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The Return of Public Ownership

Thomas Hanna

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Lessons from the United States

Often considered the beating heart of free-wheeling, no-holds-barred market capitalism, the United States has much more public ownership than is commonly understood. The relative decentralisation of the US political system allows for local control in ways that don’t exist in many other countries, where public ownership is often centralised at the highest, national level – the traditional state-owned enterprise. A prime example is the electric utility sector, where around 2,000 publicly owned utilities – along with consumer owned cooperatives – provide around 25 per cent of the nation’s electricity. 29 In one state – conservative Nebraska – every single resident and business receives electricity from a community-owned institution rather than a for-profit corporation. Nebraska’s 121 publicly owned utilities, ten cooperatives, and thirty public power districts provide electricity to a population of around 1.8 million people.30 A common concern with public ownership, especially in larger scale systems, is that it can lead to inefficiency, unaccountability, and bureaucracy. But Nebraska’s nearly century-old experience with a completely public and community owned electricity system demonstrates that this does not necessarily have to be the case. The principles of subsidiarity – generally, that matters of decision-making should be devolved to the lowest level possible – and local control can, in fact, be preserved through a networked mix of publicly owned institutions at various scales without sacrificing either efficiency or service quality.

Around 87 per cent of the US population is served by publicly owned water systems at the local, municipal level – significantly higher than in many other advanced economies.31 Attempts at water privatisation in the United States have generally been disastrous, and many have been reversed amidst public outcry. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of privately owned systems fell by seven per cent, with a corresponding drop in people served of 18 per cent.32 One area experiencing tremendous public expansion is local, municipal ownership of high-speed internet systems. In recent years, more than 750 US communities have established publicly owned full or partial networks, including 130 (in twenty-seven states) with super-fast networks.33 These publicly owned systems commonly provide higher speeds, better service, lower costs, and updated infrastructure in communities often neglected by large for-profit companies. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the city’s publicly owned utility has been operating a fibre network since 2009 and was the first location in the United States to offer one gb service.

Nearly all public transport systems around the United States remain publicly owned. These vital economic services directly and indirectly employ tens of thousands of local residents and move millions of people to and from jobs and other activities. Municipal ownership and development of land around public transport stops is becoming increasingly common. Similarly, many cities own public markets where space is rented out to individual vendors. Faneuil Hall in Boston and Pike Place Market in Seattle, both favourites of visiting tourists, are two of the best-known examples. Another municipal land and property ownership strategy relates to hotels. Taking advantage of tax law changes in 1996 that allowed the use of tax-exempt municipal bonds to finance hotels, publicly owned hotels are now to be found in communities from Chicago to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.34

Airports are perhaps the most obvious economically important areas of public ownership. In America, these commonly operate like large real-estate businesses, in which airlines and shipping companies, together with restaurants, car rental companies, clothing stores, newspaper and magazine outlets, and many other businesses, all rent space. There are nearly 500 publicly owned commercial airports operating across the country. (All told, there are more than 4,000 publicly owned airports.)35 In 2010 these airports were estimated to support directly and indirectly some 10.5 million jobs with total payrolls of $365 billion while producing $1.2 trillion in annual output.36 There are also hundreds of publicly owned commercial ports in the United States that directly and indirectly support millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in economic activity.37 Major port authorities include the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Port of Los Angeles, PortMiami, the Port of Houston Authority, and the Port of South Louisiana. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns and operates five major airports, six bridges and tunnels, three bus terminals, five marine terminals, the PATH transit system, industrial parks, waterfront development projects, and the World Trade Center.38

In many states, public ownership of alcohol distribution facilities is the norm. In Virginia, for instance, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) operates 359 off-licenses across the state, as well as wholesale and distribution facilities. It employs around 3,000 people and is a leading revenue producer for the Commonwealth. Since 1934 it has transferred $9.5 billion to Virginia’s general fund (used to pay for education, public works, police and fire, etc.). In 2016, this public enterprise generated a record $165 million in profits and returned $433 million (another record) to the general fund in profits and taxes collected.39 Similarly, most states own and operate lotteries, which generate funds that are usually allocated to local public schools.

