work, not service

Candidate Barack Obama, July 2:

    “I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program—this will be a central cause of my presidency.”

President Elect Barack Obama, Nov. 22:

    “We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels; fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.”

These two statements seemed to be about different topics. The first was an argument for increasing the number of federally-funded civilian “service” slots to as many as 250,000; the second announced a plan to create or save 2.5 million full-time jobs, mostly in the private sector. The first makes us think of unpaid volunteering or short-term, low-paid positions in nonprofits and government agencies. The second conjures images of permanent, salaried employees in labs or on corporate assembly lines. “Service” is about personal values: patriotism, civic virtue, caring, or helping–a “thousand points of light.” Job programs are about macroeconomic growth and take-home pay for hard-working Americans.

I think the two ideas should be combined, and “work,” not “service,” should be the hallmark of “active citizenship” in the Obama Administration. I have never been very enthusiastic about service on its own. It is marginal–a lower priority than one’s job or family, something to do after work, on special occasions, or during adolescence or retirement. People involved in service tend to be congratulated and thanked regardless of their impact, whereas workers are expected to get the job done. Service makes the recipients look weak and needy, whereas work is an exchange for mutual benefit.

Service programs, such as Americorps, can certainly be great for the volunteers and the community. But that is because they provide work, albeit with a strong and commendable element of civic education for the workers. Meanwhile, a full-time, paid job in the private sector can also be “active citizenship,” if we allow, support, and encourage the employees to work on public problems (such as modernizing schools or building wind farms).

As I wrote here recently, the Obama Administration can restore a New Deal version of liberalism whose central task is to put people to work for the public good. Private sector jobs are part of that, especially if federal subsidies, incentives, or mandates steer these jobs toward public purposes. Public sector careers at every level, military service, and civilian service programs such as Americorps are also important. So is an educational system that prepares people for public work. Students will need a strong dose of civic education so that they can discuss and define the public problems that they choose to address as workers. It is not enough to prepare them for an increasingly competitive job market; they also need to shape that market for public purposes.

I would admire this form of liberalism at any time, because of its ethical conception of the citizen as an active, creative agent. But today seems an especially appropriate moment to bring back the New Deal conception. We need jobs programs for standard economic reasons; and our newly elected president has pledged to make “active citizenship … a central cause.”

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