Service economy

>> Friday, October 08, 2010

Apropos of nothing in particular, I've been thinking, lately, about this old FDR-bashing argument that was going around right-wing circles a while back: the claim that the New Deal didn't end the Great Depression, World War II did. It's a funny claim to hear from conservatives, not just because American conservatives were mostly on the wrong side of World War II up until Pearl Harbor made isolationism and fawning over the Chancellor Of Germany's economic and cultural accomplishments non-options, but because it's a (for want of a better phrase) profoundly retarded argument against government spending.

This ought to be self-evident and maybe not worth a blog post. If you take, for the sake of an argument, the proposition that World War II played a bigger role in ending the American Depression than New Deal policies did, the obvious question would be, "And how did it do that?" And the answer, just as obviously, is that the war effort prompted a massive glut of Federal spending. Not just in terms of all the indirect employment of Americans through government contracts for bullets, bombs, guns, airplanes, tanks, ships, typewriters, desks, cameras, field rations, bunks, tents, uniforms, and everything else you need to dress a boy up and send him to war; what the war also prompted was the massive hiring of millions of Americans into the direct employment of the Federal government, and if you want to talk about things in terms of socialism/capitalism or however you'd like to phrase it, those Americans employed by the armed forces (as opposed to all the Americans employed directly by the government for roles in "civilian" wartime capacities) were provided during their term of service with a small salary and room, board, clothes, job-training (ranging from service-specific job skills like operating a firearm to skills with broader applications like how to write reports, fly airplanes, repair machinery, etc.), complete medical care, etc., etc., etc. Not to mention, of course, the money that the Federal government poured into the public sector, e.g. spent on research programs at various universities across the country. Or poured into primarily-strategic projects with obvious secondary social benefits, such as electrifying rural Appalachia for the purpose of producing industrial aluminum (or separating uranium from pitchblende) with the immediate "incidental" benefit of bringing a chunk of the country stuck in the early-19th Century into the Modern Era.

Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.

So the obvious conclusion if you think WWII played a bigger role in ending the Great Depression than the New Deal did isn't that economic woes such as those we're currently suffering from can be solved by lowering taxes and cutting governmental spending, it's that we should get into a big awful war so the government has an excuse to raise tariffs and sell war bonds to offset deficit spending on bombing the shit out of Western Europe and East Asia. No, wait, that's a lousy idea, forget it (even if it's actually what one blogger accused Paul Krugman of recently saying). No, the sane obvious conclusion is that the government should raise revenue and spend like mad, sort of like what Paul Krugman actually recently advocated in a New York Times op-ed piece.

Anyway, I was thinking about this, and one of the things I was thinking about was that direct government employment business. Again, one of the things the Federal government did (was forced to do) in World War II was directly employ millions of young men and a smaller number of young women through the armed forces, the terms and conditions of their employment including (as mentioned) room, board, medical coverage, and so on. Of course, it wasn't ideal employment: associated job risks included being blown all to hell by somebody, lots of travel away from home, oh, and service was essentially involuntary--while it's certainly true a lot of Americans volunteered after Pearl Harbor, a draft was instituted in preparation for looming hostilities in 1940 and remained in effect through the course of the war, and it's not a disparagement of The Greatest Generation to remind readers that there were many brave and patriotic Americans on December 8th, 1941, whose primary goals included finishing college, working in the family business, going along about their lives, etc., with nary a thought of joining up to shoot and be shot at Axis soldiers; not to mention that even a volunteer service member can't exactly quit at will.

The reason I was giving that some thought was this: it stands to reason that we don't necessarily need a draft if, for the sake of discussion, the military has enough volunteer service members to fight the two wars1 we're currently in (and here's hoping we don't find a third somewhere). Also, honestly, I'm one of those basically pacifistic people who would take a bullet before he'd fire one at somebody; I'm not sure I'm as idealistically pacifistic as I was when I was younger and believing in things didn't require as much effort and I can't say I wouldn't, I don't know, drive an ambulance or blow up a bridge if there was zero chance of hurting anybody in the process, so I can't say I'd really count as a conscientious objector... but I bring it up just to say I'm not a fan of forced military service and would have to stand by my youthful feeling that if they'd reinstated the draft when I was young enough to go in, I would've gone to prison on principle; well, I'd like to think so, although I'm pretty craven and it's easy to say--maybe I would have been weak, instead.

I digress.

