Americans used to understand the difference between private and public, between what government should regulate or even administer, and what is appropriately left in the private marketplace.
Ever since the Reagan Revolution, however — as I lay out in The Hidden History of Neoliberalism: How Reaganism Gutted America — even our very lives have become fodder for the buzzsaw of unrestrained raw capitalism controlled by the morbidly rich.
Last week, the nation learned that it’s become a routine practice in the assisted living industry to drain elderly people of their entire life’s savings and then, when Medicaid kicks in at a slightly lower payment level to cover their costs, evict them onto the street.
Old people are, from that industry’s point of view, apparently just another commodity, a thing that can be converted into cash when convenient and disposed of when no longer useful.
Housing prices are exploding across the nation, the result of hedge funds and foreign investors jumping into the single-family residence market to the tune of billions every year.
In 2018, for example, corporations bought 1 out of every 10 homes sold in America and converted them to high-priced rentals: the number has gone up significantly since then.
Housing, an essential for a decent life, is now just another commodity and the commodification of housing and its exploitation as a source of revenue for billionaires and other investors has led to an explosion of homelessness.
The price of food, also essential to human life, is sliding out of the reach of many Americans.
CNN reports that Cal-Maine Foods company, which controls about 20% of the entire United States egg market, has radically increased the price of a dozen eggs from $1.61 to $3.30 over the past year. The result? Revenues and profits have gone up by 109 percent. They claim it’s inflation, but it’s actually price gouging.
Large companies are able to pull this off because of their monopoly power in the marketplace, a situation resulting from Ronald Reagan’s 1983 order to the DOJ, FTC, and SEC to stop enforcing our nation’s antitrust laws.
The result is massive price gouging across dozens of industries because these huge companies no longer face competitive market pricing pressures, although it became a humanitarian crisis when price-gouging moved from consumer products and airfares to food and housing.
Good health has become a commodity that’s exploited by giant corporations and the morbidly rich. A half-million American families are wiped out every year so completely that they must lose everything and declare bankruptcy just because somebody got sick.
The number of health-expense-related bankruptcies in all the other developed countries in the world combined is zero. Yet the United States spends more on “healthcare” than any other country in the world: about 17% of GDP.
Switzerland, Germany, France, Sweden and Japan all average around 11%, and Canada, Denmark, Belgium, Austria, Norway, Netherlands, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia all come in between 9.3% and 10.5%.
Health insurance premiums right now make up about 22% of all taxable payroll (and don’t even cover all working people), whereas Medicare For All would run an estimated 10% and would cover every man, woman, and child in America.
Electricity has become a necessity for a decent life in modern America, and many other countries see it as part of the commons. Around the world, roughly 71 percent of utilities are owned by “the people” rather than by private, investor-owned for-profit corporations.
In the US, though, the shift to neoliberal “free market” policies that accompanied Reagan’s abandonment of FDR’s Keynesian New Deal policies led, in the 1980s and 1990s, to a massive consolidation of electric generating capacity in the hands of for-profit companies.
Today over half of the electric utilities in America are run as for-profit corporations that put investor returns first before serving their communities (as Texans learned in 2021). Electricity is now just another commodity to make wealthy investors even richer.
Pharmaceuticals have become so effective over the past century that they’re now literally keeping millions of Americans healthy and alive.
But that very necessary nature of them has attracted the hyenas of Wall Street and the investor class, turning pharmaceuticals into just another commodity that can be manipulated to increase profits and the wealth of the investor class.
Drugs like Molnupiravir, the new anti-Covid drug, are developed as part of the commons with taxpayer dollars (a $10 million grant from the Department of Defense and $19 million from the National Institutes of Health) and then turned into a commodity with ever-increasing prices.
Manufacturing cost for Molnupiravir, according to a report from researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health, is around $17.74 for a 5-day course of treatment. Nonetheless, Merck just signed a contract with the federal government to sell 1.7 million treatment courses for the government to distribute to infected people for … wait for it … $712.00 each.
Water is essential to human life, but three years ago it became a commodity traded by CME, the world’s largest futures exchange.
Like with electricity, about half of all public water supplies in America are held by for-profit operations. Prices go up for consumers as profits rise for investors.
Without education it’s difficult to function in society, which is why virtually every other developed nation in the world has free public schools from kindergarten all the way up through PhD level university courses.
But in America, education has become a commodity with private academies and charter schools wiping out public education, and college education is out of the reach of more than half of America’s young people. While teachers and students struggle, student-loan bankers and investors in private schools and colleges are getting richer by the day.
