Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

09/03/2008 (2:07 pm)

Obama's Citizen Corps

Jim Lindgren on The Volokh Conspiracy provided a comprehensive interpretation Monday of that curious proposal that came out of Barack Obama’s mouth back on July 2. Remember the “citizen national security force” from Obama’s speech?

We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we’ve set. We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.

We had no idea what he was talking about, but according to Lindgren, it’s defined very clearly on Obama’s campaign web site. Obama is reviving the idea of a citizen corps; and not just one. Dozens of them. Basically, what he’s talking about is bringing nearly all charity work under the federal government, and encouraging universal public service in government programs through incentives.

Classroom Corps. Health Corps. Clean Energy Corps. Veterans Corps. Homeland Security Corps. Peace Corps. Global Energy Corps. AmeriCorps VISTA. Experience Corps. Senior Corps. Green Job Corps. I’m not making up these names, folks; there are so many corps proposed that he runs out of unique-sounding names and starts repeating. You can read Obama’s position paper about them all here. He wants to create a public portal for anybody who wants to help but does not know how.

By the way, this also explains that oppressive-sounding bit in one of Michelle Obama’s early speeches, the one about “Barack never letting you go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.” Remember?

Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.

This was delivered to a college audience at UCLA. I figured it was a general call to greater activism, but I was wrong. Obama proposes a college citizen corps as well. He plans to offer an annual $4000/year tax credit for college tuition, to be paid back in 100 hours of community service each year in “work-study” programs. His program calls for a large proportion of work-study to be done outside the university, though, in community service rather than in the university library.

Notice that they’ll be receiving $40/hour for the work, out of your tax dollars. Think the labor is worth that much on the market? No? Then we must be talking about spending with no comparable return — unless Obama has a goal that isn’t covered by the value of the work. More on that in a bit.

It goes even younger. Obama proposes mandatory community service for middle and high school students, 50 hours’ worth a year. That’s another 40 million students.

It’s change, all right, but of what sort? Mandatory government service from age 11 through age 18, followed by essentially mandatory service for college attendees (the wealthier kids can buy their way out, but most middle-class kids will do the work.) That’s 10 years of most citizens’ lives spent in the service of the federal government. Just the college portion, covering 17 million students, could cost upwards of $70 billion a year.

Which organizations can handle that number of students? Will they benefit, or will they be overrun with unmotivated workers needing too much supervision? What will all this cost the taxpayers? (This is in addition to Universal Health Care, which Obama also promises.) And, what will be the economic impact of all this labor directed away from private business into public service? (If most college students are performing community service, where will summer businesses hire labor? The price of your vacation just went up 50% due to increased labor costs.)

More to the point, what sort of uniformity are we encouraging? When 1000 individuals approach a problem trying to solve it, you get creativity, whereas when a bureaucracy approaches a problem to try to solve it, you get self-promotion, butt-covering, and waste. Furthermore, whatever government takes over reduces the public’s liberty by that much; it’s not clear that individual liberty would survive this level of government takeover. Lindgren makes the point:

Mandatory community service sucks in much that is private and diverse and spits out an excessively homogenized version of the good, a version that would come with a government seal of approval… For charity work to be truly transformative in a positive way, perhaps it must be truly voluntary. That coerced service can be transformative without endangering freedom is even more improbable.

We can look at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge possibly as a model for what Obama intended. What we see there looks like deliberately directing money to politically radical organizations instead of to educational innovators, which is what like the donor of the funds directed. The fact that no improvement in school performance was detected after the CAC does not mean it did not meet any of the goals of its Chairman; the goal may have been to enrich local leftist organizations and give them an opportunity to radicalize schools.

One of Volokh’s commenters makes the comparison, and in my mind, hits the bulls-eye:

Sounds like what he and Ayers had going in Chicago with Annenberg.

I’m also a bit unsure of the legal ramifications of what would probably be such a specific and onerous condition on federal funding for education. “You don’t get the money if you don’t require each and every student to volunteer” doesn’t seem remotely connected to any legitimate federal interest.

The schools had to partner with organizations chosen by the CAC in order to get the money. The organizations were radical; if the thrust of an organization was something as basic as raising math scores, it wouldn’t have been considered for partnership by the CAC.

To recap- it seems the CAC used the money as a lure to partner schools with radical organizations, the intent being radical political indoctrination rather than improving the students’ education. No radical politics, no money.

In other words, what we can expect from Obama is a massive takeover of public charity by the federal government, with hundreds of billions of dollars funneled into radical community organizations ostensibly for community service, but arguably for the purpose of indoctrination.

Change you can believe in?

I dug up an ancient discussion of Citizen’s Corps proposals from 1989 at Heritage.org. Its format is munged, so it’s a bit tough to read, but it makes some of the relevant points. Keep in mind when you read it that what was proposed in 1989 was at least 2 orders of magnitude smaller than what Obama proposes here. The Heritage document does not address the question of what effect a massive, “required voluntary” government service program will have on individual liberty.

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1 Comment »

September 23, 2008 @ 2:41 pm #

[…] educational policy might look like. If you connect this project with Obama’s proposals for school-based citizen corps, it becomes immediately obvious that actual intellectual achievement of students is not nearly so […]

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