18 December, 2007

Ask not what your country can do for you

There has been much talk of Obama's Kennedy-esque appeal, especially with Kennedy's former speechwriter making the comparison explicit. Above and beyond the rhetoric of unity and hope, Obama is also echoing Kennedy's exhortation to public service, which both have framed as necessary for reinvigorating democracy at home and rebuilding America's standing abroad. The Hill reports that the Obama campaign is suggesting an innovative program for using the internet to facilitate national service:

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) unveiled a plan Wednesday that would seek to get more Americans to participate in public service, including the establishment of a Craigslist-like online network for volunteers.

In addition to an online database of volunteering opportunities, which was laid out in documents provided by Obama’s campaign, the Illinois senator proposes more than tripling the slots in AmeriCorps, which would allow the program to focus on education, clean energy, veterans, healthcare and homeland security. In addition, Obama wants to double the size of the Peace Corps, put in place a program that boosts public diplomacy and get students to volunteer their time to community service.

Of course, Obama ties it all back to the wasted opportunity after 9/11 to, in his words, "
answer a new call for our country". However,

"the call never came. Instead, we were asked to go shopping, and to prove our patriotism by supporting a war in Iraq that should never have been authorized and never been waged.

“Loving your country shouldn’t just mean watching fireworks on the Fourth of July; loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it,” Obama said in Iowa. “And if you do stand up, I promise you that your life will be richer, and our country will be stronger.”

Powerful stuff. When I saw Bill Richardson speak this fall, I recall being impressed by his proposal for a revamped national service program. He proposed paying two years of college for those youths who are willing to spend two years in the service of their country, either domestically or internationally. A plan such as this would help mobilize considerable muscle to rebuild infrastructure, provide volunteers for inner city schools, and all sorts of problems that have been increasingly "privatized", to disastrous and shameful effect. It will also, in addition to helping more students afford higher education, instill an ethic of public service and harness patriotism for "something other than war", in Edwards' phrase. I hope the candidates keep this on the table.


spencer said...

It is interesting how none of the candidates are proposing *mandatory* service in their national service plans. Richardson's plan is for a college incentive and I believe that Obama's is as well.

It's fine to put a price on volunteering for your country, but might there be network externalities? Might our society suffer if those who can afford to go to college are financially exempt from such a program?

Elliot said...

That's a good point. Still, I think a national service program would be an ideal vehicle for subsidizing higher learning. Perhaps mandatory two year service in some capacity, with college benefits for those who meet a minimum income level?

There are more than a few complications that would have to be cleared up. What would the programs relation to the military be - could military service be an option, or would the program be strictly non-military to avoid the accusation of a draft? Would there need to be a new agency, or possibly a Cabinet-level position, in charge of allocating volunteers?

But finally, what is at heart the point of the program? If it is to instill a sense of public duty, then having the rich opt out would doubtless help split society further rather than integrate it. But if the goal is merely to help poorer kids afford education while "paying their way" through service, then the rich opting out is not so relevant.

I went straight to the former, but perhaps the candidates plans, based on the latter, are not realistically geared to meet that more ambitious goal.

Guadalupe said...

Is it still volunteering when there is a payment? Is this instilling an ethic of public service or merely a new wave of resume builders working the system for personal gain?

Elliot said...

I think theres a fine line that can be crossed, but in this case, yes, I would still call it volunteering. Everyone "gains" something by volunteering. Those who go into the Peace Corps have their college loans reduced. Those who volunteer for soup kitchens gain the satisfaction of serving their neighbor. And those who go into the army willingly are considered volunteers even though they receive a salary - because, presumably, no salary could cover the cost of losing one's life.

So there are always incentives for service. And I don't think resume building is necessarily a bad thing - the point, it seems, is to create a system of incentives that promotes the kind of values we want to promote. If we get people who want to build up their resumes through service to their country and their world, all the better.

A good way to think about volunteering might be that the motivation of "public service" is what "subsidizes" the program. That is, in a service program there are some incentives to participate, but all else being equal, those incentives are far less than, say, those for having a job or selling drugs or whatever.

The more intangible pride of service, however, is what makes up the gap. People are motivated by a complex mix of immediate personal gain and more abstract conceptions of duty. A well-planned national service program could tap into and nurture unselfish patriotism while still acknowledging the practical need for some sort of material renumeration. And if that renumeration took the form of cheaper education, it would be an extra investment in the future of our country.

Again, we have to be careful what exactly we are talking about. In my post, I rattled off several different plans, which may have different goals and tactics. They each have their pros and cons, and more than endorsing any one I am glad to see the topic entering the general zeitgeist of the campaign.