Every one of these items are rightfully part of the commons, the stuff essential to life that’s either administered or heavily regulated by government to protect average citizens.
And while Democrats want to expand the commons, Republicans want to steal and monetize it. It’s really that simple.
It’s why Democrats want to expand infrastructure (part of the commons) and Republicans don’t — the GOP want the commons of things like schools, rail lines, the Post Office, and energy systems entirely billionaire- or corporate-owned.
Some, like libertarian Rand Paul, even think privatizing our fire departments and public roads — turning them all into fee-for-private-service and toll-roads — is the way to go, along with privatizing Medicare and Social Security.
“We the People” should, in their minds, control nothing but the Army and the cops; everything else should be owned by and run for the profit of the elite class that funds them and their political campaigns.
It’s almost entirely absent from our political dialogue, but the issue of who owns the commons and how they’re to be used (and by whom) is at the core of almost all the major debates between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, and even those advocating democracy versus those trying to expand the American oligarchy.
The commons is the stuff we all use or is necessary to life: the air and water, the public roads and schools, the police and fire departments, the airways that our planes fly over and through which we send radio and TV signals, outer space, and our oceans.
The commons, in aggregate, are one of the major stores of the wealth of a nation.
One of the main reasons people throughout history have established governments is to protect and regulate the commons.
Which explains why wealthy people and corporations are in a constant battle with government, launching massive propaganda campaigns to say the government should be “smaller” and thus less able to protect the commons.
Whether it’s oil barons, giant utilities, private schools, drug companies, insurance predators, or greedy ranchers who want to use public lands to graze their cows without paying a public fee that would help maintain and restore those lands, the commons are under continuous low-level assault by greed and the neoliberalism that celebrates it.
Similarly, polluters from mining companies to frackers to industrial operations increase their profits by dumping their poison into our commons — our air, soil and water — rather than paying the cost of cleaning up their own waste.
History and contemporary studies show that when the commons are administered by the people who use them, particularly healthcare, water, and electric systems, they are better cared for and their benefits are provided to the people at a lower cost.
To stop this, however, the morbidly rich and America’s largest corporations have set out to interrupt that process of government protecting the commons for the people. They’ve done it by seizing government itself.
This is where we must push back, if American democracy is to survive and the American people are to have a quality of life even remotely comparable to other developed democratic nations.
Because one of the principal functions of government is to administer the commons, government itself — and, thus, our vote — is the single most important part of the commons.
Anybody who wants to exploit the commons for their own private profit has to go through government, or corrupt government, in order to make that happen.
This is one of the main reasons that we have laws against bribery of public officials: access to the commons for private exploitation is one of the most visible ways private interests corrupt government. Witness Donald Trump putting a coal lobbyist in charge of the EPA and an oil lobbyist in charge of our public lands running the Interior Department.
Privatizing public lands, public schools, prisons, and other obvious commons-related functions of government is a crime against Democracy.
A much bigger crime, however, is privatizing government itself, or “Shrinking it down to the size where you can drown it in the bathtub,” as K Street lobbyist Grover Norquist proposed some years ago on NPR.
In most developed countries, the healthcare system that is so essential to maintaining a robust and healthy populace is considered a core part of the commons. That notion is foundational to the proposal for Medicare For All here in America.
Depriving people access to the commons of the vote, the vehicle by which we choose government that administers all the rest of the commons, is another crime against both the commons and democracy.
There are currently over 400 pieces of Republican-sponsored legislation in various state legislatures that would make it more difficult for people to vote. An additional 300+ have passed in the past decade.
Almost exclusively, these bills would reduce the ability of young people, elderly people, city-dwellers, and racial minorities to vote, as the Republican Party sees these people as their political enemies.
Denying people access to the commons based on the color of their skin, in fact, is one of the oldest crimes against democracy that has been perpetrated throughout the history of America.
When we understand what the commons is, and have a collective consensus about what is and isn’t appropriately part of it, we can have an informed discussion about the proper role and size of government.
Until we frame our debates around the commons, they will continue to seem like most of our political debates are simply arguments about separate, discrete issues. In fact, most are about how the commons are controlled, protected, and used — and to whose benefit.
We used to teach Civics in America; that mandate pretty much ended when Ronald Reagan put the anti-public-school advocate, Bill Bennett, in charge of the Education Department.
If our republic is to be successful and Americans are to have decent lives, we must stop the commodification of America’s commons and turn power over life’s essentials to We The People.