The Stem, the Flower, and Corporate Greed

In his New York Times column this morning, David Brooks uses a garden metaphor to instruct us on the different functions of the public and private sector. He writes that the government is like the “stem,” providing us with the essential but rather uninteresting infrastructure to allow the “flower” of private life to bloom. Thus, we need parks, public transportation and public safety, but people can provide their own picnic.

Putting aside that there might be other things we need for a picnic—such as safe food and a job with a day off—Brooks’ division of responsibility is reasonable. But the political context of his column is nonsense. What we face today is not some theoretical ignorance of the right balance between things that are private and things that are public; all but the most libertarian understand the public’s role in providing “stem” functions. The reality is that everywhere we look, essential public functions are being undermined, if not destroyed, by privatization.

Two other stories in today’s news make the point. In education, the latest international comparisons show that after at least a dozen years of privatization, union-bashing and the imposition of corporate-inspired practices like teaching-to-the-test, U.S. 15 year olds remain stuck in the middle, and score well behind their peers in Asian and many European nations.

In health, a front-page report by the Times tells us that transformation of hospitals into corporate profit-centers has driven medical care prices sky-high. A dab of skin glue on a child’s cut forehead cost $1696, three stitches on a gashed knee go for $2,229, and the average out-patient stay in a U.S. hospital is five times the cost in other advanced countries.

Similar stories have been written about virtually every “stem” function of government, including national security.

The problem is not, as Brooks writes, some inability to draw the line between private and public. It is the relentless drive to pour every aspect of our social life into the meat-grinder of corporate profit. As the stem dies, so will the flower.