Defunding the Public Square: When Those in Power Have All the Goodies

There is one day where the images imprinted on my brain crystalized my understanding of the decades of relentless assault on funding for the public square. Why has there been this unending cry for defunding of parks, schools, universities, roads, trains, waterlines, healthcare, anything that is good for the ‘public?’

It was a day of kayaking on Leech Lake, a fairly large, popular lake that is both full of tourists and also surrounded by the Leech Lake Native American Reservation. We pulled into the boat launch which was across the street from the ranger station for the local national forest. A sign on the door of the station said that is was closed due to funding cuts. These are the sorts of cuts that are promoted because ‘we cannot afford them’ and ‘taxes are bad’ and ‘government is bad,’ you know the drill. We headed out into the lake.

Our trip covered 17 miles that day and took us around a large peninsula near Walker, a popular tourist town. In addition to the beauty of the lake and the shore, we spent our day looking at white tourists playing in their private playgrounds. We saw giant ‘lake cabins’ (most far bigger than my house), giant boats, giant jet skis, giant pontoon boats, giant floats of all sizes. Hundreds of people playing on their private lake shore lots. And it occurred to me, these people have no need for the public square, they have all the goodies.

The current iteration of the public square in America, the public square that is being dismantled, is one that was built for the development of the white population, the population in power. The cheap universities, the good roads, the public schools, the national parks; these were all built to create a wealthy and powerful society for those in power. And it worked. However now, as huge numbers of those people have grabbed enough wealth to privately fund their nice lives, those same people are defunding the public square for others, including many of the poorer white folks who helped create the wealth in the first place but were left behind in the race to the top.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to our society. Every powerful elite has done the same thing. Once they solidify their power, they get rid of the public benefits which lifted their group up out of poverty or misery or simple hardship, and they focus on their own private good. We see this in Rome, in ‘let them eat cake’ royal France, in the British Empire, in the enslavement of 45,000 people to build a King’s wife’s tomb that we call the Taj Mahal, in the Chinese dynasties, in the Mayans, the Incas, the Egyptians, the list is endless. And of course, all of these Empires collapse. The weight and the obscenity at the top is just too much to bear. It’s not sustainable and either people rise up to overthrow the powerful, or they just become so lazy and decadent that they are easily destroyed by the next hungry group or tribe.

Of course now the stakes are higher. With nuclear weapons and climate change and globalization we aren’t just talking about the collapse of one country or empire, but rather the whole world. Furthermore, within our country, the availability of stronger drugs to numb pain, and every greater distractions available online, is leading to a steady increase in despair, child maltreatment, and mental illness. Cat Steven’s words, penned in 1970, “I know we’ve come a long way. We’re changing day to day. But tell me now where do the children play,” could not have been more prophetic.

This long repeating human process reveals why the spiritual life has always been about the giving up of power by those with it and the empowering of those without. Once one group has enough to live, they must pass the rest on to the next group who doesn’t. They don’t just keep taking.

Giving back to the public square over time thus becomes a spiritual practice. How many school bonds have been voted down by rich older people because they would pay for kids who are a different color or community? What does it mean to want to pay taxes for a park you may never visit, to pay for a child you will never meet to go to college? There is more than enough wealth to pay for our public domain. What seems to be lacking is spiritual wisdom to do so.