Community Service for all Middle and High School Children.--
The most worrisome of Barack Obama's proposals is his goal of bringing most charities under the federal umbrella in part by inducing all middle and high school children to do 50 hours of community service every year.
The details are on his campaign website and in his speeches calling Americans to service.
By requiring almost all public middle schoolers, starting at the age of 10 or 11, to join his new cadres of community service workers and become part of his "civilian national security force," Barack Obama shows himself to be out of touch with American traditions of individual volunteerism.
There is nothing wrong with a family allowing a child to volunteer at a young age: in the summer when I was 11, I spent several nights a week working for free at a concession stand in a little league baseball park. My parents were comfortable with this community service because at all times I was under the supervision of my mother's best friend. Parents then and parents today would like to choose whether their 11-year old child takes on even a part time job, and they would like to choose the job and judge for themselves whether the working conditions are suitable.
With his myriad proposals for new "Corps" and his proposal for universal service for all school children, Obama is trying to bring the charitable activities of 50 to 100 million people --- about half of them children --- under state control. That our government is even capable of running a service program on a scale never before attempted is a matter of faith, not evidence.
Steven Malanga of City Journal has an article that deals more with Barack Obama's past than his proposals for the future.
Community organizing's roots stretch back to the 1930s and Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation and author of Rules for Radicals. But it wasn't until President Lyndon Johnson's ambitious plan to end poverty through massive federal spending that the Alinsky model—grassroots organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood—really took off. Starting in the mid-1960s, the federal government directed billions of dollars to neighborhood groups, convinced that they knew better than Washington what their communities needed. The federal funds, eventually supplemented by state and local tax dollars, helped create a universe of government-funded community groups running everything from job-training programs to voter-registration drives—far beyond anything Alinsky could have imagined. Some 3,000 local social-services groups were soon receiving government funding in New York City alone. Many were new, but the money also helped turn traditional charities that had operated on private donations into government contractors.
Those who led these social-services groups became advocates, unsurprisingly, for government-funded solutions to social problems. To defend and expand their turf, organizers began heading into the political arena, wielding the power they had accumulated in neighborhoods to build a base of supporters. In New York, operators of huge social-services groups like Pedro Espada in the Bronx and Albert Vann in Brooklyn won election to state and federal posts after heading up large, powerful nonprofits. By the late 1980s, nearly 20 percent of New York City Council members were products of the government-funded nonprofit sector, and they were among the most strident advocates for higher taxes and more government spending. In other cities, too, from Chicago to Cleveland to Los Angeles, the road to electoral success increasingly ran through the government-funded social-services sector. Spending directed to these groups boomed through both Republican and Democratic administrations. "The non-profit service sector has never been richer, more powerful,"former welfare recipient Theresa Funiciello wrote in her 1993 book Tyranny of Kindness. "Except to the poor, poverty is a mega-business."
Obama began his organizing life in the mid-1980s in a community group whose progress mirrored that of the rest of the industry: the Developing Communities Project, formed on Chicago's South Side as a "faith-based grassroots organization organizing and advocating for social change." Though founded with resources from a coalition of churches, over time the DCP evolved, like many left-leaning religious organizations, into a government contractor essentially subsisting on tax money—with nearly 80 percent of its revenues deriving from public contracts and grants.
As a young college graduate immersed in the world of tax-bankrolled activism, Obama adopted the big-government ethos that prevailed among neighborhood organizers who viewed attempts to reform poverty programs as attacks on the poor. Speaking to an alternative weekly on the eve of his 1995 run for state senate, Obama said . . . that "these are mean, cruel times . . . ." He derided the "old individualistic bootstrap myth" of American achievement that conservatives were touting. Self-help strategies "have become thinly veiled excuses for cutting back on social programs, which are anathema to a conservative agenda," he wrote in a chapter that he contributed to a 1990 book, After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois. (He also depicted leftist community organizing as a harder task than similar efforts by the Christian Right, telling a reporter in 1995 that "it's always easier to organize around intolerance, narrow-mindedness and false nostalgia.")
Involuntary Associations and National Service.--
Unlike some European systems of the past two centuries, the American tradition is for individuals to form their own diverse communities and for each community to govern itself to the extent possible. Universal national service seems to reverse the direction of this relationship: its goal is to use the government to transform people to fit within the government's vision of what's important and how one should serve. Senator Barack Obama makes that government direction clear, promising us that his administration "will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges," eschewing the traditional American approach of having the government take its direction from the diverse choices of its people.
As de Tocqueville understood, voluntary associations are valuable not merely on account of what they accomplish, either for participants or for others, but also because they establish cultural and political forces in society independent of government. In modern society, and perhaps especially in America, each individual stands alone as an independent citizen in relation to the state, and individuals are therefore peculiarly dependent on voluntary associations to ensure that the state does not acquire a monopoly of cultural and political influence. Voluntary associations help to protect us from what de Tocqueville called "the tyranny of the majority."
