Wednesday, September 24, 2008

National Service, or National Disgrace

Calls for national service boomed forth on 9/11’s anniversary of the World Trade Center attack. It was a feel-good-America moment. But in no time, the Bush administration shoved aside that quaint notion of do-gooder volunteerism with a more urgent demand—that taxpayers dig deep to deal with a new disaster in lower Manhattan, the meltdown of Wall Street. I have a modest proposal. Why not address these twin disasters with the same solution: Let the stock market wheelers and dealers volunteer their services for free to fix the financial mess that was made on their watch.

Indeed, why not enlist a bunch of those high risk-happy traders, put ‘em in uniform and send them to track down the evil doers who attacked the World Trade Center. What seems to be lost in the drunken party-that-crashed story reported from Wall Street is that there’s a war going on. And those tipsy revelers who played high-stakes games with other people’s money did more damage to the American/international economy than Osama bin Laden could ever dream of accomplishing by smacking down the World Trade Center buildings.

While thousands of American soldiers fought and died in futile searches across the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan for the elusive mastermind behind 9/11, the Wall Street crowd partied on, smashing the furniture and breaking the bank back home.

Predictably, every time an administration in Washington gets into trouble, it calls for national service. Facing a youth revolt against the military draft during the war in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara called for “every young person in the United States to give two years of service to his country, whether in one of the military services, in the Peace Corps or some other volunteer developmental work at home or abroad.” That was the centerpiece of McNamara’s address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1966 and in his 1968 book, The Essence of Security.

Four decades later, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama and a host of other national figures are echoing the same theme. “We became a co-sponsor this year of a national service summit whose mission is to make national service a reality for all Americans,” Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time magazine, wrote in a special issue titled “21 Ways to Fix Up America” that featured McCain and Obama on the front cover. In side by side essays, the presidential contenders call for increased volunteerism in military service and civilian projects. There was no mention of helping fix a fiscal crisis. Time’s very next cover story (9/29) was titled “How Wall Street Sold Out America.”

This raises a serious question as to who is serving the national interest. Volunteerism has indeed been crucial to creating and sustaining the society of community enterprises that Americans love and visitors admire. But Wall Street’s financial gambling dens are a very different kind of creation, where greed greases every move. Maybe it’s time to close down the “investment” gambling dens. Surely, it’s long past time for public-spirited, national financial experts to foster a climate of prudently managing people’s money in community banks and local credit unions. Let’s see the financiers rise to the challenge and invest themselves in national service.

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