The most famous torment of Greek myth was the punishment of Tantalus (the origin of our word “tantalize”), who was cursed to be forever hungry and thirsty with food and water just out of reach. Focusing on what might have been is invariably jarring, which is why psychologists warn against spending a lot of time thinking about what might have been if only circumstances were different.
But sometimes the psychological toll is worth it, because that process can also remind us of what we should be aspiring to.
So what might we be doing now – what might have been – if we had a functioning President leading a party with more noble aspirations for America than letting our states go bankrupt and appointing as many unqualified right-wing warriors to lifetime judgeships as possible before Donald Trump’s term ends?
For one thing, Congress might be exercising stricter bipartisan oversight on the almost $3 trillion it has appropriated for pandemic-related economic relief, which could have prevented at least some of the cascade of waste and outright larceny now underway. The Senate in particular might be acting as an independent co-equal branch of government, as the Constitution intended, rather than rubber-stamping “attaboy” on every administration screwup.
We could be following the lead of countries like Germany, which has created a short-term government work program for which a half-million companies have already signed up their employees. Or the United Kingdom, which is paying 80% of freelance workers’ incomes as well as most salaries for companies that retain their workers. Japan is paying up to half the cost of domestic travel and handing out coupons for tourist locations, while Australia is looking to younger workers by aiming to preserve 120,000 apprentice jobs. Switzerland is fast-tracking relief for small businesses hit hard by the pandemic so they don’t have to navigate a labyrinthian bureaucracy or wait weeks to get an infusion of liquidity.
Meanwhile, here in the US, our “small business” lending program has been looted by huge corporations, and hobbled by cronyism. Minority business owners are being almost entirely shut out. And every day we’re greeted with headlines like, “As Hunger Swells, Food Stamps Become a Partisan Flash Point” and “USDA Let Millions of Pounds of Food Rot While Food-bank Demand Soared.”
We might also be pursuing less ephemeral economic interventions, aimed not only at carrying us through the current crisis, but also at building more lasting benefits for our nation. Investments in transportation infrastructure or measures to combat global warming are the usual candidates.
But there is one kind of intervention that is relatively straightforward and would meaningfully advance both our public health and economic conditions — one that is not happening, really needs to be, and likely would be under slightly different circumstances. We could be pursuing a vast expansion of our national service programs, particularly those which focus on hiring young workers.
Sound like a small thing? It’s not. Recruiting a cadre of hundreds of thousands of young workers to conduct contact tracing would actually be a game changer in short-circuiting the current COVID-19 outbreak and limiting future outbreaks. On the economic side of the coin, experts say that a significant increase in disease surveillance capacity is key to restarting the economy safely in conjunction with testing, which the regime has failed to ramp up with any sense of urgency.
It would also provide a vital direct economic boost by employing the labor segment that is probably the hardest-hit right now. The World Economic Forum finds that “young adults are disproportionately at risk of job losses from COVID-19,” a problem made all the more severe by the threat that colleges will not be able to re-open in the Fall, flooding the market with more available labor.
The Great Depression showed that giving young workers productive employment affords a critical infusion of income and morale. A case study of the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) found that it brought “tangible benefits to the health, educational level, and employment expectancies of almost three million young Americans, and it also gave immediate financial aid to their families.”
Even if it is not at the same massive scale as the 1930s, we might put some of the 30 million newly unemployed back to work today across a full range of desperately needed national service tasks beyond contact tracing, many of which can be conducted remotely (think check-ins for homebound seniors, expanding poison control call-in support, advising students aspiring to college, providing virtual activities and learning support for elementary and pre-k kids, and bolstering state legal aid). It would not only put dollars into people’s pockets, it would also bolster the support infrastructure that sustains the well-being and productive capacity of our people during this pandemic.
The CCC model also showed the potential to achieve an additional, less tangible benefit, but one that is no less meaningful: “The CCC gave to its enrollees both a new understanding of their country and a faith in its future. Youths from the teeming cities learned something of rural America, boys from farms and country hamlets became acquainted with the complexities and ethnic variation of their land and its people. Both emerged…with a greater understanding of America, and of Americans.”
That is exactly the kind of thing we need today, because there is a third American crisis happening right now, one where a massive infusion of national service personnel could have a lasting impact: our ongoing devolution into political tribes and psychological separation into mental (and social media) filter bubbles across American society.
It is this underlying condition that is protecting an obviously unfit chief executive and enabling so much congressional dysfunction. The impact of these problems has been painfully demonstrated in recent weeks, since Donald Trump’s disastrous leadership failures are directly responsible for an estimated 67,000 of the approximately 75,000 American COVID-19 deaths (as of this writing). Tribal politics have caused Americans to divide starkly on their views of the pandemic according to political ideology, and that divide has palpably weakened our response.
The COVID-19 crisis has acted as a further accelerant for these baseline cultural challenges, fraying our social bonds and deepening our polarization as Republican and Democratic leaders take divergent paths on re-opening.
In fact, any hope of achieving real solutions for our other big societal problems – global warming, access to affordable health care, rational and empathetic immigration policy, fair labor practices – rests on flattening a different kind of curve: the polarization trend lines that have carried the Republican Party so far to the right and set off a chain-reaction of American political breakdowns. The conservative movement is enabled by devoted activists who thrive on a state of partisan pitched battle, and no one has benefitted from juicing that battle more than Donald Trump.
A surge plan for our national service programs – especially those aimed at younger Americans – would be a long term investment in starting to unwind these trends.
By intelligently organizing young workers into units drawn from across different states and American subcultures (urban and rural, ethnic, socioeconomic), and giving workers common challenges to work through, we might create new shared identities and social links across political islands (this approach is already embedded in AmeriCorps DNA in its City Year program) and create touchpoints across American divides that can reinforce social fabric, reduce isolation, and combat the kind of anger and unrest that is getting channeled (with right-wing money and organizing) into anti-lockdown protests.
Would that magically heal our politics overnight? Of course not – our current political debacle arose over more than a quarter century of societal shifts, and will take a long time to fix. Social scientists have shown that this kind of change happens as the generational mix in our society changes. But the only way to accelerate a saner future is through interventions aimed at younger people now. And steps that erode the partisan bastions even a little bit can start to have immediate returns, as we try to work our way out of the Trump era.
So is a national service surge only a tantalizing might-have-been? Perhaps. But it would be very doable.
Congress has already provided a start on adding support for our core national service programs, and a group of nine U.S. Senators recently introduced a bill – which they are working to include in the next COVID-19 relief legislation – to significantly expand those programs tenfold to three quarters of a million jobs. The Senate group includes no Republicans, but a hefty number of prominent Republican leaders are outspoken supporters of the underlying value proposition of these efforts, from Senators like Rick Scott and Roy Blunt to Governors like Iowa’s Kim Reynolds, who is such a big fan of national service that she created a mirror state service corps.
Traci Kirtley, who was appointed by Governor Reynolds to serve on the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service and who has been working on the ground with national service programs for more than 15 years, says that in her experience this is an idea that has real appeal across parties. “It really isn’t that partisan,” says Kirtley. “Once people get that this isn’t volunteering but a professional service corps that provides tangible economic value for really small government investments, they tend to be really supportive.”
That is at least one thing we could and should be doing, and it is actually a comparative layup measured against some of the many other steps that other countries are trying and that we could be doing as well.
None of this a silver bullet. But a national service surge does offer a chance to make a lasting difference across the triad of America’s health, economic, and political challenges. And there are clearly many more options for things we could be doing, and would be doing…if only.