Several US states also operate large, publicly owned investment funds, sometimes called ‘sovereign wealth funds’. Alaska famously collects and invests proceeds from the extraction of oil and minerals in the state, and dividends from this fund – the Alaska Permanent Fund, administered by the publicly owned Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation – are paid out annually to all eligible state residents.40 In Texas, the publicly owned and operated Texas Permanent School Fund was formed in 1854 and subsequently endowed with large tracts of land and associated mineral rights. In 1953 coastal ‘submerged lands’ were added after being relinquished by the federal government.41 Each year distributions from the earnings of this almost $40 billion fund support education in every county in the state, amounting to $1.05 billion in 2016 alone.42 Another $17.8 billion fund, the Permanent University Fund, owns more than two million acres of land and helps underwrite the state’s public university system.43 In other words, public ownership of land and investments in a variety of assets supports public education and other social services in ways that significantly reduce the state tax burden on local residents and businesses. State funds similar to those in Alaska and Texas exist in Alabama, Louisiana, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, and North Dakota.44

Around one third of all the land in America is publicly owned and managed by federal, state, and local governments.45 The federal government alone makes around $2 billion a year from oil, gas, and timber royalties, and $40 billion in tax revenue from tourism and recreation.46 The federal government also operates around 140 banks and quasi-banks that provide loans and loan guarantees for a wide range of economic activities.47 In 2009, former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack observed that, taken as a whole, the US Department of Agriculture’s lending activities amounted to ‘the seventh-largest bank in the country’.48

One of the most important public enterprises in the United States is the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Established during the New Deal, this large, publicly owned energy corporation currently serves nine million people in seven states around the Tennessee River Basin.49 The TVA has endured as a publicly owned enterprise for the best part of a century despite the occasional proposal to privatise it. This is, in part, because it has built a local constituency of support in the region that crosses party and ideological lines. When President Obama proposed privatising the TVA in 2013 as part of his annual budget, local Republican legislators, concerned with higher prices for consumers and less money for their states, vigorously – and successfully – opposed the idea.50

A similar situation exists with the United States Postal Service (USPS), a massive public enterprise that employs around half a million Americans (490,000 ‘career employees,’ plus another 130,000 ‘non-career employees’, as of January 2016), operates a fleet of 215,000 vehicles, and has operating revenue of $68.8 billion.51 Interested both in eliminating a low-cost public competitor to private corporations such as FedEx and UPS and facilitating a mass transfer of valuable real-estate assets to private hands, USPS has been in the cross-hairs of US corporate interests and their political allies for years. So far, however, despite at least a decade of intense, concerted effort by the forces of capital and their political allies, USPS remains in public hands, a fact that looks unlikely to change in the near future. According to Richard Geddes of Cornell University, ‘the U.S. Postal Service is nowhere close to being ready to be privatised. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it would be well into the future at a minimum’.52 Much of the reason for this is related to the widely anticipated negative reaction of the American public towards the consequences of privatisation – namely higher costs and reduced access, which has been the case with other postal privatisations, such as the recent sell-off of Royal Mail in the UK.

Other than USPS, perhaps the best-known federal public enterprise in the United States is Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Amtrak currently carries around 30 million passengers a year, employs more than 20,000 people, and serves 500 destinations in forty-six states, as well as the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces.53 Amtrak was created by Congress in 1970 after a series of privately owned railways went bankrupt. Given the severely degraded state of the rail infrastructure Amtrak inherited – old locomotives and cars, crumbling stations – together with waning passenger numbers, most observers at the time, including politicians, saw the creation of Amtrak as a temporary experiment that would be quickly phased out along with passenger rail service altogether. However, as Amtrak upgraded infrastructure, addressed deferred maintenance issues, and centralised operations, ridership and popularity increased and it is now a critical part of the transport system, especially in the well-travelled Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston.54 Like USPS and the TVA, despite longstanding ideological opposition Amtrak continues to survive as a publicly owned enterprise with support across party lines.

Democratising public ownership

Public ownership is a far more prevalent, viable, and adaptable economic form than the dominant neoliberal free market ideology of the past several decades would have us believe. It is an important potential solution, or element in a solution, to many of the most pressing difficulties – economic, social, and ecological – we are facing in the UK, United States, and elsewhere in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. That said, it is not a panacea. Simply returning to the traditional top-down managerial forms which public ownership often took in the past is an inadequate response to present challenges.

As Martin Carnoy and Derek Shearer put it sharply back in 1980, ‘the transfer of ownership to the government does not automatically guarantee the establishment of an egalitarian, democratic society.’55 Most publicly owned enterprises in the United States are structured traditionally in that the government, at various levels, exercises ownership rights directly – through an agency or department – or indirectly through a semi-autonomous authority. Workers, residents, neighbouring jurisdictions, and other stakeholders and community members usually have little opportunity to participate in decision-making when it comes to those rights (outside of the mostly advisory function served by public meetings). Moreover, the historical record of many of the large, centralised, and bureaucratised state owned enterprises that sprung up during the middle part of the twentieth century on such issues as transparency, environmental sustainability, and democratic accountability leaves a lot to be desired. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s rather chequered record on environmental issues and on lack of democratic accountability, for instance, is a salutary reminder of this in the US context.

