Our Common Wealth: The return of public ownership in the United States

Thomas M Hanna

“Public ownership in the United States is much more prevalent, and common, and resilient than most people realize and it’s expanding in critically important areas,” said Thomas M Hanna, research director at The Democracy Collaborative in Washington, DC. “I was researching in 2015 and I kind of stumbled onto the fact hat in the State of Nebraska, which is a very politically conservative state, every single resident and business get their electricity from a publicly owned utility or cooperative. I found that fascinating and decided to delve into the topic more deeply. I wrote a paper, the paper turned into a report and the report turned into a book.”

Hanna was in Providence Thursday night for a question and answer session to promote that book, Our Common Wealth: The return of public ownership in the United States. The event, held at Riffraff in Olneyville, was hosted by the Providence Democratic Socialists of America.

“Contrary to decades of neoliberal propaganda, there has never actually been a consensus in the empirical or theoretical literature about whether or not public ownership is less efficient than private ownership,” continued Hanna in his opening remarks. “So in the book I have a whole chapter where there’s dozens and dozens of studies, brilliant well-known academics, not people who are very friendly towards public ownership, going into their studies and saying, ‘Well, I was expecting to find that private ownership was going to be this much more efficient and in fact, public ownership is as efficient or more efficient than private ownership…

“Simply returning to the past – top down managerial forms of public ownership, the so-called state-owned enterprises – is insufficient from the perspective of trying to build a more sustainable, democratic and equitable political economy,” concluded Hanna, wrapping up his brief opening remarks.

Ben Choinière moderated the event. The rest of the videos below are organized by the questions Ben or the audience asked.

Q1. Given how often we see politicians supporting very unpopular giveaways to corporate interests, what do you think explains the durability of the public ownership that’s survived from past eras?

Q2. You spoke a little bit about efficiency. There’s a big discussion in your book about the bad scholarship on the ineffectiveness of public owned companies. If the scholarship is bad, how does this sustain itself? Are there particular institutions responsible for popularizing the bad research of the institutions?

Q3. You posit in the book that economic democracy is common to dissident movements against Marxist, Leninist, Soviet-style systems and the top-down bureaucratic welfare state of social democracy. What is different about economic democracy as a dissident tendency against neoliberalism?

Q4. The Providence Democratic Socialists of America is involved in a campaign called Nationalize Grid. Looking over your book, we can see that almost all the public ownership models you describe call for the state ownership of energy utilities and utilities in general. Our local energy distribution company, National Grid, is a product of privatization in the United Kingdom. We are also encouraged to shop for our energy suppliers on a deregulated market. In light of trends towards privatization, and marketization, what are the public ownership models that best deal with the interests of those who are benefiting from the trends to privatize and marketize? How do you deal with the people who are obviously getting a lot out of that trend?

Q5. Here in Rhode Island we have a regulatory agency [the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission] appointed by the Governor that theoretically can exercise near unlimited power over electricity transmission. The regulatory agency doesn’t use the power it has. Should that change and would it present a viable alternative to re-nationalize the system?

Q6. What does public management and public participation look like in a utility the size of Nebraska? How would that be different from an ordinary management structure?

Q7. Is there a way that the ‘left’ politically could attach themselves to the positive experiences of public ownership both as a means and an end?

Q8. Could you talked about the different scales or nested scales of publicly owned utilities? My understanding, from the Shadow Cabinet Labour Party proposal for re-nationalizing the grid in the United Kingdom is that there is combination of a nation-state level public takeover with municipal forms of administration and governance and it seems that this is particularly relevant if the energy sector is in a transition to renewables where you have energy coming from particular places that have good wind or solar exposure and eschew the grid. I was wondering if you might talk a bit about how we might combine a state level takeover with municipal administration of the grid, but also the supply of energy.

Q9. I’m familiar with public work cooperative things relative to Switzerland. In Switzerland there’s a firm called Migros which is sort of like a Walmart of Switzerland and it’s actually owned by its customers. They’ve taken the model of combining food and other social services and exported it to Mexico and Turkey.

My concern is that Rhode Island is well known to be one of the most corrupt states in the country. When there have been public projects in Rhode Island a lot of times people have embezzled a huge amount of money. About two decades ago every Rhode Islander was out $2000 dollars due to a credit union scandal.

With respect to public enterprises, the problem of local corruption is huge. Are there any kind of efforts to come up with national models or consulting models of management that could possibly create management structures that inhibit corruption that local communities could possibly contract with to protect themselves from themselves?

Q10. Recently here in Rhode Island, the Mayors of Pawtucket and Central Falls called on state and local officials to develop a preventative plan to keep Hasbro, one of the largest toy manufacturers in the world, in their cities. It’s a large company, $5.12 billion in revenue, 5000 employees, about a 1000 employees in those two cities alone. This company is large, but it’s not important in the way that utilities, banks, healthcare, energy, transportation, are, enterprises that lend themselves toward public ownership. The implication in the press releases from these mayors is that they are calling for significant tax benefits to incentivize the company to stay. Where would an enterprise such as Hasbro fall into public ownership models?

Q11. What are the aspects or features of a product or service that you think lends itself to public ownership versus private ownership? It sounds like in your opinion it would be very broad.

Q12. What do you do when you have administrators who want something privatized that you don’t want to be privatized? I’ve been pushing back against efforts to privatize the Cranston Street Armory which is a large, publicly owned building that has not been utilized for a long time. My community very much wants it opened for public use and the administration that owns the building wants it privatized as fast as possible. How do you handle a circumstance when the administrators who were set up to manage something don’t want to own it and have an ideological drive to try and spin off assets and give them to private corporations? In this particular case, a previous administrator once offered the building for free and then offered to give them $50 million to help rebuild it. What are your thoughts on how to handle a situation where the administrators won’t act in good faith to administer the public asset?

Q13. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, is intent on privatizing our water system. He recently said that if we do not privatize the water system our pension system would be dead. What would you have the people in this room do?

Q14. Thinking about the expectation that some things should be free and the question of intellectual property, take something like the Internet. Many people today think access to the Internet should be a human right. But when the Apple 2 was introduced, there was no expectation that the Internet would be a human right. How do new emerging ideas fit into these concepts of public ownership?

Q15. The competition between public and private businesses in the marketplace – What public enterprises fare better in that competition?

Q16. There’s a schism on the left between those who feel that the market is the primary problem with capitalism versus those who feel that the primary question is ownership. What sort of common ground do you think these two camps can find in the promotion of public enterprises?

Q17. I’d like to get your thoughts on the privatization in public education, particularly in areas where students are underserved, as opposed to wealthier systems where the public schools are perfect. How do you strategize that battle?

Q18. Are there any people not thinking about countries but thinking internationally? Creating public ownership on an international scale?

Ben Choinière and Thomas M Hanna

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About Steve Ahlquist 661 Articles
Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading. atomicsteve@gmail.com

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