Letters To My Corporate Overlords: Public Institutions

By Karine Vann for Boston Compass (#130)

April 10, 2020

I’ve long targeted corporatocracy and the creeping privatization of American society as a point of concern. But in the last seven months, my fears have accelerated five thousand fold. We are witnessing an erosion of public resources at a rate I could never have fathomed.

The shutting down of our publicly funded institutions—schools, libraries, parks, museums, transportation, even water fountains—has not been without good reason. We are living through a global pandemic that spreads through human interaction. Closing these resources to the public is a demonstrable effort by the state to use what it has control over to limit that interaction. This in theory makes a great deal of sense, but how things have played out in practice reveals some enormous blind spots.

The problem is not that our public institutions are being extremely cautious. It’s that whether they’re open or closed we need the services they offer, and we are still getting them—or at least some segments of society that can afford them are. For all the public schools that shut their doors to in-person learning, private schools, which remain open, offer a tantalizing alternative to an already economically privileged demographic. For all the buses and trains running on reduced schedules due to low ridership, car dealerships remain on standby, with the keys to your next carbon guzzler, and large tech companies like Uber and Lyft lick their lips at the opportunity to capture a market which is unprecedentedly available to them. For all the libraries not offering public wifi, access to in-person educational resources and a quiet workspace for community members of all ages, private, for profit bookstores and coworking spaces fill an important void for those with means, while others remain siloed in their residences.

Conservatives have for years lobbied on the idea that these services we fight so hard to provide public options for—particularly education and transportation—should not be funded by municipal, state, and federal budgets. Their argument is that the private sector can offer these services more cheaply, not on the public dime, and with greater resiliency. We on the left have long had to fight this ideology. But when we shut down public resources during a time of crisis, without a plan for when they will reopen, while allowing private institutions to continue operating as ‘essential,’ we create a vacuum in which the conservative argument has never held more sway.

We are experiencing a historic retreat into and embrace of the private sector with a societal shift that we may never be able to reverse. The state of Massachusetts, for example, has already announced severe budget cuts to transportation are imminent. It’s already hinted that what’s lost today may never return.

This crisis has demonstrated the extent to which the modern left has lost touch with the demographics it claims to care about. This crisis has demonstrated that while public services are funded by “the people,” they are not staffed by them—not really. What does it say to someone who works at a grocery store—a private sector employee who’s considered essential, yet paid a minimum hourly wage with zero benefits—when the teachers - whose salaries and benefits they pay for to ensure their kids have a safe place to be while they’re at work - are not willing to teach in-person? It says that their lives are more disposable than the lives of those with far more support than them.

This disconnect on the progressive left is why Trump won in 2016, and it’s why in 2020, though he didn’t win the election, he did win with all demographics of Americans that don’t read the New York Times (and other publications which turn real, pressing social and economic issues into bourgeois middle class dinner party talking points).

These are the same people who will endlessly debate, over comically expensive bottles of wine, the virtues of public schooling, but during a pandemic, are the first to put their kids in elitist “pods,” rather than fight for a more equitable and horizontal response. These are also the people that, once lockdowns get severe, escape the existential ennui of quarantine by abandoning ship, buying a $80,000 van remodeled inside to look like a wooden cabin, and taking a cross country road trip—something they can do because they’re “digital nomads.” A friend of mine said to me recently: “I really do think the professional class is on one long vacation.” Her highly educated neighbors in Cambridge have been homeschooling their kids and regularly escape to their expensive vacation home off the coast of Maine.

We need to come to some agreements, and soon, on what progress actually looks like, because a genuinely progressive response to this crisis would not look like what we’re experiencing. Either we pay people to stay home and we shut everything down, or we don’t, and we adjust our public institutions accordingly, so that the social and economic brunt of this pandemic is not borne by the poorest of society, who right now are being punished for keeping the rest of us afloat.

—Karine Vann

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