Throughout the twentieth century, public ownership was often used merely as a way to improve distributional outcomes within existing economic arrangements rather than as the basis of a more expansive effort at economic democratisation. However, as Andrew Cumbers writes, ‘current global inequities and injustices are brought about as much by the appropriation of economic decision-making by elite groups as by distributional outcomes. In this sense, the quest for democracy means nothing if it does not include the ability to participate in the key decisions about economic life’.56 Historical experience demonstrates that merely transitioning from private ownership to public ownership does little to enhance worker and community participation within firms or in the operations of the economy as a whole.

Fortunately, one of the great strengths of public ownership is its capacity for adaptation and redeployment. ‘Private ownership of the means of production’, E. F. Schumacher contended, ‘is severely limited in its freedom of choice objectives, because it is compelled to be profit-seeking, and tends to take a narrow and selfish view of things. Public ownership gives complete freedom in the choice of objectives and can therefore be used for any purpose that may be chosen. While private ownership is an instrument that by itself largely determines the ends for which it can be employed, public ownership is an instrument the ends of which are undetermined and need to be consciously chosen’.57

There are signs, albeit limited ones, that we may be starting to see public ownership adapting and democratising, at least in some areas. For instance, in the US there are interesting new experiments and ideas around so-called ‘public-public partnerships’, whereby publicly owned enterprises and services partner with other municipalities, workers, non-profit organisations, unions, public pension funds, or community groups. Another example is Banco Popular in Costa Rica (BPDC), that country’s third largest bank. Formed by the government to support economic development more than forty years ago, BPDC is now a hybrid publicly owned enterprise and cooperative. The bank has a democratic assembly made up of 290 representatives chosen (on the basis of representing various economic and social sectors) from among the bank’s member-owners. Any worker holding a savings account for over a year receives an ownership share. The assembly, in turn, advises on the bank’s strategic direction and selects four of the company’s board members, with another three appointed by the government. Moreover, the bank is committed to a nationwide, popular consultative process when it comes to its strategic direction, requires 50 per cent of board members to be women, and directs a portion of revenues to social projects through its Social Bank subsidiary. The bank has also become a leading financier of ecological sustainability in the country in conjunction with its ‘triple bottom line’ approach seeking economic, social, and environmental returns.58

A Real Alternative

The building legitimation crisis (to use Habermas’ term) that neoliberalism is currently experiencing opens the door to reappraisals and new understandings including of public ownership. We may now be finding that the concept of public ownership is finally breaking free of what Cumbers calls the two competing and unrealisable dogmas of the twentieth century – ‘a centralized and planned version of socialism and a free market unregulated capitalism.’59

On the one hand, it can be now be convincingly argued that traditional bureaucratised, centralised, and hierarchical forms of public ownership are not the only (or desired) alternative to private ownership, and that democratised and decentralised forms of public ownership can and should be a component of any alternative to corporate capitalism. On the other hand, it is also increasingly possible to demonstrate that the oft-repeated mantra of relative inefficiency is a red herring designed to mask a tremendous transfer of public wealth and assets to a small group of privileged individuals – and that the empirical and theoretical literature does not, and never has, supported the theory that private ownership is inherently economically superior to public, collective, or social ownership.

With this liberation, however, comes a very real risk that a repurposed public ownership may be co-opted by the rising tide of right-wing populism, whether through a reappearance of Trump’s ‘America First’ economic agenda (thus far largely abandoned in office) in a trillion-dollar infrastructure investment plan or in the short-lived post-Brexit noises about state interventionism and industrial policy coming from Theresa May and the Conservative Party. As with issues of trade and globalisation, the left must not surrender public ownership to these forces; it must centre democratised forms of public ownership as part of its vision for the future, its transition strategies, and its efforts at resistance to an unsustainable model of private corporate extraction.

Thomas M. Hanna is Research Director at The Democracy Collaborative in Washington, D.C.

This essay is excerpted from the author’s forthcoming book Our Common Wealth: The Return of Public Ownership in the United States, to be published by Manchester University Press in September 2018.


1. R. Branston, et al. ‘Public Interest in UK Finance and Energy Sectors’, in J. Begley, et al., eds., Global Economic Crisis and Local Economic Development: International Cases and Policy Responses, New York: Routledge, 2016, p195.