As I was saying, I was thinking about a draft, and I was thinking, "Well, if you don't need to have a military draft, could you morally and legally have a civilian draft, drafted into the Peace Corps, let's say?" Now, I want to say up front that this was a musing on my part, because some of my objections to the military draft go beyond being adverse to actual lethal violence2; I'm not a fan of enforced servitude or the state insisting that somebody go against their moral qualms, and while the idea of someone being a conscientious objector to community service might seem a little, I don't know, goofy somehow, I'm not really in a position to say it's actually out-and-out unreasonable. Anyway, the bottom line being: if there's a moral objection to forcing a person to drop everything he's doing to go shoot somebody, even if it's in the legitimate defense of his homeland, why couldn't there be similar moral objections to any other form of servitude for the national benefit? (And then there's the obverse argument: if the state can lay a claim to conscript you for national defense, is there really a meaningful difference between that and conscripting you for, say, agricultural service or building roads if its in the public interest? At which point one wonders if one of the objections to Selective Service ought to be that it seems perilously close to a slippery slope into Maoism, a system that uses utterly reprehensible and unjustifiable methods towards what might be conceded to be laudable goals or at least good intentions3.)

But that's all dependent on a draft, which isn't necessary. If what we're pondering is an expansion of government in which the country directly employs lots of citizens to go around doing good deeds, and in exchange the men and women in the service get three squares and a roof, medical coverage, an education, see the world, all that jazz, no doubt you'd have volunteers signing up, much as you have volunteers signing up for the version of that where you also agree you might get shot at in some locale with a name you can't properly pronounce.

All of this found a strange intersection when I visited my friend Janiece's blog and read a post she wrote pondering a national service requirement. Janiece writes:

This requirement would be for mandatory public service. A minimum term, say two to three years, to be completed by the time you're thirty years old. The requirement could be satisfied by any number of jobs - the only requirement being that the job must place the good of the citizenry ahead of the good of the individual. Here are some examples:

  • Military service
  • Fire fighting
  • Police
  • Public defenders
  • Doctors, nurses or other health care providers who work in clinics for the poor and underserved
  • Child care providers who provide care for the children of the poor and underserved
  • Public school educators who are willing to teach in inner-city, poor and underserved communities

You get the idea. The work must benefit society as a whole, and no one should be getting rich during their term of service. Service should be performed in this country, for the benefit of Americans.

Janiece's focus is on the disconnect between those who serve in the military and those who don't serve their country in any apparent way at all (aside, perhaps, from minor incidentals of living here) and bridging that gap.4 And although it's not quite raised explicitly until near the end of her piece, I think Janiece feels that some form of required national service would have moral benefits for the individuals involved and for the culture--it would be good for us, in other words, which is probably true.

Where it connects to my musings about the economy is that something like what Janiece suggests might be folded into an economic benefit for the country by inducing this massive peacetime mobilization. It's not just that this civilian army might be provided with necessities as serving members of the armed services are: the civilian army would require items contracted for by the government much as the military does. The civilian corps would need transportation, office supplies, food, clothing--everything, really, the military corps requires except for the advanced weapons systems (no doubt some big-ticket item could be substituted for Lockheed Martin to build for the civilian force).

Now, at what point does all of this start looking like, well, Maoism? Or does it already?

I'm a socialist. A bit on the conservative side of being one; quite a lot of hard-left European socialists would dub me a "champagne socialist" at best and a self-deluded reactionary at worst. I believe in a mixed-market economy, have no objection to private property and free enterprise--but believe in government regulation and that the People, operating through the state, should be able to take direct control of utilities when social justice or pragmatism require it.

But--well, I already drew a sort of hazy line in that last paragraph, didn't I? It's one thing to say that the People have an obligation to guarantee everybody medical care, a meal, a roof, an education, along with as much safety as can be ensured from invasion, crime, fire and other disaster. It's another thing to say that one way to do that is to create this, this, however you want to describe what I described above. And what if you wanted to create it by force, with a draft or mandatory "volunteerism"? Part of what informs my version of socialism is a form of civil libertarianism,5 and from that vantage, the whole thing sounds, well, icky.

I dunno. I'm really not advocating anything, just tossing it all up in the air. Anyone have any thoughts?

1I am happy to have anyone explain to me how the situation in Iraq is meaningfully different from the also-not-at-war situation in Vietnam in the years leading up to the Tonkin Gulf Incident, with military "advisors" and Special Forces operatives were on the ground and engaged in combat alongside Vietnamese regulars, but don't expect me to be especially convinced. I'm not saying their aren't differences between the situations--including the projected December 2011 deadline--but don't expect me to be too impressed by them.

