What is public, Sidewalk clearing edition

When I started writing more extensively about the economics of neighborhoods, I thought a good place to start was by dislodging the concept of public and private from the old school delineation. This version says that certain goods are public by nature, as in the notorious lighthouse whose beams bring all boats to shore safely. And it is right for the government to administer public goods which make up the public sector.

My view is that societies determine what they (they can be the citizens in a democracy or a dictator or an elite group in an autocracy) want to be public and what they desire to remain private. I wrote about it in a little lengthier piece, Our Problem is a Problem of Design.

How people come up with what is private and what is public is interesting from a resource distribution standpoint. But it isn’t money that is usually the driver for what is public. It is personal safety. The Hennepin Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis started out as a private endeavor allowing for crossings across the mighty Mississippi in the early years of the grain mill district. But repairs and safety concerns, in the end, pushed the overpass to transition to the city. Transport, in general, seems to fair better in government hands.

Let me bring you back to the snow removal story. One would think it parallels a consumption model of, say, water delivery. The household uses so much water and is billed for it. This isn’t accurate as there are no other means of obtaining water. The city acts a monopoly supplier of the good. And it is fairly straightforward and uncontriversial to bill by consumption.

Presently many residents do clear the sidewalks fronting the road to their homes. Let’s spitball it at 75%. This is labor provided at no cost to the public out of civic mindedness. If the city chose to take on the removal of snow as a public good, they are walking away from .75 x $20mil (the cost of the program) or $15mil. Plus, it seems with a little leadership, and city council support instead of neglect, there would be a capacity for folks to voluntarily pitch-in and clear more walks.

The thing about public goods is that they must be provided to all. Once a good is publicized, then the cost for the entire community is borne out by the public. In this case, the analysis points to further civic engagement rather than adding to the already full plate of demands on the city’s budget.