The Value of Public Goods

I just returned from five days at the North Carolina Center for Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT) as part of my Kenan Fellowship.  Being at NCCAT is one of those experiences that you can’t really appreciate until you’ve done it.  The entire facility, with campuses in the mountains of western NC and the Outer Banks on the eastern coast, serves one purpose: recognize the importance of our teachers by giving them a respite from the teaching world and providing meaningful learning opportunities with each other.

The experience reminded me of a recent episode of Planet Money (NPR’s fantastic financial news podcast) where the topic was public goods.  According to Charlie Wheelan, public policy professor at the University of Chicago, public goods are defined as those items that benefit many but provide no profit to a single individual or group, and whose use by one party doesn’t preclude their use by another, and that would likely not exist without government intervention.  They use examples like autopsies and lighthouses to demonstrate the ideas that public goods are the types of things that governments should be providing for the people. Even libertarians like me see the benefit.

It strikes me that services like NCCAT represent a new type of public good.  They clearly benefit everyone–through better teachers and better learning experiences for our children–and no one “uses” up this service (although there is limited capacity at any single seminar).  The impact on teachers is hard to ignore, based on personal anecdotes and letters of support found on their website.

Yet, in these economic times, it was NCCAT that the North Carolina General Assembly chose to gouge in their budget, despite pleas from the governor and academics from all of the major State universities.  I know that difficult decisions must be made, but teaching is already such an undervalued profession.

Without lighthouses, how will our young ships avoid the rocky reef?