Hard times in America renew the call for mandatory national service

“If I get corona, I get corona.”

The news clip of the young man on a beach during spring break who refused to stop partying during the COVID-19 outbreak was jaw-dropping for many people — at least until the more horrifying images of overwhelmed emergency rooms, empty streets, shuttered stores and refrigerated trucks serving as hospital morgues overwhelmed our daily news feeds. One didn’t necessarily cause the other, but it sure made us wonder: Were we so self-centered, cynical or ignorant that we couldn’t take seriously the growing calls for social distancing?

The problem isn’t generational. After all, Tom Wolfe pinned the sobriquet “me generation” on the baby boomers back in the 1970s. And there were enough mixed messages from the so-called “adults in the room” in early March to make us wonder what had gone so wrong. Strip away the political mistrust, and we still suffer from a surplus of self-interest and a deficit of shared experience. And most of all, without a commitment to something other than oneself or one’s tribe, there is a gnawing fear that when the next crisis hits, we won’t be any better prepared. 

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The United States — and, indeed, the world — will get through the COVID-19 pandemic. And while we don’t know how many fatalities America will suffer, we can be certain of three things. First, there will be lots of finger-pointing, from all directions, blaming those who should have planned better, acted sooner, decided differently. Second, we will debate how we can do all of those things better the next time. And third, we will avoid identifying structural changes that could help prevent future such catastrophes.

The structural change that I keep coming back to — one that would at least create shared experience and, possibly, some shared values — is mandatory national service. We should seriously consider whatever has the potential to bring us together as a nation. The coronavirus has caused a cataclysmic shake-up of school, work, family and community that has brought out the best in some people, while exacerbating political distrust and isolation. We need something to help us rethink how we relate to each other.

Requiring every young person to perform one year of national service makes sense on many levels. The traditional arguments made on behalf of compulsory national service are still valid. It builds a sense of shared purpose, instills a sense of individual commitment, develops responsibility and exposes one to folks unlike oneself. Those are good things, for both the individual and for society. Delaying college or entry into the job market by a year or two will help coddled adolescents to mature.  

Most national service proposals emphasize these individual benefits as much as the tasks that would be addressed: child care, elder care, tutoring, environmental clean-up, to name just a few.  But both sets of objectives are needed. Moreover, a percentage of this young cohort undoubtedly would choose a military option, thereby sustaining our all-volunteer forces and broadening the military’s demographic mix — also a good thing.

But what makes the argument for mandatory national service even more salient today is simple economics. Despite a $2 trillion or even $3 trillion stimulus/safety net, the economy will not quickly “return to normal” soon. Young people finishing high school and college will not have the same opportunities or access to the paths that their friends from recently-graduated classes enjoyed. The need to get everyone back to work will be more imperative than ever. Older, more experienced Americans will clamor for jobs. So, diverting young people — who have little or no work experience — into national service will help spur overall employment and push up wages at the lower-end of the workforce.

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The cost of a mandatory national service program will not come cheap. There are about 4 million young people in each one-year age cohort from 18 to 22. Last year, for example, 3.7 million students graduated from high school. To train, house, feed and supervise 4 million young people for a year might cost $5,000 per person, or $20 billion annually. Even if we double the amount by putting aside another $5,000 for each young person in a savings account, a $40 billion annual expense is pretty small potatoes when compared to the trillions of dollars already appropriated for the coronavirus recovery.

Nor is mandatory national service an easy political sell. Ever since the military draft ended nearly 50 years ago, smart leaders from both sides of the aisle have supported national service — but usually not mandatory service. Former South Bend., Ind., mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegCNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' Former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan dies How Republicans can embrace environmentalism and win MORE promoted an expanded universal service program during his presidential campaign but never advocated for it to be mandatory. And retired Gen. Stan McChrystal pushed for required service in 2014, but has seemed to back off more recently in favor of a voluntary plan. 

Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of each age cohort chooses some variant of national service, including enlisting in the military.

Yet public sentiment seems to be trending towards a mandatory program. A Gallup poll in 2017 found that 49 percent of adults favored a mandatory requirement — with 57 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats in favor. The overall number rose to 63 percent in a 2018 Public Opinion Strategies poll. And in a purely unscientific sounding, I asked about a dozen younger colleagues — mostly parents of pre-teens — how they felt about mandatory national service. After all, as a baby boomer, it is not my generation, or my kids’ generation, who would be expected to serve. Surprisingly, to a person, they were in favor. And several thought that one year wasn’t enough.

Mandatory national service will not prevent the next pandemic, hurricane or foreign threat. Nor will it remedy the political distrust that poisons our national debate. But such shared experience will go a long way to instill self-discipline among the young and acquaint them with the value of focused, community action.

No, national service alone won’t solve all our problems. But it is a step in the right direction to address many of them.

Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP in New York. He is a former member of the board of directors of the United States Naval Institute.