Ten Miles Square

May/ June 2013 Bonds of Citizenship

A new route to universal national service and economic fairness.

By Adam Garfinkle

Of course, the GI Bill—which serves as a basic model for the baby bond idea—wasn’t cheap in the short term either. No serious investment in building social capital on a national scale comes cheap. The Civilian Conservation Corps was also expensive—but it worked, in economic as well as social terms. Just like the GI Bill and the CCC, the benefits of a baby bond/national service program would more than offset its costs over time. We already pay for prison and drug-related debilities that stem from poisonous inner-city and poor rural environments. We do not have to tolerate those financial and social costs. If we look at all the cost factors involved over the long term, a baby bond program would be an overall economic winner. As it is, every dollar spent on AmeriCorps volunteers pays back roughly two dollars in services rendered.

Besides, costs are relative. We know how many Americans will turn eighteen in any given year—around 4.4 million—and we can roughly estimate program costs. If we do that math, two things become clear: first, the United States, the wealthiest mass society in history, can afford the baby bond program; second, the costs are almost trivial compared to, say, the wars of choice we have fought over the past decade, not to mention the initial costs of the financial bailouts of the mid-2000s.

Note, too, that baby bond service would not be compulsory, and there would be no penalty for demurral. Government would incur no cost in tracking down truants and dodgers. If a person did not wish to do national service, the bond money would go back into the general pool to earn interest, pay for program operations, and help others. But once a culture of service was created, the opt-out rate would probably be relatively small, and would certainly decrease as the program got established.

Clearly, much more could be said about how this program would work and what the main challenges and benefits would be. Intervening in the negative social patterns in our inner cities, for example, shouldn’t wait until our young people turn eighteen; supplementary programs would have to be devised. There are a number of ways to do this. For example, 15 percent of our American high schools—about 2,000 institutions—produce the vast majority of dropouts; baby bonders serving in these so-called dropout factories would surely make an enormous difference.

And we can’t wait eighteen years from the passage of a bill to graduate our first baby bond class. We would have to devise ways to accelerate the program between now and 2031. Based on the already existing infrastructure of AmeriCorps and similar service organizations, surely we can find ways to scale up in the short term.

The patterns of undergraduate university life, too, would be altered as significant numbers of high school graduates performed national service instead of entering college at age eighteen or nineteen. But does anyone think it would be a tragedy for our young people to go to college a year or two later than most do now—and, likely, with service and life experience under their belt? This would likely benefit the vast majority of our kids and colleges. And universities may change their practices fairly dramatically, through technology-driven innovation, in the next few decades anyway. Integrating these educational improvements with a cadre of national service graduates would surely make the university experience more meaningful for many students—and benefit the larger American society, as well.

Adam Garfinkle is editor of the American Interest magazine and the author of the ebook Broken: American Political Dysfunction and What to Do About It, from which this article is adapted.


  • mnemos on May 08, 2013 7:01 PM:

    I like the overall idea, but have a couple of comments:

    1. Why discourage the military service option? Military service generates tremendous social capital.

    2. Why require the service be non-local? Democracy works in its most human way, from the ground up. It is true that some people could benefit from a change of location, but I don't see a general need to separate people from their communities and families. It makes the idea sound more like a cult than social capital improvement.

    While I like the idea of community service - and in particular I'm pleased that many of the high schools in my area have incorporated it into graduation requirements - reading about this national service idea doesn't quite fit my ideas about building social capital. I think of social capital as understanding and participating in community. That is done on the local level. Fixing the park in your own community helps you understand that you, as an individual, are an effective part of your community in a direct, tangible way. Working on something half way across the country doesn't accomplish the same thing. I know it is not a progressive viewpoint, but while progressive often have beautiful ideas, the weakness of progressive politics is sometimes a disconnect from the messiness and practical details of reality. I worry this would build the idea of community rather than build community - which can be a dangerous thing. It can enhance "in-group vs out-group" thinking - which is a part of what is making our politics dysfunctional. We blame the effects of details that were overlooked on the opposition of others.

    Back to the concrete example - cleaning up the park: if you clean up your own park, you have an investment in it the next time you are there. When you see litter you will think about how you cleaned it up, and probably pick it up - and you might notice there is no convenient garbage can. It's fine to be annoyed that someone littered in the park, but you know that if there isn't an available garbage can, it's going to happen again. But it's your community - you can get that garbage can in place.

  • Dave Thomas on May 09, 2013 1:08 AM:

    As soon as I see an argument that relies on the ambiguous idea of "fairness" I know the author is clueless.

    Freedom is the idea that Garfinkle needs to understand. All citizens require freedom to participate and not participate as they see fit to produce the strongest community possible.

    It's a basic concept that Adam is clueless about.

  • Christopher Bingham on June 04, 2013 11:39 AM:

    It smells like the precursor to a mandatory national service, which regardless of what the SCOTUS says, I've always regarded as involuntary servitude.

    I'm all for government guaranteed jobs. I'm all for giving people a stake to start a future. But this notion that people have to earn this falls into the idea that basic participation in society and government is earned. It it not. It's a birthright. We don't earn our right to vote and we all already have a stake in the country. The government serves the people, not the other way around.

    One of the reasons that The Netherlands has abandoned national service is because they figured out that pulling years out people's youth did help the system.
    They don't saddle their young with student loans, they encourage people to study and tax them later when they're higher earners.

    We already "circulate" our young through the public schools.