2. L. Eilliot and J. Treanor, ‘The Day the Credit Crunch Began, 10 Years On: “The World Changed”, Guardian, 3.8.17, aug/02/day-credit-crunch-began-10-years-on-world-changed.

3. P. Inman, et al., ‘Darling Under Fire as Northern Rock is Nationalised’, Guardian, 18.2.08,

4. G. Wearden, ‘Virgin Money Buys Northern Rock for £747m’, Guardian, 17.11.11, Some of these bad assets have been subsequently sold back to the private sector. See, for instance: ‘UK Asset Resolution Announces Sale of Bradford & Bingley Assets for £11.8 Billion’, UK Asset Resolution, 31.3.17, uk/media-centre/press-releases/2017/31-03-2017?page=4.

5. In this context, “private” ownership refers both to closely held ‘private’ companies, which do not trade shares on public stock exchanges, and ‘public’ companies that do.

6. A. Gani, ‘Clause IV: A Brief History’, Guardian, 9.8.15,

7. R. Syal, ‘Taxpayers to Foot £200bn Bill for PFI Contracts – Audit Office’, Guardian, 18.1.18,

8. B. Chu, “What is the Private Finance Initiative? And Do Labour’s Plans to Take it Back “In-House” Make Any Sense?’ Independent, 25.9.17, https://www.independent.

9. J. Moulds, ‘East Coast Mainline Pays Taxpayers £1bn Sparking Fresh Reprivatisation Fury’, Guardian, 4.8.14, east-coast-mainline-fury-reprivatisation-plan.

10. J. Pickard, ‘East Coast Mainline on Brink of Collapse, Says Grayling’, Financial Times, 5.2.18,

11. ‘I come at this report with an agenda: I believe that free enterprise policies are a key driver of prosperity. Sadly though, it appears that a large proportion of British voters do not share this view,’ the Legatum Institute’s Senior Fellow Matthew Elliott laments in his foreword. See: M. Elliott and J. Kanagasooriam, Public Opinion in the Post-Brexit Era: Economic Attitudes in Modern Britain, London: Legatum Institute, October 2017, pp. 3 and 15.

12. A. Becket, ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Conference Speech in Full’, Business Insider, 27.9.17,

13. H. Agerholm and L. Dore, ‘Jeremy Corbyn Increased Labour’s Vote Share More Than Any of the Party’s Leaders Since 1945’, Independent, 9.6.17, http://www.independent.

14. ‘For the Many Not the Few: 2017 Labour Party Manifesto’, Labour Party, 2017, http://

15. ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’, Labour Party, 2017, wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Alternative-Models-of-Ownership.pdf.

16. J. Kurlantzick, State Capitalism: How the Return of Statism is Transforming the World, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, p1.

17. M. Schmit et al., Public Financial Institutions in Europe, Brussels: European Association of Public Banks, 15.3.11.

18. “Facts & Figures- The Savings Banks Finance Group’s Market Position,” Finazgruppe Deutscher Sparkassen-und Giroverband, 2017,

19. S. Kishimoto and O. Petitjean, eds., Reclaiming Public Services: How Cities and Citizens are Turning Back Privatisation, Amsterdam: Transnational Institute, June 2017, pp.12, 20.

20. Kishimoto and Petitjean, eds., Reclaiming Public Services, p12.

21. J. Vasagar, ‘German Grids Restored to Public Ownership’, Financial Times, 25.11.13,; ‘Hamburg Buys its Energy Grid Back’, New Compass, 21.4.14, hamburg-buys-its-energy-grid-back.

22. H. Graupner, ‘What Exactly is Germany’s “Energiewende”?’ DW, 22.1.13,; A. Cumbers, ‘Remunicipalization, the Low-Carbon Transition, and Energy Democracy’, in L. Mastny, ed., Can a City Be Sustainable? Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute and Island Press, 2016, p281.

23. ‘The Re-Municipalization of the Hamburg Grid’, Energy Transition, 27.6.14, https://

24. J. Meek, ‘How We Happened to Sell Off Our Electricity’, London Review of Books, 34, 17, Sept. 2012,

25. M. Minio-Paluello, Who Owns the Wind, Owns the Future, Labour Energy Forum, Sept. 2017, p7.

26. ‘For the Many Not the Few’, Labour Party.

27. A. Vaughan, ‘Publicly Owned Energy Minnows Take on Big Six in Troubled UK Market’, Guardian, 27.10.17,

28. D. Hall and C. Hobbs, ‘Public Ownership is Back on the Agenda in the UK,’ in S. Kishimoto and O. Petitjean, eds., Reclaiming Public Services: How Cities and Citizens are Turning Back Privatisation, Amsterdam: Transnational Institute, June 2017, p137.

