Alternative World Water Forum

The US has a surprisingly large amount of public ownership. But in order for it to truly serve the social good, it must be expanded — and democratized.

Socialism in the United States is making a comeback. Socialists are winning elections at the local, state, and federal levels; the membership of Democratic Socialists of America stands at a record fifty-five thousand; and polling consistently finds that younger Americans have relatively positive opinions of the concept.

While the term “socialism” means different things to different people, for the vast majority in the burgeoning movement it suggests the promise of a very different kind of system — one that is far more equitable, democratic, and ecologically sustainable than both capitalism and past experimentation with its alternatives. This system, though qualitatively different from the current order, won’t be conjured out of thin air. It will have to be constructed, at least partially, from existing institutions and arrangements.

In the economic realm, one such approach is expanding public ownership — enterprises, services, assets, and other entities owned and operated by the state at various levels. When done the right way, public ownership can create more equitable distributions of wealth and power and can be a mechanism for addressing vital social needs.

America is frequently assumed to have little experience with, or even interest in, public ownership. This is the epicenter of global capitalism, after all — the beating heart of free-wheeling, no-holds-barred market capitalism. But public ownership in the United States is far more common than many people realize.

To say so is not to suggest that the US is experiencing creeping socialism. Publicly owned enterprises and services in the United States tend to be quite conventional in their outlook, orientation, and governance — often structured like for-profit companies and concerned with observable financial goals; at worst, they’re opaque, unaccountable, and insulated from democratic control. Public ownership can serve the interests of business just as easily as the interests of workers. But what is different about public ownership is that it can be bent to serve democratic and social concerns in a way that private ownership inherently precludes.

Public ownership, while not enough, is a prerequisite for building a more democratic and socially just society. And in this respect, there’s more of a basis for constructing socialism in the US than one might suspect.

The Landscape of Public Ownership

From the local, municipal level to the federal government, public ownership plays an important role in the daily lives of millions of Americans.

There are around two thousand publicly owned utilities that, along with consumer-owned cooperatives, provide around 25 percent of the nation’s electricity. In one state — Nebraska — every single resident and business receives electricity from a community-owned institution rather than a for-profit corporation. Around 87 percent of the US population gets its water from publicly owned water at the municipal level (significantly higher than in some other advanced economies, including England, where water privatization has been a costly disaster).

Nearly all public transportation systems — buses, subways, trams — in the United States are publicly held. These vital economic drivers directly and indirectly employ tens of thousands of local residents and move millions of people to and from jobs and other activities.

Much to the chagrin of private property ideologues, municipal ownership and development of land appears increasingly common. Many cities own public markets where space is rented out to individual vendors. Several cities own hotels, often alongside publicly held convention centers.

Across the country, nearly five hundred commercial airports are publicly operated. These commonly operate like large real-estate businesses, in which airlines and shipping companies, together with restaurants, car rental companies, clothing stores, newspaper and magazine outlets, and many other businesses, all rent space. Hundreds of publicly owned commercial ports in the United States directly and indirectly support millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in economic activity.

A creeping public option at the margins is slowly beginning to address the continuing crisis of costs and care in America’s broken healthcare system. Around 20 percent of community hospitals in the United States are publicly owned. In Montana and New Mexico, the state government has created publicly owned clinics for state employees to reduce healthcare costs and provide long-term preventative care.

Though constantly under attack from free-marketeers, there are roughly 98,000 public schools (kindergarten through twelfth grade) in the United States that educate around 50.7 million students and employ nearly 3.2 million teachers. More than two million people are employed at the nation’s nearly two thousand public two- and four-year universities and colleges. Several US states also operate large publicly owned investment funds, sometimes called “sovereign wealth funds.” In Alaska, proceeds from their public fund are distributed to every state resident each year as a dividend. In Texas, dividends go to every school district to support education.

Since the financial crisis, many have called for the banking sector to be taken into public hands. In North Dakota, it’s already a century-old tradition: the public Bank of North Dakota (BND), founded in 1919, has around $7 billion in assets and a loan portfolio of $4.9 billion. The bank makes loans to businesses and farms in partnership with local community banks and credit unions, and also provides low-cost student loans and home mortgages (originated by local banks). Every year, it returns a portion of its profits to the state’s general fund to support social services.

In addition to its state bank, North Dakota has another, less well-known public enterprise. Formed around the same time as the BND, the North Dakota Mill operates eight milling units, an elevator, and a packing facility. Like the bank, the goal of the mill is to support local farmers and businesses.

Public ownership at the federal level is more well-known. The United States Postal Service (USPS) employs around half a million Americans while delivering a vital service. The Veterans Administration — a completely nationalized healthcare system, similar to the British NHS — is one of the most cost-effective healthcare enterprises in the United States. The Social Security Administration is one of the largest pension providers in the world, with more than 1,200 offices around the country and around 60,000 employees; its monthly checks have drastically cut poverty among the elderly.

Around one third of all the land in America is publicly owned and managed by federal, state, and local governments. The federal government operates around 140 banks and quasi-banks that provide loans and loan guarantees for a wide range of economic activities. And the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), established during the first Hundred Days of the New Deal, currently serves nine million people in seven states around the Tennessee River Basin.

Read more on the website of Jacobin

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