-provided public options should be deployed, which would set a floor on quality, a ceiling on prices, and force the private sector to do better by the American people.

Offering a clear argument about when and how to deploy public power can bolster the progressive agenda. The logic put forward in Roosevelt’s latest issue brief naturally provides solutions to the kitchen table issues that Americans care about, including higher education, banking, and health care. If progressives can center this common sense vision of public power, it might not be so hard to win individual policy battles. Eventually, we can reshape the power dynamics that underlie our economy and society, restore our belief in the public sector, solve our common problems, and build a better future.

[1] We DEFINE public power as equipping the government with a set of tools to (re)shape markets and our society in ways that serve all of us, not just the wealthy few.