Monday, August 22, 2016

Fair Share America #2: Skin in the Game

If you're an American citizen reading this, think for a moment of your civic obligations to the nation. By that I mean the specific actions that Uncle Sam requires of all Americans.  Not the so-called "civic duty" things you can do if you want to, like voting. I mean things you have to do or Uncle Sam will put you in jail.

While you're thinking, consider this quote from a future history of an alternative past:
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the USA was emotionally united as it had not been since World War II. But emotions being the fragile and fickle things they are, there was no guarantee that the feeling would produce long-standing unity. Seizing the opportunity, President George W. Bush, together with leaders of both parties, used as a model the citizen militia of revolutionary days and prepared legislation that established a Homeland Service Department in which all American citizens were obligated to serve.  "All of us are American citizens," Bush told his countrymen and women, "and all of us, as American citizens, must do our part to protect our country and our way of life." Overwhelmingly approved by both houses of Congress, the result was a program--carried out, as was the old militia, in cooperation with the states--that dwarfed any civil defense or public works program ever before attempted in the United States. Everyone between the ages of 16 and 75 worked one week a year doing jobs such as screening airport baggage, patrolling harbors, rebuilding infrastructure, and assisting in daycares, schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. It took a while to work out the kinks, but by the beginning of 2004 the program settled into the same kind of routinized regularity that characterizes Social Security. Among the many positive ripple effects of the program were a sharp rise in voting to the regular 96-97% participation rate seen today (2046), a return to the citizen militia administered by the states within Federal guidelines, a consequent downsizing of the professional military, universal healthcare, a guaranteed income for all, and a decrease in the size of the Federal spending to the point that the national debt was retired in 2037.
The road not taken. We don't even imagine that such a road exists, even though it is not such a far-fetched extrapolation from the thinking and the experience of the Founding Fathers.

Why can't we think along these lines? As the nation has gotten wealthier, the more it has liquidated (meaning monetized) civic participation--the more professionalized civil service has become. Once upon a time the national defense was the responsibility primarily of a citizen militia, which, when there were no Indian wars to fight, built roads, put out fires, and performed police services. Those days are long gone. The army became a standing, professional one, and the work of the public became the job of professionals.

Not that this is necessarily or always a bad thing (says the former civil servant), but it has meant the complete alienation of civil work from the body of the citizenry to the point that we have forgotten that it's possible and sometimes desirable to do things another way.

The answer to the opening question of this blog? Pay your taxes (or at least file). That is all Uncle Sam demands from everyone in the way of service. Uncle Sam is a money machine.

Why would we want to revive this idea of civic obligation? Jon Stewart has come out in favor of a civil service year (and here is an organization promoting the idea). He says "we've lost something." Presumably he means universal service through a military draft. Well, actually, since the draft only applied to young men, we never had it in the first place.

His point (if he thought it through :-)) is more "we need something." The something we need is for Uncle Sam to require something of us other than money. If Uncle Sam is only about money, then inevitably those with more money are of more civic value to our dear Uncle.

If Uncle Sam is also about service, and if the service comes from all of us, then civic value attaches to us personally. There will be an end to monetized alienation, and the return of the prodigal will be cause for celebration.

Let the Follies commence!

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