Magazine August 25, 2014, Issue

The Private-Public Sector

(Luba Myts)
Businesses are offering what government cannot

A middle-aged woman coming out of a high-end furniture store in Manhattan, speaking rather too loudly into her mobile phone, informs her interlocutor that she has to “potty.” But, she says, no worries: “There’s a Starbucks right here.” The store she is exiting sells sofas that cost upwards of $20,000, and I am confident, and subsequently confirm, that it offers its clientele such evacuative accommodations as are necessary. But New York City is a famously bad place to be when nature sends an urgent text message, and the solution that New Yorkers have settled upon is Starbucks, the city’s answer to Paris’s sanisettes and similar structures in other cities. The politics of the pissoir can be tricky: In New Delhi, there was a national kerfuffle when a likeness of Mohandas K. Gandhi was stenciled on the exterior of one of the capital city’s public urinals near the busy Haus Khas Market. India, a land of many laws, has a national statute regulating the use of the Mahatma’s likeness, name, or emblems. A wildcat barista bathroom strike in New York City a few years ago, in which Starbucks employees frustrated by the abuse of their facilities hung “Out of Service” and “Employees Only” signs on them, created an uproar sufficient to make the pages of the New York Times and the Daily News both. But Starbucks relented and remains, as one manager put it, “New York City’s public restroom.”

When you can sell a floofy coffee drink for six bucks and still have a line at your counter most of the time, you can do a lot of other things, too, as it turns out.

Since first writing about this phenomenon as an example of how private institutions provide public goods, I have been keeping a running tally at my local Starbucks, comparing the number of people in line to buy coffee with the number of people in line to use the restroom. I have never — not once — found the former to be more numerous than the latter. This particular Starbucks is heavily patronized by European tourists visiting Lower Manhattan, and they treat it as though it effectively were a public-restroom operation with an espresso bar attached, not the other way around. My most recent visit found no line at all for the coffee but 43 people waiting for the restroom, a line that stretched literally to the door. I suspect that if Starbucks locked its restrooms and sold tokens for $2, its bathroom would far out-earn its coffee business, at least at this particular location.

Starbucks is the textbook example of a business intended to inhabit Ray Oldenburg’s “third place,” neither home nor work, an environment that is in this case both social and commercial. Coffee often has played a role in the social milieu of the third place: The Scottish Enlightenment was born in Edinburgh’s coffeehouses, and two of the great drivers of the 1990s dot-com culture — Starbucks and Microsoft — both call the Seattle area home, and both soon found themselves looking south to California.

The “third place” in the United States is neither quite private nor quite public. We have funny attitudes when it comes to places such as Starbucks. Part of that is legal: Restaurants and such are not regarded as authentic private property under federal law but rather as “public accommodations,” the legal rationale enabling Congress to put the interstate-commerce clause to work in the service of civil-rights legislation and economic regulation, even when the matter at hand is neither interstate nor commercial. But it is inarguable that many of our most important public spaces are commercial spaces rather than city parks and town squares and other locations that are truly part of the public sphere. The local Barnes & Noble functions socially very much as the old public library did, small-town shopping malls still function very much like classical agoras, etc.

There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that our public spaces have become unusable.

#page#It is a strange fact of our time that even as the public sector has become aggrandized and bloated, the public space has been degraded. These developments are not unrelated. If you were naïve enough to accept the conventional progressive view of the public sector — that more funding, more power, and more personnel translates into better public services — then you would expect America’s parks, public squares, and streets to resemble the private gardens of some forgotten pasha. But that is not the case. The city of Odessa, Texas, once described by Larry McMurtry as the ugliest town in the world, spends nearly $5 million a year on its parks-and-recreation department, which employs twice as many people as does its municipal court. The results have not been spectacular: This year, the parks department is seeking nearly $2 million in additional funding because it has 30 buildings that it has allowed to fall into such a dangerous state of disrepair that they must be demolished.

On a recent trip to St. Louis, I was surprised by how pleasant and busy the city’s central business district was, along with its Central West End neighborhood, one of those suburbs-in-the-city that sometimes develop. But its parks, no surprise, were unusable. Like many of our parks, our street corners, and, especially, our public libraries, they have been converted into makeshift psychiatric wards. New Yorkers know about the bait-and-switch of the empty subway car in the middle of an otherwise crowded train and the head-clutchingly intense human stink that is its cause. If you should find yourself visiting Philadelphia’s Center City, you may be surprised at how clean and brisk it is; if you visit the magnificent main branch of the city’s public library, you will be surprised by homeless men masturbating in public while watching Internet pornography on the library’s computers. The sidewalks of progressive college towns such as Austin and Berkeley are assaults on the senses, to say nothing of human dignity.

The situation of many who are homeless is the result of a poisonous coalition of 1960s social liberationists and pennywise spending hawks who enabled the so-called deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill over the course of a few decades. They were not in fact deinstitutionalized; the mental institutions were relieved of their responsibilities, which were turned over to the criminal institutions. The mentally ill homeless are a problem to treat with resources and compassion. They are not the only problem with our public spaces — far from it. Our mass-transit systems, which are in the main splendidly funded, are a scandal of filth and disorder. Public-hygiene services are in visible (and olfactive) decline in many cities and towns; Toledo cannot manage even to provide its residents with potable water. San Francisco’s business district is a dangerous and disorderly place at night — on my last trip there, I witnessed four street arrests in the space of a few hours. And, only a few months into the mayoral career of Bill de Blasio, shootings in New York City are sharply up; railroad workers fresh from extorting a 17 percent pay hike by threatening to send the city into chaos with a strike already are threatening another strike; Penn Station, never charming, is packed with vagrants sleeping in its corridors — signs of a city taking a sharp turn for the worse.

It often is observed that the private economy pays the taxes that make public projects possible, but there is more to it than that — the private economy also produces the public goods that the public sector, through its ineptitude or corruption, cannot. If you found yourself feeling faint at a busy city street corner, where would you go to recover yourself: the nearby Starbucks, or the post office across the street? The private sector feeds, clothes, shelters, transports, and heals — and, sometimes, offers facilities to the public when doing so provides no profit in and of itself. When the agents of the public sector are doing what they are supposed to do (for instance, when Mayor de Blasio will allow the police to do their work or President Obama will allow the Marines to do theirs), they still depend upon resources produced by the labor, self-denial, and creativity of others; the question is whether that relationship is to be symbiotic or parasitic. When functioning properly, government is something like beneficial gut bacteria — and when not, it’s more like a tapeworm. And the occasions upon which the public sector can be said to work effectively are, if anything, diminishing. For this, the public sector at the federal, state, and local levels commands 40 percent of our economic output.

Suddenly, that $6 frappuccino seems considerably less expensive.

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