About Public Goods

This is the Public Goods Post, a digest of information and news about public goods. The intent of the Post is to make sure that Americans know about the multitude of goods and services that they receive through the public economy, many of which are invisible or unrecognized. Because so many public goods are hidden from view, we also want to call attention to a growing and unseen public goods deficit.

The term “public goods” has a technical definition in mainstream economics but here we’ll just use Jared Bernstein’s explanation: public goods come from “investments that, absent public support, would be insufficiently made from the perspective of society’s well-being.”

In other words, “Public goods” are products that the people in a society jointly create and jointly pay for.

Citizens create them by voting and people pay for them through taxes. They are produced in the public economy – by government. Government produces them because a society decides that some things (like education and food safety inspections) are so important for the well-being of individuals and the nation that everyone should be able to have them. In other cases (like clean air and a national freeway system), government produces them because the private market is unable or chooses not to.

The downside of this joint, and thus indirect, creation and payment process is that public goods often go unrecognized and undefended.

The scope of public goods is vast. Public goods that we may not recognize as such include for example, clean air, clean water, the GPS system and publicly funded research that produces breakthrough medical and technological innovations. They include natural habitat protection, national and state parks and local playgrounds. Public goods include insured bank deposits and ensured pensions that protect our financial security, the inspection of food to ensure it is safe to eat, the treatment and removal of waste water, consumer protections like “lemon laws”, 911 emergency call systems, weather tracking and disaster assistance after storms and major events. There are scores more, many of them unrecognized or invisible due to their very nature and some intentionally shrouded by “free market” and privatization advocates.

The mission of the Public Goods Post is to:

► call attention to the multitude of public products we get and use every day;

► give that multitude a name that sticks;

► reveal how, and how many, public goods are being dismantled, damaged or destroyed.

Some issues of the Public Goods Post will be digests of current news stories and others will be organized around particular topics or themes. Readers can find a collection of past newsletter issues here on the website along with content organized by topic.

We welcome reader feedback at Editors@PublicGoodsPost.org. And we hope to promote a dialogue among readers on the PGP Facebook page.

The Public Goods Post has been created and organized by June Sekera, Founder and Director of the Public Goods Institute; and Research Fellow at the Global Development And Environment Institute, Tufts University. The Public Goods Post is produced by Daniel Agostino, Media Producer and Editor.

Mainstream Economics and Public Goods

A note to economists and economics students who may be reading this: the Public Goods Post introduces a broader definition of “public goods” than the textbook definition taught in most economics courses. As a number of scholars have noted the mainstream economics definition is inadequate and too narrow for application in the real world. For further information on problems with the mainstream economics definition of public goods, see “Re-thinking the Definition of ‘Public Goods’”.

Public Goods Examples

Peace of Mind: Personal Safety, Security and Protection


Examples: 911 call service; weather forecasting, including severe weather prediction; disaster response/relief; public information during disasters and emergencies; workplace and worker safety; national defense and homeland security; food safety regulations; food inspection; drug regulation; labeling of toxins/poisons; regulation and certification of aircraft maintenance; product safety regulations (toasters, tools); baby products safety (car seats, strollers, cribs, pacifiers); vehicle safety standards; vehicle safety inspections; defective product recalls; water quality standards; air quality standards; “lemon laws” to protect consumers…

Community Services


Examples: sidewalks; traffic lights; street lighting; fire and police protection; jails and prisons; snow plowing; street cleaning; waste removal; motor vehicle registration; motorist testing and licensing; storm water pollution protection…

Educational Opportunity and Creative Development


Examples: mass literacy through public K-12 education; higher education; preschool (in a few places in the US); libraries; student financial aid; Adult Basic Education; Adult Education; school lunch programs; museums (art, history, science, etc.)…

Health, Fitness and Recreation


Examples: public health; disease prevention; mass epidemic prevention or control; health care and long-term care for impoverished elderly and disabled; nutritional labels on foods; waste disposal regulation; public sanitation; public water supply; health insurance; labeling of toxins/poisons; labeling of dangerous drugs; school lunches; parks; playgrounds; sports fields; jogging trails; bike trails; public beaches; waste management to ensure mass sanitation – sewer systems; waste water management…

Physical Infrastructure


Examples: weather satellites; GPS; streets; county and state highways; Interstate highway system; highway rest stops; bridges; dams; dikes; canals; locks; airports; shipping ports; electricity generation (e.g., hydro power); electric grid improvement; affordable train service; affordable package delivery; public transit…

Financial Infrastructure


Examples: currency system; minted and printed money: coins & bills; monetary system…

Financial Security and Protections


Examples: bank deposits insurance; banking regulations; regulation of investment banking and derivatives trading; unemployment insurance; old age, survivors and disability insurance; private pensions insurance; vocational training; job training programs; housing assistance; weights and measures (gas pumps, scales); utilities regulation…

Environmental and Natural Resources Preservation & Protection


Examples: pollution abatement; R&D for environmental protection; protection of natural goods – clean air, clean water, clean beaches, trees; nuclear and other toxic waste site cleanup; nature preserves; wildlife preservation; public land preservation; fisheries preservation; preservation of bodies of water, rivers and forests…



Examples: technology and medical research; scientific research; space program; funding of basic R&D at universities and National Labs; creation of Internet, GPS; funding of research that led to the iPhone, Google search engine, speech recognition and Siri; space exploration…

Data and Information


Examples: census; employment and unemployment data; statistics on businesses and commerce; economic statistics; registration of births and deaths…

Legal System and Legal Protections


Examples: courts; civil laws; criminal laws; right to trial by jury…

Individual Rights and Freedoms    


Examples: contract enforcement; enforcement of property rights; land ownership registration; freedom to travel; freedom of speech…

Business and Commerce Services and Protections


Examples: patent system; enforcement of contract and property rights; copyright laws; business loans and loan guarantees; business economic development grants and programs; tax abatement programs; industrial and agricultural consulting services; anti-trust laws; standardized time and time zones; business and professional licensing; enterprise and socio-economic data collection and maintenance; small business loans/financing; export promotion and support…

Communication and Navigation


Examples: GPS; mail; air waves management; mapping; air traffic control; charting oceans, bays, navigable rivers and lakes; nautical navigation markers…

Cultural, Historic and Heritage Preservation


Examples: museums; historical documents, records and artifacts; national monuments…