Invitation to a Dialogue - A National Service Program - NYTimes.com Published: February 14, 2012
David Brooks suggested in a recent column that the country needs a national service program to unite the diverging classes in society. He’s right.
Not long ago, we had one that did so very well. It was the draft. Every young man — regrettably, only men — shared a potential obligation to his country.
Any serious discussion of comprehensive national service means talking about a draft. It’s hard to imagine the Supreme Court upholding nondefense conscription, but if civilian service were an alternative to military duty, the prospects would improve.
The all-volunteer military is exemplary for its professionalism, sacrifice, meritocracy and diversity. (I have a son with two college degrees who enlisted.) But the benefits and burdens need to be shared more widely. There have been too many multiple deployments of regulars and reserves, and if draftees were in the mix once again, perhaps there would be no more wars of choice.
Many domestic needs could be served by a comprehensive national service program. Like the Depression’s best idea, the Civilian Conservation Corps, it could involve people from all classes in repairing our parks, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. It could also bring fresh ideas and talent to teaching, law enforcement, social work and other underpaid public services. The benefits to our national character, as Mr. Brooks suggests, would be immense.
There are past and present models of a national service program in more than a dozen other nations. It is time we gave it a try.
MARTIN A. DYCKMAN
Waynesville, N.C., Feb. 14, 2012
The writer is a retired associate editor and columnist for The St. Petersburg Times.
Editors’ Note: We invite readers to respond to this letter for our Sunday Dialogue. We plan to publish responses and Mr. Dyckman’s rejoinder in the Sunday Review. E-mail: email@example.com
LVTfan's observation: Every investment in improved infrastructure creates land value. Most projects that have value -- education, law enforcement, social work, improved public health -- will also increase land value.
A project is, by definition, worthwhile if it creates more in land value than it costs to do,* and, it could be argued that, when comparing two infrastructure projects that cost the same amount, say, $100 million, if one creates $200 million in land value and the other creates merely $150 million in incremental land value, the $200 million project should probably take priority, all other things being equal.
These projects, some will say, fall into the category of "pork" spending.
Pork barrel is the appropriation of government spending for localized projects secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative's district. The usage originated in American English. In election campaigns, the term is used in derogatory fashion to attack opponents. Scholars, however, use it as a technical term regarding legislative control of local appropriations.
The term pork barrel politics usually refers to spending that is intended to benefit constituents of a politician in return for their political support, either in the form of campaign contributions or votes. In the popular 1863 story "The Children of the Public", Edward Everett Hale used the term pork barrel as a homely metaphor for any form of public spending to the citizenry. After the American Civil War, however, the term came to be used in a derogatory sense. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the modern sense of the term from 1873. By the 1870s, references to "pork" were common in Congress, and the term was further popularized by a 1919 article by Chester Collins Maxey in the National Municipal Review, which reported on certain legislative acts known to members of Congress as "pork barrel bills". He claimed that the phrase originated in a pre-Civil War practice of giving slaves a barrel of salt pork as a reward and requiring them to compete among themselves to get their share of the handout. More generally, a barrel of salt pork was a common larder item in 19th century households, and could be used as a measure of the family's financial well-being. For example, in his 1845 novel The Chainbearer, James Fenimore Cooper wrote, "I hold a family to be in a desperate way, when the mother can see the bottom of the pork barrel."
Typically, "pork" involves funding for government programs whose economic or service benefits are concentrated in a particular area but whose costs are spread among all taxpayers. Public works projects, certain national defense spending projects, and agricultural subsidies are the most commonly cited examples.
- Requested by only one chamber of Congress;
- Not specifically authorized;
- Not competitively awarded;
- Not requested by the President;
- Greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding;
- Not the subject of congressional hearings; or
- Serves only a local or special interest.
The last of these seems as if it might be the most important one.
So here's the question: How should we finance these projects, if they are to be done? How would we pay for a modern CCC? (Ah -- this sounds like The Land Questions ...)
A. By a local tax on land value. This would necessitate regular reassessment of the land value in every community in America, say, every 3 years, which could be done for well under $40 per parcel. It would probably also require some state and/or federal oversight, checking values against transactions to verify that all municipalities or assessing units are doing high-quality market-based assessments. [In Maryland, they're already doing assessments every 3 years. In Connecticut, assessments every 4 years are required. In southern Delaware, the assessments are 30+ years old. In California, the assessments are meaningless, due to Proposition 13. It would take a few years for some of these entities to update their assessments.]
B. By a state tax on land value. [same issues apply]
C. By a national tax on land value.
D. Let's just use the federal income tax. It's there. It's easy.
E. Let's use a national sales tax.
F. Let's use a tax on imports.
G. Let's tax buildings.
H. Let's tax services.
It seems to me that a national service corps of some sort has a lot of merit. It could promote a lot of highly desirable goals. It could provide a lot of home-front protection in the event of natural disasters. It could get some important projects done, including the maintenance of existing infrastructure currently under-maintained,and the provision of services we believe are important (particularly when we are the beneficiaries).
But the financial benefits ought not to fall into private or corporate pockets; they ought to accrue to all of us, and ease the burdens of financing other kinds of federal spending. Land value taxation strikes me as the answer to so many of our supposedly intractible problems.