Washington Menu: Universal Service, Public Service and Self Service

I have written in the past about universal service for all Americans, not military service only, but a whole range of “opportunities” – from working in our underfunded public schools to cleaning up our national parks to rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, from the Peace Corps to the Civilian Conservation Corps – and nobody ever disagreed. It seems as American as my mother and that pie she never baked. And yet it isn’t going to happen, at least not in my lifetime. Just like bipartisanship – which we all want until someone on our team actually tries to reach across the aisle.

Every Republican platform since 2004 has declared the party’s opposition to “the reinstatement of the draft whether directly or through compulsory national service.” The Democratic Party’s 2016 platform used the phrase “universal service” only once – and it was about the post office. Fervently committed to individualism, the Libertarian Party doesn’t appear to believe in any kind of service. Its platform calls for “the abolishment (sic) of the Internal Revenue Service and opposes “any form of compulsory national service.” Only the Green Party endorses “new opportunities for citizens to serve their communities through non-military community service.” Its platform specifically advocates reviving the CCC “to work on the tasks of environmental education, restoration of damaged habitats, reforestation, and cleaning up polluted waterways.” The Green Party got one percent of the vote.

One oft-cited reason for why universal service can’t work is its high cost – although as one person wrote, “Sure it’s expensive, but what is the price of the republic?” But I think in today’s America it is doomed by the two words themselves. “Universal” means it will be mandatory – as in mandate – and we all know how popular that made Obamacare. As for “service,” putting the needs of the community before your own self-interest seems a concept that’s missing in action these days.

For evidence, look no further than Jared Kushner, one of the most powerful people in America, a position for which he seems spectacularly unqualified. I mean, even I got a Top Secret clearance. Revelations in the wake of his downgraded security clearance suggest that, if he’s not engaged in outright self-dealing, then he has a staggering inability to distinguish his tangled private interests from the public trust. That hardly makes him an outlier in an administration in which divesting your holdings, disclosing your tax returns or buying reasonably price office furniture is only for chumps. And the Trumps are not alone. It seems that if you aren’t rich when you get to Congress, you are when you move over to K Street.

As autocrats from Jacob Zuma to Robert Mugabe to Vladimir Putin have recently made clear, one sure way to kill a democracy is to turn it into a slush fund for family and friends.

It is said that when Harry Truman retired from the presidency in 1953, he and Bess got in their old car and drove themselves back home to Independence, Missouri, where they lived on Harry’s World War I army pension in the house they had shared with Bess’s mother. The onetime haberdasher and former machine politician, a man without a college degree, refused all corporate job offers for fear he would diminish the integrity of the presidency. How quaint.

James G. Blaine

About James G. Blaine

Most of us undervalue what seem our tiny contributions to our communities and the world. As a result, we feel powerless, even victimized. But, like the butterfly effect in science, the lives we lead with our families, in our communities, and at work – all the so-called little things we do – collectively change the world. As I grow older, my ambition grows more modest but not less important: to participate fully and to contribute what I can. That’s my goal with this blog.