Fareed Zakaria very kindly mentions my 1992 book in his argument for national service. But my dirty little secret is that, in the intervening years, I lost enthusiasm for this particular solution to our overarching national problem (that the country is coming apart, in ways that undermine our sense of social equality). Mainly, national service seemed unlikely to happen. In the booming ’90s, kids wanted to get on with their careers, not spend a year fixing up parks or serving in the military. The all-volunteer military force had replaced the draft and the Pentagon was happy with the change (even if it meant diminishing interaction between the people who fight our wars and the rest of society). At the turn of the century it looked far more likely that some kind of Medicare-style national health care system–everybody waiting in the same waiting room, etc.–might do the job of providing a common experience where Americans interact as equals.
But I was wrong, and Zakaria’s right, I think: The case for national service is stronger than ever. Three reasons:
1. Health care is no substitute: Obamacare may have tenuously established the principle that everyone should be able to get coverage, but it also left the health care sector more stratified than ever, with the middle class mainly on employer plans, working class on (often inferior) Obamacare exchange plans, the poor shunted onto Medicaid. (If you have a low income you weren’t permitted to buy a plan on the Obamacare exchanges even if you were willing to pay full price. Talk about a caste system.) Maybe some version of Medicare for All will get everyone in the same waiting room–with only the top 10%, say, paying to get out of the common system. But it looks like it will be a while before that happens. Meanwhile…
2. The centrifugal forces are stronger: It’s not just that the economic and social gap between the affluent and the non-affluent is growing, and that it’s still correlated with invidious differences in “merit” that render it especially toxic. There are other gaps. Zakaria notes the urban rural divide, the nasty Trump vs. anti-Trump tribalism, and the fractiousness of identity politics and the centripetal effect of multiculturalism. Time to get BLM supporters and Magahatters together, somewhere other than the DMV.
3. What else are they going to do? Instead of worrying they might have to delay their careers, young adults are contemplating the possibility they won’t have careers at all — at least not careers in the traditional sense. If you’re looking at a life on the UBI, engaging (at best) in various non-remunerative aesthetic pursuits while robots do all the real work, a year spent in service — or maybe a few months every few years — may seem less of a sacrifice, even a relief. Something non-artisanal for a change