In Mr. Obama's vision of voluntary organization, however, the government would develop, coordinate, and focus the efforts of private individuals and their associations, which thus would lose their independence and much of their capacity to offer alternatives to the state and its vision of life. Indeed, far from challenging the state and holding it accountable, morally or politically, many private associations would become aligned with the state. Rather than being alternatives to government, they would become its instruments.
One of John Locke's most important philosophical moves was to posit a state of limited powers. Not all good things must be within the state or be promoted by the state. For example, the sovereign could be persuaded of the good of the "one true religion" and yet could believe that it would be best for the state to be cautious about promoting that religion.
That crucial Enlightenment insight helped end centuries of European religious wars. Among twentieth-century governments, most communist, fascist, and sharia-based regimes rejected that Enlightenment view and tried to bring within their ambit all things that the state considered good -- with predictable results for human flourishing and freedom.
A key element in the rise of modern life, both its freedom and its prosperity, was the substitution of taxation for personal services, a development that allowed individuals to spend their time on what they know and love -- on tasks in which they have a comparative advantage. Being more productive as a result of this freedom, individuals can spare more of the fruits of their labor for the community.
This move from services in kind to financial payment by taxes was and is a matter of personal liberty. Such a transition was essential if individuals were no longer to be serfs in service to their lord or other communal authorities. Except for a military draft (which should be contemplated only in dire emergencies), individuals these days are mostly free to engage in voluntary activities for the benefit of themselves and others.
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.
It's probably not an accident that many American groups who tend to favor greater government largesse are relatively stingy in their own donations to charity. Nor do I think it an accident that Americans are the most generous people in the world, while the few European countries that have universal military or community service have populations that fall far short of America's in donating their time and money to the less fortunate. 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.
By bringing voluntary charitable activity under government control and by presenting his scheme as a "civilian national security force," Mr. Obama is breaking down the barriers between private and public life, between individual choice and government programs, between childhood education and adult employment, and between the diversity of freely chosen efforts on behalf of one's neighbors and subservience to the government's vision of the good.
Obama's College Service Programs.
I have already posted about Senator Barack Obama's proposal that all public middle and high school students perform community service, such as picking up trash, for 50 hours every year [typo corrected]. [In a later post, I will point to most of new service "Corps" that Barack is proposing, many of which would be open to college students.]
100 HOURS OF COLLEGE SERVICE
There has been little discussion so far of his program for college students. The first thing to note about it is that it is voluntary, though the funding is so extensive (and expensive) that almost all college students will be induced to do 100 hours of service each year at an effective salary of $40 an hour tax free.
Obama proposes to achieve almost universal service for the nation's 17 million college students by offering a refundable annual tax credit of $4,000 toward college tuition. This program should cost about $65-100 billion a year, perhaps more if it substantially increases the number of students attending college. In return for the credit, college students will be required to perform 100 hours of community service every year for four years. By offering college students a hefty $40 an hour, Mr. Obama will ensure that nearly every college student will participate in his program, without actually making their service mandatory.
So, if a student graduates from college, he will have done on average about 11 years of community service, at a minimum of 50-100 hours each year. Almost all college graduates will have spent a total workweek equivalent of at least four to five months of their lives working in Mr. Obama's "national security force," starting at the tender age of 11.
"BARACK OBAMA WILL REQUIRE YOU TO WORK."
The school service programs give context to the much talked about comments of Michelle Obama back in February.
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.
I had seen these words quoted many times, but I thought them either taken out of context or just Michelle Obama's own quirky interpretation of what she thought her husband expected of Americans. What I hadn't realized until a day or two ago is that her speech was delivered to college students at UCLA. That Michelle Obama was talking to students makes her words dovetail nicely with Barack Obama's service programs for this segment of society.
So Michelle's vision was one insider's view of Barack Obama's mandatory service programs for all public middle school and high school students and the nearly universal voluntary service program for college students.
Essentially all of the factual claims in the quoted passage of Michelle Obama's speech are true. He will "require you to work." He will "demand . . . that you move out of your comfort zones. . . . And that you engage." And it's fair to say that "Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved . . . ." The rest of her comments (about becoming better, less cynical, and more informed) indicate her aspirations for what service will accomplish, and reflect pretty standard views of people in the service movement and of people in the left-wing educational reform movement to bring communities into the schools and schools into the community.
TOO NARROW A VISION OF SERVICE
Commenters about existing mandatory service programs often claim that public schools have too narrow a view of service, often excluding service by Boy Scouts and churches. Obama hasn't yet said much about what doesn't count as service, but he has said enough to cause me to worry.
