I start from the premise that I think I’ve made the case for wealth inequality and why it matters. If I haven’t, speak up or wade in to Piketty’s tome. I’m moving on.
There are no easy answers for closing the wealth gap. When we last had a gap like the one we have now we called it the Gilded Age. Levelers included the Great Depression, World War II, and, really, the American Century. While these events all played a major role in rebalancing, we certainly don’t wish for either of the first two.
My first idea? Mandatory national service for all young people, between high school and college/first job. My program comes with only one condition: everyone serves! But for really serious health conditions, no deferments and no exceptions, no matter how wealthy or special you/your parents think you are. Everything else, to paraphrase Rabbi Hillel, is commentary. (Here’s the Hillel story, for those who didn’t catch the reference.)
Obviously, a mandatory national service program requires lots of planning and coordination. Leave logistics aside for a few moments, though, and let me make the case.
The past 30-40 years have seen “segregation by class” in our nation. Let’s just take schools as an exemplar. I went to junior high and high school with the wealthiest kids in town, and it was a given that everyone went to public school, and that those schools included people from all walks of life. In Tucson that meant lots of Hispanics, a few blacks, many lower-middle class whites, and a small number whose parents were rich or upper-middle class. Now, not so much. Private schools abound. Charter schools self-select in many instances, resulting in a few schools full of high achievers, who often come from privileged homes.
In days past, the military provided a “common ground” for men. In World War II most everyone served, and it was not so different in Korea. And, of course, with Vietnam no so much!
Even work provided more opportunities for mixing in days gone by. More people were employed by smaller businesses, where they knew the bosses who owned the shop. And the bosses lived in the same community, and their children often went to the same schools. Etc.
We’re not returning to the 40s and 50s, and we don’t need for every young person to serve in the armed forces. However, a common experience for all can break down these barriers and, in doing so, add value to our common experience.
As it happens, we have a lab, in which my hypothesis has been tested. The lab is located in located in the Middle East, and it’s called Israel.
The experiment does not match on all fours, as in Israel compulsory service is military service. Alas, Israel has a population of about 8,000,000 and it has security issues. Nevertheless, Dan Senor and Saul Singer, in Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, give compulsory military service significant credit for Israel’s phenomenal economic success. (Immigration is the other factor they credit. Different country, and we’re not going there today!) Why? Several reasons: opportunities to develop skills, both technical and relational; a non-hierarchical environment; and just about everyone serves. (By the way, if you’re thinking it’s about the Jewish work ethic, intelligence, etc., Senor and Singer have tested for those factors and do not buy that thesis.)
Mandatory national service will not, alone, solve our wealth gap or, frankly, anything else. I don’t think we solve our problems without such a program, however. For me, it seems to be the least expensive and most efficient means for breaking down class barriers, and if we don’t break down those barriers, I think we’re stuck with what we have now.
Before I get to cost, what will this cadre of young people do? Plenty. We still have examples of the work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps around us everywhere, and those projects are pushing 80. It’s high time we invest in a redo of our infrastructure, and plenty of strong, young backs can get the job done. I haven’t gone beyond infrastructure in my thinking, but in a society that is pulling in one direction, we won’t have a hard time finding tasks that need completing.
So, about the money. Census figures reflect about 4,000,000 Americans in each age year between 15 and 24, so if we’re talking about two years of service we have to provide for 8,000,000 young adults. The CCC did its work in the 1930s for $480 per man, per month, plus room, board, medical, and dental. (That $480 is 2012 dollars.) Figure that today we need $1000 per month, per participant, all in, and total cost is $96 billion. “Too, too much,” you say, or “where’s his crack pipe?” That sum represents about 5% of the non-Social Security/non-Medicare portion of the federal budget, and less than .5% of annual Gross Domestic Product. Small dollars, really, to rebuild America and, in the process, start reconnecting ourselves as a society. (Two side benefits? Young people learn skills and, because young people need adult supervision, we have a built-in jobs program for lots of talented adults who need jobs.)
Note: I have a few more ideas. I’ll present them in the next couple of weeks, and wrap up this series with some thoughts about how we get started. In the meantime, comments welcomed.