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Public options can strengthen society: Vanderbilt law professor

Robust public options for retirement, banking, child care and other broadly beneficial services – beyond health care – would position more Americans to participate equally in society, argues Vanderbilt law professor Ganesh Sitaraman in his new book, The Public Option.

Public options are government provided goods or services that are universal and affordable and that coexist with private alternatives. “We have had public options all around us for generations—from public schools to public swimming pools—we just don’t think of them that way,” said Sitaraman. “Public options have always been a powerful way to expand opportunity and increase equality, while retaining space for competition and markets.”

Coauthored with Yale law professor Anne Alstott, the book offers a detailed examination of public options, past and present, as well as proposals for other domains where a public option could address crucial gaps, such as child care.

Sitaraman said that we tend to think of public options as solutions to market failures—programs the government implements to ensure equal access for everyone. But he added that they can also promote healthy competition in areas where limited private options are available.

“In about a quarter of rural America, there isn’t moderate-speed internet,” Sitaraman said, “and in a huge part of the country there’s no competition when it comes to high-speed internet.” Using the successful example of Chattanooga, Tenn., Sitaraman and Alstott propose a public option for broadband, arguing that it would add competition, improve access and help local businesses.

In addition to health care, public options already being discussed by policymakers include expanded college tuition financing and a revival of banking through the Post Office.

“Public options provide a way to navigate between our interest and commitment to markets and competition and our need for greater equality and freedom in the country,” he said. “They allow us to achieve both of these things at the same time and I think that’s why they’re so compelling today.”

Sitaraman is Chancellor Faculty Fellow, professor of law, and director of the Program on Law and Government at Vanderbilt.