Public option is a term most Americans are likely to associate with health care. In policy circles, the idea of providing Americans with the option to enroll in a government sponsored insurance plan rather than private insurance has been debated for decades.
Ganesh Sitaraman and Anne Alstott, however, argue in their new book, "The Public Option: How to Expand Freedom, Increase Opportunity, and Promote Equality," that a public option could be beneficial in areas like banking, early childhood education and housing.
Though the pitch of a public option may seem like a new way of thinking about structuring the economy, Sitaraman said that public options are already a fixture of American life.
"If you think about it, we have public swimming pools and some people have private swimming pools in their backyard. We have public libraries, and here in Boston [colleges and universities] have private libraries, and you can buy books and have a private library in your own house," Sitaraman said during an interview with Boston Public Radio. “We have these all throughout our society, and we think they could apply in a lot of other areas beyond just health care."
One field the book focuses on is retirement. As the baby boomer generation progressively becomes eligible for social security, there is a growing concern that the program won’t be able to sustain the amount of new enrollees. In April, a government report projected that the social security program will only be able to make payouts at its current rates for another 15 years, before its assets are depleted and mandatory 20 percent cuts for retirees will take place.
Rather than force future retirees into the same position, Alstott argues it makes more economic sense to allow citizens to opt into a low-cost national retirement fund that then supplements social security benefits. The precedent to do so, Alstott said, already exists within the government. She said that the government already allows federal employees to enroll in a defined contribution plan called the Thrifts Savings Plan; all the government needs to do is open the program to all citizens.
“[Our book] is about taking that idea of the public option, which has been associated with health care, and saying to people, ‘It’s actually all around you,’” Alstott said.
Government funding for various programs, however, has been a contentious issue in Washington. For decades, prominent conservatives like former Rep. Paul Ryan, Grover Norquist and current interim White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney vigorously fought government funding for any program except for the military. But Sitaraman says the era of fiscal budget hawks is coming to an end.
“I think the broader problem is basically for a generation, people have not wanted to invest in public options generally,” Sitaraman said. “The trend has been to privatize everything, to push things out of government. And the result ... is, how well did that 30 years do for us of privatizing everything?”
Sitaraman is currently Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow, Professor of Law, and Director of the Program on Law and Government at Vanderbilt Law School. Alstott is the Jacquin D. Bierman Professor at the Yale Law School. She holds a courtesy appointment as Professor, Yale Child Study Center, and is a Faculty Affiliate at the Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies.