Playing “What If”

The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) recently published an essay written with my former Graduate Assistant. Hey–if you’re going to dream, might as well dream big….Anyway, here’s our original draft, appropriate for a Sunday Sermon.


Americans are increasingly concerned about two seemingly unrelated issues: a distressing lack of civic literacy and informed civic engagement among the general public, and the escalating burden of student loan debt.

We could make significant progress on both of these issues with a new G.I. Bill.

In the wake of World War II, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill. It provided a wide range of benefits for returning veterans, including subsidies that allowed G.I.’s to obtain low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans that could be used to start a business, cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend a university or vocational training program. All soldiers who had been on active duty during the war for at least one hundred twenty days and had not been dishonorably discharged were eligible. By 1956, estimates were that roughly 2.2 million veterans had used the G.I. Bill education benefits in order to attend college, and an additional 5.6 million had used them to obtain job training of some sort.

The G.I. Bill was expensive, but by all accounts it was a major political, humanitarian and economic success. It contributed significantly to the creation of a skilled workforce, moved thousands of people into the middle class, and was a spur to long-term economic growth.

The G.I. Bill was originally an effort to reward those who had manifested a willingness to risk their lives for their country, but it has had a number of other salutary consequences: it raised the skill level of the American workforce and provided an avenue for social mobility.

Defending the United States is an important goal, but military service is only one aspect of that defense. It is equally important that citizens understand just what it is that our military is protecting. Citizenship is more than residence; patriotism requires informed engagement by people who have earned the right to be considered citizens. Survival of America qua America is not the same thing as physical survival.

To put it bluntly, there is more than one way to lose one’s country.

If we are to provide that second kind of defense—defense of the American system of law and government—we require a civically educated populace, and it is increasingly obvious that current patchwork efforts to boost civic literacy are not producing that populace.

Our proposal builds on the laudable efforts of others—including, recently, General Stanley McChrystal– who have called for a renewal of national service. It’s important to challenge the notion that military service is the only way to serve one’s country. While military service has been shown to significantly increase voting rates and other forms of civic engagement, fewer Americans serve in the military than in past generations, and we need to consider what sorts of national programmatic efforts might begin to change the civic culture.

We propose a National Service program for high school graduates who would be paid minimum wage during a one year “tour of duty.” At the end of that year, assuming satisfaction of the requirements, participants would receive stipends sufficient to pay tuition, room and board for two years at a public college or trade school. The public service requirement would be satisfied through employment with a government agency or not-for-profit organization focused upon civic improvement.

In addition, students would be required to attend and pass a civics course to be developed by the U.S. Department of Education in cooperation with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools.

What sorts of outcomes might we expect from such a program? Since the program is likely to be most attractive to those struggling to afford higher education, we could expect broader civic participation from populations whose voices are largely missing from today’s civic conversation. A better-educated population should engage in better, more nuanced policy debates, leading (hopefully) to more thoughtful policy choices. We might even see more meaningful and issue-oriented political campaigns, with fewer of the “dog whistles” and less of the intemperate rhetoric that characterizes messages crafted to appeal to uninformed voters.

A program of this sort would also have an enormous and positive impact on the level of student debt.

According to a 2014 report by the New York Times, total student loans outstanding have risen to $1.1 trillion, compared with $300 billion just a decade before. The average total debt for student borrowers was around $30,000 in 2013.

Student debt has thus become a significant impediment to America’s economic growth.

Studies show that the burden of student debt constrains individual decision-making in a number of ways, and affects the entire economy. People with student loans, for example, are less likely to start businesses. Considering that 60 percent of jobs are created by small business, diminishing the ability to create new businesses does considerable harm to the economy.

Debt loads also affect overall consumer consumption. According to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, fewer 30-year-olds in general have bought homes since the recession, but the decline has been steeper for people with a history of student loan debt and has continued even as the housing market has recovered.

In an economy that depends upon the ability and willingness of consumers to purchase homes, furniture, automobiles and other goods, a debt load that effectively precludes such purchases poses a real problem. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, three-quarters of the overall shortfall in household formation can be attributed to younger adults ages 18 to 34. In 2011, 2 million more Americans in this age group lived with their parents than in 2007.

According to a recent report from Zillow, the relatively few millennials who are thriving economically are the ones whose parents are able to subsidize college tuition or a down payment on a home. Help with education and buying a home were the two primary ways in which the original G.I. Bill created upward social mobility. Estimates are that each new household formed leads to $145,000 of economic impact. If student debt is keeping just a third of those 2 million young Americans from living on their own, that adds up to a $100 billion loss or delay in economic activity.

The G.I. Bill was a social contract that said if you invest in your country’s future, your country will invest in yours.

A national public service program of the sort contemplated here would significantly reduce student loan debt, increase civic competence, and provide local communities with additional human capital— resources they can deploy to improve the quality of local life. (Kalamazoo, Michigan, where a local program has been providing subsidies for college tuition to high school graduates since 2005, the city has seen a 4.7 dollar return for every dollar invested, according to a recent Upjohn Institute Study.)

In addition to the economic benefits, a national program encouraging increased civic knowledge and engagement would also move the culture, since an informed citizenry with experience in civic life can be expected to vote, volunteer and engage at substantially higher levels.

The real question is: do we Americans still have the ability to think big?



  1. “Government spending in the United States has steadily increased from seven percent of GDP in 1902 to almost 40 percent today.”

    “Chart 2.21: 20th Century Government Spending
    Government Spending started out at the beginning of the 20th century at 6.9 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). As you can see from Chart 2.21, the federal share of that spending was modest. But spending got a big kick in World War I and ended up at about 12 percent of GDP in the 1920s.”
    “Chart Key:
    – Local direct spending
    – State direct spending
    – Federal direct spending
    – Transfer to state and local”
    “Then came the Great Depression, in which President Roosevelt and the New Deal cranked up federal spending, and total government spending rose up to 20 percent of GDP. World War II really showed how the United States could commandeer its national resources for all out war. Government spending peaked at just under 52 percent of GDP in 1945.”
    President Clinton said, in 1995, that the era of big government was over. But he was wrong. The post World War II era has been a golden age of government spending, and it shows no sign of ending. Although spending dropped back to 21 percent of GDP immediately after WWII, it steadily climbed thereafter until it hit a peak of 35 percent of GDP in the bottom of the recession of 1980-82. Thereafter government spending chugged along in the mid 30s until the mortgage meltdown of 2008. In the aftermath of bank and auto bailouts, government spending surged to wartime levels at 41 percent of GDP. The mortgage emergency seems to have ratcheted out-year spending up a notch. Near term government spending in the future is pegging at 36 percent of GDP.”


    “Revenue goes up every time tax rates are cut.”

    Then why did you say that there’s no correlation?

  2. Pete! I said there was definitely correlation, but acknowledged that correlation does not prove causation.

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