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June 25, 2007

National Service Redux

by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math

Look out, Atrios! Chris Dodd (D-CT) just came out with his massive national service plan, which includes "making community service mandatory for all high school students". Outside of that idea, it's a mish-mash of various ideas to increase do-gooderism: doubling the Peace Corps, expanding Americorps from seventy five thousand participants to one million, and tax credits for employers who let their workers take paid time off for volunteering, and grants to senior citizens for doing part-time work at schools.

The details on these service proposals get very thorny—will getting retirees to work in schools make it harder to bring teachers' wages in line with other professionals? Does the country need greater volunteer efforts out of high schoolers, or is it a better idea to bring twentysomethings into the system? Do we need even more back-door social engineering through the tax code than we already have?—which is why they never get too far passed the "ask not what your country can do for you" phase. And it's not clear one way or another that a small army of young people is the best workforce for certain public service jobs. But it seems like it's worth considering.

June 25, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Properly structured to get impressionable young people out of their homogenized, sanitized suburbs or out of their hopeless ghetto slums, as the case might be, such programs might actually do some significant good. It is not as if American high schools are doing much with the time of these kids.

I, personally, would not sneer too much at social engineering. A little social engineering to address the problems, say, which are being entrepreneurially addressed by criminal youth gangs, for example, makes a lot of more sense than building more and more prisons.

And, I am concerned enough about the rise of authoritarians in politics, to wonder if a program that got people out of the narrow confines of their youth might not be good, overall, for the country.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jun 25, 2007 3:59:31 AM

The problem I have with mandatory community service for high schoolers is twofold. The first problem is that there are already all kinds of important things that we require high schoolers to do, like learn English and Algebra. The second problem is related to the first: high schoolers as a group lack valuable skills in relation to their adult counterparts. The only upside I see is that high schoolers are a captive audience . . . we can more easily require them to do stuff if it makes us feel good. The downside is that such a requirement will likely be just another unfunded mandate that takes up educators time.

Posted by: William | Jun 25, 2007 4:42:08 AM

I used to have moments of feeling like some national service might be a good thing. But these days I share the concerns William points at, and suspect that in practice it would rather quickly degenerate into a nice big pool of poorly trained labor to prop up whichever parts of the military-prison-industrial complex are in favor this administration. In bad terms I could see it sliding very rapidly toward a sort of Hitlerjugend Lite, and even in good ones, the potential for abuse is just too big.

People in their late teens and early twenties are already hammered by a very nasty set of conflicting imperatives. Adding more imposed duties doesn't really strike me as the best way to handle the load.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Jun 25, 2007 5:01:56 AM

I applaud Dodd for treating national service in a serious way. While I favor requiring young adults to give two years, his high school requirement is very reasonable. If the 100 hours were carried out over 4 years of high school, that's a small additional challenge for any young person.

Dodd's plan is more impressive because of its scope. It broadens both AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and also strengthens programs for seniors. He has framed this effort as a substantial part of his program to bring Americans into the fight on terror. In his speech he notes that President Bush asked only for our shopping. He recognizes that there is a huge opportunity to unite around common service. It's not perfect, but here, here, Mr. Dodd.

Posted by: Rob Johnston | Jun 25, 2007 10:04:14 AM

I like social engineering, not just social engineering of the tax code. That thing needs to be greatly simplified.

Dodd's plan sounds somewhat "thorny," as you put it, but I support the idea in concept.

Posted by: Korha | Jun 25, 2007 11:16:23 AM

Chris Dodd (D-CT) just came out with his massive national service plan, which includes "making community service mandatory for all high school students".

I ask again. What provision of the US constitution empowers the federal government to require national service for such purposes. The constitution only empowers the federal government to provide for service in an army and navy (loosely speaking).

Posted by: raj | Jun 25, 2007 12:11:26 PM

Dodd has actually gone as far as hiring a clothing firm to create some mockups of their uniforms. To the Democratic Revolution!

Posted by: TLB | Jun 25, 2007 12:17:28 PM

Somehow the view that high schoolers are group readily available to be press ganged into forced labor bothers me. Thinking of them as lab rats for some do-gooder social engineering experiment is even more disturbing.

Posted by: Ian | Jun 25, 2007 12:37:09 PM

These "press-gang" style mandatory service ideas always have the underlying message that kids are lazy, slothful and up to no good.

I've never seen a plan that suggested anyone older than 25 should be obligated to serve the country.

Show me a plan that requires community service from all the baby boomers who avoided serving during the draft era (like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and George Bush) and maybe I'll back it.

I'm sure they'd all insist that they'd served their country one way or another in the last 40 years. But I'm also sure that today's teenagers will find a way to serve in the next 40.

Posted by: jinchi | Jun 25, 2007 12:47:32 PM

Mandatory service is a bad idea in principle and in practice. I'm a retired guy and I put in several weeks a year on volunteer work, mainly Forest Service projects. I see lot's of work to do. I worked with a great Americorps crew last week. They all wanted to be there and it was fun. Yes, budget more money for Americorps. I have no interest in cajoling quality work out of an understandably disgruntled, press ganged crew. I wouldn't even show up. Let's consider community service in terms of dollar value. Unless you plan to pay the draftees Davis-Bacon wages you are taxing young folks the difference between what they could have earned and what you are paying them. Now try to pass a bill with a tax that only applies to folks of a certain age. Sounds stinky to me.

Posted by: kelly | Jun 25, 2007 1:05:43 PM

Treating high school students as a source of free labor is both inhumane and idiotic, whether it's for a hundred hours or two years. It's idiotic because with such an abundance of free labor, the planners will have no idea what to do with it, leaving the students to be treated like cheap automata. That in turn means that they are unlikely to have anything but contempt for the project, and by extension, for public service.

It is also worth noting the bias towards mediocrity that many of you are exhibiting. Most high school students may waste their spare time, but those who will be the most important to our society do not, anymore than adults do. Nevertheless, they would lose valuable time in which they are continuing to learn and develop in order to have them perform unskilled labor.

Posted by: Justin | Jun 25, 2007 5:04:22 PM

Let the retirees do it. Retirement ages haven't shifted upwards to track longer life expectancy and better general health, so industrialized nations have an unprecedentedly large and healthy pool of mostly-idle 65-year-olds. High-school graduates should be getting educated and getting jobs. What are the retirees going to do otherwise? Golfing? This'll give them a sense of purpose in life.

Get out there and plant some damn trees, Grandad, or no Social Security for you.

Suggested slogan:

JOIN THE PEACE CORPS
SERVICE GUARANTEES MEDICARE
DO YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE?

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Posted by: judy | Oct 8, 2007 8:49:19 AM

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