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Starbucks are not public toilets….

Starbucks are not public toilets….

The government has failed to meet a very basic biological need, and so a private company fills part of the gap.

By Nazarul Islam

Starbucks is sort of America’s public toilet. In cities like New York, where public restrooms are hard to come by, it’s the de facto spot to stop and pee. Mike Bloomberg, who tried to set up a network of public toilets when he was mayor, once reportedly shrugged that perhaps “there’s enough Starbucks” to address the city’s bathroom needs anyway.

However, Starbucks is an imperfect public toilet because providing a public toilet is not the point of Starbucks. It has tried in the past to limit its facilities to employees, or, at the very least, to require people using those facilities to buy something first. That proved to be a problematic system after employees at a Philadelphia Starbucks in 2018 called the police on two Black men who asked to use the bathroom while waiting for a business associate. And so, the coffee giant has begrudgingly accepted its fate as many passersby’s emergency loo.

The solution is far from ideal. But in many places in the US, there aren’t many immediate alternatives. The government has failed to meet a very basic biological need, and so a private company fills part of the gap.

Across various segments of American life, the private sector has begun to take on tasks big and small that one might think should be tackled by the public sector. Domino’s filled in potholes. Dawn’s dish soap saved ducks. American Express pitched in on historic preservation. Walmart started selling low-priced insulin – A slew of companies help workers pay for school. Much of America’s health care system is still handled through private insurers and the entity’s employees

As people lose faith in government to act on sweeping issues such as climate change and guns, they’re increasingly looking to corporate America and asking whether there’s something they can do about it. If Congress won’t tackle gun violence, maybe Dick’s Sporting Goods can try.

Americans are also losing faith in the ability of government to act. According to Gallup, just 18 percent of Americans say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in big business. Their faith in Congress, however, is somehow even lower, at just 13 percent.

It’s understandable, given so much of the gridlock in Washington, DC. In the current balance of power, Democrats hold the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate — and they’re still struggling to get major legislation passed.

Republicans won’t go along with much of what Democrats want to accomplish, and Democrats are unwilling to make the changes (as in, abolishing the filibuster) necessary to push their agenda through. Capitol Hill has failed over and over to make real reforms on issues such as guns and immigration and climate.

Many companies — which are subject to the pressures of their consumers and their employees — have at least tried. But, again, that trying has limits.

“We have these big, public, global and national problems that we need to address, and that’s not the length of time at which they think, it’s not the scale at which they think,” Kahn said. “And if they’re choosing to put some of these values front and center, we certainly cannot count on them to be thinking about how equitably their moves are affecting different communities.”

With threats as big and imminent as the Covid-19 outbreak or climate change, it’s important to have an all-hands-on-deck approach that draws in various players: the government, private companies, nonprofits, and philanthropy. And there are plenty of smart people who argue that while private entities are not the answer to the world’s problems, they need to play a role.

“You can look at almost every major issue of today … and it requires, to solve it, going across all these sectors and aligning interests, whether it’s homelessness, whether it’s climate action, whether it’s racial equity, what have you. None of this is going to be solved by government alone or by the private sector,” said William Eggers, the executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights.

“The role of government absolutely should be to protect our public interest,” Korngold said. “The problem is that so many problems are global, and the governments are national.”

Still, finding a balance is tricky. Take the example of billionaire philanthropy, which is often an outgrowth of extraordinary success in the corporate world. It’s nice that rich guys are trying to have a positive influence on the world. It’s also hard not to wonder whether said rich guys shouldn’t just be taxed more, or why the US and the world are in a spot where private entities, whether it be Bill Gates’s charity or his company, are filling in such obvious public spaces.

The government is by no means a perfect actor. But it is leaving problems to the private sector to address what it feels like should be directly in its purview, whether it be providing citizens basic health care or filling in a pothole in the street.

Even decent outcomes, like Starbucks as a forced public bathroom, can feel pretty uneasy. The pandemic gave it a good reason to shut those restrooms down, meaning suddenly a solution many people had adopted was no longer available. And even in normal times, it’s a little awkward to sneak by the barista without buying a coffee or muffin or water first. That’s because it is, and a private coffee company shouldn’t be standing in as a public restroom in the first place.

Courtesy: NY public amenities

[author title=”Nazarul Islam ” image=”https://sindhcourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Nazarul-Islam-2.png”]The Bengal-born writer Nazarul Islam is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America. He is author of a recently published book ‘Chasing Hope’ – a compilation of his 119 articles.[/author]