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National Service: What Is It? Do We Need It?

During the last presidential election, both candidates promised some form of “national service.” While neither was specific, they seemed to favor some form of domestic Peace Corps perhaps by expanding AmeriCorps. Neither candidate was specific about the goals of national service. If one of the goals is to bring people into the workplace then perhaps OJT coupled to work-studies (co-op) may be the answer.

William James coined the term “national service” in his essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” According to James, mandatory service could teach peace and democratic values. John Dewey argued that democratic values could not be taught by authoritarianism

Few today believes that national service will end war, but both John McCain and Barack Obama promised some form of national service based on AmeriCorps. McCain related national service to his Navy service. Obama related it to his community organization work in Illinois.

We only have to look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Cedar Rapids flood to realize that we need a force that can move in and assist after a disaster. Could this be a job for a national service?

Neither candidate was specific about national service compensation. McCain said, “I’d be glad to reward them as much as possible, But you want to be careful that the reason is not the reward of financial or other reasons, but the satisfaction of serving a cause greater than yourself.”

Obama promised $4,000 tuition credit for every year of service to students of “modest means.” This certainly expands the options of students of “modest means” who must now join the military to afford college.

Currently, only voluntary national service is being considered. The existence of the Selective Service hints at a future mandatory possibility since this agency delivers onerous penalties for no clear purpose. According to Greg Mankiw, Harvard economics professor, “It is hard to imagine anything that would push more libertarians from the R to the D column than the Republican Party endorsing mandatory national service.”

If you have every put your heart into a movement, you know that anyone who is coerced becomes a drag. Unfortunately, the national service issue is surrounded by the others-should-want-to-do-it-for-their-own-good myth.

Few will quarrel with the government facilitating true voluntary service. But why should young adults of “modest means” have to prove themselves to get an education? If their hearts are not in the “service” that they are coerced to perform then their work will be counterproductive and the “service” will become make-work.

Education is our greatest return-on-investment. It should be provided to all. The government could link education to both private and public sector employment by subsidizing education with an OJT (On-the-Job-Training) stipend. OJT can be linked to work-studies (co-op) and distance learning. Both could be linked to community or civil service.

By finding internship employment, the student demonstrates interest and aptitude. The student becomes a two-way conduit between college and industry. The student brings state-of-the-art knowledge to the job and the instructor gains state-of-the-industry knowledge. This is extremely important in vanguard technologies such as renewable energy. It’s essential for those aspiring to be social and health workers. 

The national service issue is also surrounded by the honor-and-duty-are-their-own-reward myth. Politicians that are always ready to share the limelight with firefighters, police and soldiers appall me. These same politicians are often just as ready to give these same public servants a squeak-by wage. These same politicians often equate tax reduction with patriotism.

Generally, we all work to serve the public good. Some work requires more risk or preparation and “deserves” greater remuneration, but we all deserve a livable wage.

 

 

Photo Credit: US Gov. AmeriCorps

Written by Fred Etcheverry

Fred Etcheverry lives in Santa Cruz, California with his wife Elsa. He is a freelance high-tech B2B (Business-to-Business) copywriter usually for clients in the nearby Silicon Valley. He is also an engineering consultant and teaches courses in industry and college on computers and electronics. When he is doing none of the above, he swims in the Monterey Bay, hikes in the Santa Cruz redwood forests, visits his adult children, or goes to art galleries, plays and operas with Elsa and friends.

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