A. Obama on National Service.
In Barack Obama’s July 2, 2008 speech calling America to national service, Obama proposed “a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded” as our military.
This has prompted some in the blogosphere to raise the specter of a huge new domestic paramilitary organization. Others suggest that he may have been talking about our “current non-military security agencies - FBI, CIA, NSA, DEA, DHS, etc.”
I think that both interpretations are probably wrong. If you listen to the whole speech –- or even the couple minutes before his security force proposal — I think that it’s reasonably clear that Obama is talking about expanding a range of domestic and international agencies such as AmeriCorps, the Foreign Service, and the Peace Corps — and adding some new ones.
The two controversial sentences (shown below in bold) were not in the transcript of Obama’s prepared remarks. Because the lines seem as if they were crafted ahead of time, I wonder whether the language was cut from an earlier draft, but Obama decided to deliver the sentences anyway.
Here is Obama on national service (the controversial passage starts at about 16:00; I have also corrected some slight errors in the transcriptions posted by other bloggers):
Undoubtedly, much of what Obama is talking about is also proposed on his website, for example:
Just as we must value and encourage military service across our society, we must honor and expand other opportunities to serve. Because the future of our nation depends on the soldier at Fort Carson, but it also depends on the teacher in East LA, or the nurse in Appalachia, the after-school worker in New Orleans, the Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, the Foreign Service officer in Indonesia. . . .
Today, AmeriCorps – our nation’s network of local, state and national service programs – has 75,000 slots. And I know firsthand the quality of these programs. My wife Michelle once left her job at a law firm at city hall to be a founding director of an AmeriCorps program in Chicago that trains young people for careers in public service. These programs invest Americans in their communities and their country. They tap America’s greatest resource – our citizens.
That’s why as President, I will expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 slots, and make that increased service a vehicle to meet national goals like providing health care and education, saving our planet and restoring our standing in the world, so that citizens see their efforts connected to a common purpose. People of all ages, stations, and skills will be asked to serve. Because when it comes to the challenges we face, the American people are not the problem – they are the answer.
So we are going to send more college graduates to teach and mentor our young people. We’ll call on Americans to join an Energy Corps to conduct renewable energy and environmental cleanup projects in their neighborhoods all across the country. We will enlist our veterans to find jobs and support for other vets, to be there for our military families. And we’re going to grow our Foreign Service, open consulates that have been shuttered, and double the size of Peace Corps by 2011 to renew our diplomacy.
We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we've set. We've got to have a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.
He will establish a Classroom Corps to help teachers and students, with a priority placed on underserved schools; a Health Corps to improve public health outreach; a Clean Energy Corps to conduct weatherization and renewable energy projects; a Veterans Corps to assist veterans at hospitals, nursing homes and homeless shelters; and a Homeland Security Corps to help communities plan, prepare for and respond to emergencies.
So I think it’s incorrect to think that Obama is proposing some new paramilitary organization or is just referring to the FBI or the CIA.
B. Comments on Obama's Proposal
The part of Obama’s comment that may be a genuine cause for concern is his statement that this civilian force has to be “just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded” as our military.
1. First, Obama is suggesting a fundamental restructuring of our national government with civilian service organizations becoming roughly as important and as expensive as our military. He is proposing to carve another large slice out of the private sector and assign it to the government.
As his website makes clear, Obama is proposing to "Require 100 Hours of Service in College" and grant a $4,000 tax credit to college students for 100 hours of community service work, an effective wage of $40 an hour.
Further, Obama proposes to divert fully a quarter of college work study funds away from work in college libraries and student services to serving the larger community. (As someone who went to Yale College on a full need scholarship and did work-study, the university would probably have had to hire someone else to do much of the work that I did. Over two years I also did unpaid tutoring in a local high school.)
Require 100 Hours of Service in College: Obama will establish a new American Opportunity Tax Credit that is worth $4,000 a year in exchange for 100 hours of public service a year.
2. Second, there is the cost. The US military has about 2 million members in service and about 650,000 civilians employed by the Defense Department. Its proposed FY2009 budget is about $585 billion.
Today, before Obama’s expansions, AmeriCorps currently has about 1.875 million members in its various programs: 75,000 in the main AmeriCorps program, 500,000 seniors in the SeniorCorps, and 1.3 million students in the Learn and Serve America program. Obama’s proposed increases in AmeriCorps alone would lead to at least the 175,000 new members mentioned in his speech, bringing the AmeriCorps total to at least 2,050,000 members, about the same as the military’s 2 million members. While the military also has about 650,000 civilian employees, it is unclear how big the existing bureaucracy is at AmeriCorps and other parts of Obama's civilian security force.
With Obama’s proposed increases in the Foreign Service, the Peace Corps, and other agencies — not to mention the existing and expanded bureaucracies to run them — the total number of members of Obama’s civilian national security force should range from about 2.1 to 2.7 million members and staff, roughly the same numbers as are employed by the Department of Defense.
Yet the current budget of AmeriCorps is under $1 billion, as is the Peace Corps’. The budget of the Defense Department, on the other hand, is about $585 billion, over $200,000 per employee. Although the equipment costs involved in Obama’s civilian national security force would be small compared to the equipment needs of the military, they would not be trivial (building infrastructure is one of Obama's more expensive goals). (Further, pension and health care costs for former members of the military take up a significant minority of military funding.)
The Heritage Foundation reports that spending on military personnel averages $70,000 per member, though it is not clear what that entails.
If Obama is talking about funding his civilian national security corps at the same level as the military, he would need at least an additional $500 billion.
Even though Peace Corps volunteers are poorly paid under the existing program, the agency’s annual budget is still about $43,000 per Peace Corps volunteer, not a trivial amount. If pay for Peace Corps volunteers and funding for their programs were raised to military levels, the per capita cost of the program would probably increase several fold. If one raised funding for Obama’s civilian corps only to the same level as the military spending on personnel only ($70,000 per member), we would require at least $150 billion in additional annual funding.
These staggeringly huge numbers are driven in part by the large numbers of students in AmeriCorps, 1.3 million of them. If the students were paid only $4,000 each, rather than $70,000 in personnel costs, and the student program is assumed to be otherwise completely free to administer, and the rest of AmeriCorps cost $100,000 per member, then the budget increase needed would be about $100 billion.
Also, is Obama going to expand the GI Bill to cover the 2-3 million people in Obama’s civilian national security force? If they deserve the same power, strength, and funding as the military, why not?
So – if Obama means what he says – his civilian national security corps would cost at least another $100 billion a year, and perhaps as much as $500 billion a year. With total federal income taxes of $935 billion in 2005, Obama's proposal would mean using up to half of all federal income tax revenues just to fund his promise “to have a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded” as the military.
3. Last, given the dangers and the sacrifices that our fighting men and women are making every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, is it really fair to suggest that AmeriCorps and similar programs should be “just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded” as the military?
Times have certainly changed. I hesitate to think what the American public would have thought of a politician during World War II who suggested that those donating their time to tutoring, visiting the sick, or leading blackout drills on neighborhood watches on the homefront should be “just as well funded” as those serving in the military. My grandfather, who was too old to serve in WW II and led such neighborhood drills, was a man whom I admired more than anyone else I knew while I was growing up. I’m certain that my grandfather would have thought Obama’s suggestion to be strangely lacking in proportion and simple common sense.