2Fictional violence and nonlethal violence being completely severable, in my opinion.

3See also: road to Hell.

4Also, part of Janiece's concern was triggered by a comment made during a discussion on NPR reflecting disdain for national, specifically military service. That's a whole 'nother huge area that I'm not sure I'd like to get into now, although it might be relevant and definitely isn't irrelevant to all of this.

5At the heart of my mixed-up grab-bag of beliefs is a belief in the primacy of human dignity: there is no dignity in starving to death because there are no jobs to be had, just as there's no dignity in having the state tell you what you can't read. As you might infer from this (or maybe not), utilitarianism informs my views to a very great degree, though I'm not entirely sure I could be called a utilitarian.


timb111 Friday, October 8, 2010 at 9:29:00 AM EDT  

re: A Civilian draft for the common good

In Canada during the 60's at least driving through the Rockies my father would always keep a careful eye out to where the forest fires were burning. The problem being that the firefighting crews could and would stop cars on the highway and draft any able bodied men to fight the fire. This was a concern even though my mother couldn't drive and there were three young kids in the car. Canada is pretty socialist (at least compared to the US) so this didn't seem to be strange in any way. I think the idea that an individual has an obligation to contribute to society is more deeply embedded up here.

On the other hand forced draft has always been vigorously opposed in Canada and is one of the motivators behind the Quebecois separation movement.

"I am happy to have anyone explain to me how the situation in Iraq is meaningfully different from the also-not-at-war situation in Vietnam..."

Vietnam has rice and jungles, Iraq has oil. Cynical maybe, but there you have it.

Janiece Friday, October 8, 2010 at 1:45:00 PM EDT  

Eric, I don't have the answers, either, and you're right about the root cause of my concern. Having such a stark division between those who serve (and often go into harm's way) and those simply don't creates a social problem that I'm really uncomfortable with. The inherent unfairness of the situation will inevitably lead to the protectors having contempt for the protected, and no good can come of that.

If everyone was required to serve, not only would the economic benefits you mention accrue, but those who choose to go into harm's way on behalf of the whole would have the comfort of knowing that everyone provided some form of service in the larger society. In my opinion, I don't think Americans mind sacrificing for the common good. I think they mind if they feel they're the only ones being asked to do so for the "common good."

Leanright,  Saturday, October 9, 2010 at 1:35:00 PM EDT  

As a public defender, Eric, I'm sure you know that the examples Janiece mentioned require skills and education that often take well over two years to obtain.

If we were required to serve for the people, who would assist in paying for said education? Would we be responsible for our own costs and then not be able to recoup those funds until after our service? Would there be a government assistance program to help pay for those?

How about this: One could obtain their education and desired career, but must ALSO complete, say, 1000 to 1500 hours of volunteer service, perhaps related to their career of another area, and do this by 30 or 35 years old.

Janiece Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 8:02:00 PM EDT  

Leanright, it doesn't take any special skill to empty a bed pan or dig a ditch, but I understand your point.

And your suggestion has merit, although I'd make the requirement 4,000 hours, and give people until the age of 40 to retire them. Many school districts require 40 hours of service for graduation, which I heartily support.

I just don't want the tiny minority to be chronically taken advantage of by the vast majority as a matter of course.

Eric Monday, October 11, 2010 at 10:17:00 AM EDT  

I think Janiece has addressed your concerns, Dave. The only that I'd add is that the idea I was poking at in the post--and I'm still not sure if it's a good idea or a terrible one--was the idea of a sort of "civilian corps" along the lines of the armed forces: i.e. you'd be talking about government picking up the basic costs of living in much the same way government does so for those serving in the military.

As I think I've said here and in the comments thread for Janiece's post, I have ambivalence about service requirements: on the one hand, I agree with Janiece that it's appalling that more people don't willingly serve their civic communities in whatever capacity. On the other hand, I also don't like the idea of the collective ordering the individual around. Of course, on the other other hand (apparently our musing self is a Martian), it is absolutely necessary and appropriate for the individual to submit to the collective will for society to function: the classic, simple example is that we can't exactly afford to have rugged individualists deciding ad hoc to reject the communal authority represented by a stoplight. ("Red means 'go,' I sez, coz' I'm a 'merican and the guv'mint can't boss me 'round!")

Another personal response to the point you raise is that I'm a firm believer in nationalized education just as I believe in cradle-to-grave national health: keeping it simple, if I had my druthers, all individuals would be guaranteed some form of post-high-school education if they desired.

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