Obama proposes to move from college work-study to "Serve-Study." He plans to mandate that 25% of college work-study jobs be directed away from working on campus, "such as in libraries and dining halls," to working in the community, eventually hoping to raise that proportion to 50% of all college work-study employment.
Thus, Obama wouldn't count as "service" my wife's college work-study job (years ago) as a weekend librarian in the University of Chicago's School of Social Work, but if my wife had done one of Barack Obama's preferred tasks, picking up trash in the slum behind the School, Obama would count that as service.
Reasonable people may differ on whether aiding in the education of social work students is more valuable than picking up trash. Yet in my wife's student days, picking up trash would probably have done little good in the long run because (as the Boston Globe revealed) the government-supported housing projects developed or managed by Obama's clients, friends, and biggest contributors within 500 yards of the back of Chicago's School of Social Work were allowed to deteriorate, pretty much destroying most of the improvements made in that neighborhood.
Obama's New "Corps" And Other Service Programs.
Senator Barack Obama is proposing to remake American society in a way that the American public does not yet understand.
In his July 2, 2008, speech calling Americans to national service, Obama departed from his prepared remarks to announce his support for a mysteriously named "civilian national security force":
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.
Many commentators were stumped. What is this "civilian national security force" that must be as well funded as the military? Is it merely our existing civilian national security force, the militia, or perhaps the FBI and the CIA? Or was Obama referring to some thuggish new paramilitary street organization?
The answer to this mystery is not hidden. It is prominently displayed in Obama's speeches and in the position papers on his website. Obama is referring, neither to the militia nor to a reincarnation of the Brownshirts, but rather to his unprecedented plans for universal community service for young people and for hugely increased funding for a myriad of voluntary service programs for the rest of us.
Earlier posts dealt with mandatory service for middle and high school students, voluntary service for college students, and college "Serve-Study" laid out in Obama's speeches and his "Plan for Universal Voluntary Citizen Service." This post covers his other service programs.
A. Green Job Corps, YouthBuild Program
Although Obama's education proposals would effectively reach over 90% of the 47 million middle, high, and college students in the country (perhaps leaving out only private secondary school children), what about the 2 million young people who are out of school and unemployed or in prison? To reach young prisoners and the young unemployed, Obama will add a new Green Job Corps, "an energy-focused youth jobs program," and expand by six-fold the YouthBuild Program, which teaches housing construction to low-income youth.
B. AmeriCorps VISTA, Experience Corps, Senior Corps
What about the middle-aged and older Americans not covered by these programs for the young? Obama plans to enlist retirees in his civilian national security force "on a large scale" and to expand service programs for baby-boomers and the elderly: AmeriCorps VISTA, the Experience Corps, and other Senior Corps programs.
C. Classroom Corps, Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, Veterans Corps, Homeland Security Corps, Peace Corps, Global Energy Corps
Among other "transformative" community service proposals, Obama will more than triple the number of full-time AmeriCorps members to 250,000 and distribute these new members among five new "Corps":
1. a Classroom Corps for teachers and students;
2. a Health Corps to improve public health;
3. a Clean Energy Corps to conduct weatherization and renewable energy projects;
4. a Veterans Corps to assist veterans at institutions; and
5. a Homeland Security Corps to deal with emergencies.
Not only will "Barack Obama . . . double the Peace Corps to 16,000 by its 50th anniversary in 2011 and push Congress to fully fund this expansion," but he will create a "Global Energy Corps to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions overseas and promote low-carbon and affordable energy solutions in developing nations."
Barack Obama is proposing so many new "Corps" that he runs out of distinctive names for them. Note that his new Global Energy Corps is not to be confused with his new Clean Energy Corps and his new Green Job Corps.
D. Social Investment Fund Network, Social Entrepreneurship Agency for Nonprofits, Corporation for National and Community Service
But Obama is far from finished:
Barack Obama will create a Social Investment Fund Network, . . . a government-supported nonprofit corporation, similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, that will use federal seed money to leverage private sector funding to improve local innovation, test the impact of new ideas and expand successful programs to scale.
He promises us that this new corporation will not be just a single entity, but it will involve "a network of funds."
That's not all; he's going to create a "Social Entrepreneurship Agency for Nonprofits":
Barack Obama will a create an agency within the Corporation for National and Community Service dedicated to building the capacity and effectiveness of the nonprofit sector.
Note the tone of these proposals: none of this false modesty about proposing these new agencies and Corps to Congress and working for their passage. His Plan simply declares: "Barack Obama will create" this; "Barack Obama will create" that.
All these programs are just the ones listed on the service pages of his campaign website. This list doesn't include his most expensive program: health care. All these add up to the biggest expansion of the US government since FDR. If Obama gets most of what he wants, he will make libertarians look more fondly on the relatively modest proposals of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.