29. APPA Annual Directory and Statistical Report 2015-2016: US Electric Utility Industry Statistics, Washington, DC: American Public Power Association, 2016, www.

30. T.M. Hanna, ‘Community-Owned Energy: How Nebraska Became the Only State to Bring Everyone Power From a Public Grid’, Yes! Magazine, 30.1.15, www.

31. The State of Public Water in the United States, Washington, DC: Food and Water Watch, February 2016, state_of_public_water.pdf; For a discussion of the public and private ownership of water in Britain, see: R. Graham, ‘Water in the UK – Public Versus Private’, openDemocracy, 19.12.14, water-in-uk-public-versus-private.

32. Food and Water Watch, The State of Public Water in the United States.

33. ‘Community Network Map’, Community Broadband Networks, Jan. 2018,

34. R.R. Nelson, ‘Public Financing of Headquarter Hotels in the United States’, in R.R. Nelson, ed., Developing A Successful Infrastructure for Convention & Event Tourism, New York, NY: Routledge, 2013, p31.

35. ‘The Economic Impact of Commercial Airports in 2010’, CDM Smith, Jan. 2012,; ‘Airport Privatization: Issues Related to the Sale of Lease of Commercial Airports’, United States Subcommittee on Aviation, Nov. 1996, GAOREPORTS-RCED-97-3/html/GAOREPORTS-RCED-97-3.htm; ‘Airport Categories’, Federal Aviation Administration, capacity/passenger_allcargo_stats/categories/.

36. C.D.M. Smith, ‘The Economic Impact of Commercial Airports in 2010.’

37. ‘Ports’, MARAD,; ‘U.S. Public Port facts’, American Association of Port Authorities, July 2008,; ‘Exports, Jobs & Economic Growth’, American Association of Port Authorities, www.

38. ‘Overview of Facilities and Services’, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey,

39. ‘Annual Report: 2016’, Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control,

40. ‘What is the Alaska Permanent Fund?’ Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation,

41. ‘Texas Permanent School Fund’, Texas Education Agency,

42. As of 31.8.16, the Fund’s balance was $37.3 billion. See: Texas Permanent School Fund, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report: Fiscal Year Ending August 31, 2016, Austin: Texas Permanent School Fund, December 2016.

43. ‘Permanent University Fund – PUF’, University of Texas Investment Management Company,

44. ‘Sovereign Wealth Funds’, SWFI,

45. C.H. Vincent, et al., Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data, Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 3.3.17,

46. H. Hansman, ‘Congress Moves to Give Away National Lands, Discounting Billions in Revenue’, Guardian, 19.1.17, bureau-land-management-federal-lease.

47. R. Pollin, ‘Tools for a New Economy: Proposals for a Financial Regulatory System’, Boston Review, Jan.–Feb. 2009,

48. G. Childs, ‘Vilsack Promotes USDA Rural Housing Program’, Journal Star, 2.6.09,

49. ‘About TVA’, TVA,

50. J. Snyder, ‘Parties Switch Roles Over Possible U.S. Sale of New Deal TVA’, Bloomberg, 12.4.13,; S. Sturgis, ‘The Strange Politics of TVA Privatization’, Facing South, 16.4.13, the-strange-politics-of-tva-privatization.html.

51. ‘About: Size and Scope’, United States Postal Service, who-we-are/postal-facts/size-scope.htm.

52. R. Newman, ‘Why the U.K. Can Privatize Its Postal Service, But the U.S. Can’t’, Yahoo! Finance, 14.10.13,

53. ‘Amtrak National Facts’, Amtrak, ContentServer?c=Page&pagename=am%2FLayout&cid=1246041980246.

54. ‘The Northeast Corridor: Critical Infrastructure for the Northeast’, Amtrak, https://

55. M. Carnoy and D. Shearer, Economic Democracy: The Challenge of the 1980s, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1980, p35.

56. A. Cumbers, Reclaiming Public Ownership: Making Space for Economic Democracy, New York: Zed Books, 2012, p5.

57. E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, New York: Harper & Row, 1989, pp276-277.

58. T. Marois, ‘Costa Rica’s Banco Popular Shows How Banks can be Democratic, Green– and Financially Sustainable’, The Conversation, 5.9.17, costa-ricas-banco-popular-shows-how-banks-can-be-democratic-green-andfinancially-sustainable-82401.

59. Cumbers, Reclaiming Public Ownership, p211.

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