National service sounds nice, but leaves questions

MIKE ROYKO

March 10, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

President Clinton has a grand vision. But doesn't he always?

Looking ahead a few years, he sees a vast army of idealistic, fresh-faced young people performing acts of goodness all over America.

They will be in the big cities, helping the police patrol the streets and persuading gang members and dope heads to mend their ways.

They will be in medical clinics immunizing children or knocking on doors to remind forgetful parents that their kids could really use vaccinations.

They will be in the schools, helping teach the three R's or acting as big brothers and sisters, mentors and role models.

They will be at the bins, recycling waste, fighting pollution and saving our environment.

Of course, they won't be doing this out of the goodness of their young hearts. It's one of those "what's in it for me" deals, which is a legitimate part of the American way.

As Clinton said: "Imagine an army of 100,000 young people restoring urban and rural communities in return for education and training."

That's the payoff: national service in exchange for higher education, job training, student loans and whatever other goodies Clinton and Congress decide to toss in.

It sounds like a good idea. Young people should do something useful, even if it's only taking out the garbage.

At least about half of it sounds like a good idea. That's the half that has the young people earning what they get. And earning it up front, just as people do in regular jobs.

In describing his plan, Clinton compared it to the old GI Bill, which provided military veterans with educational opportunities.

The GI Bill was a remarkably successful program. But it had a catch. First you had to be a GI. Only after you had been a GI did you qualify for the benefits.

Actually, that's the way things work in most of the real world. If you take a job, first you do the work, then you receive a paycheck. The GI Bill worked on that principle: duty first, payoff later.

In contrast, we've had many years of a student-loan program that worked the other way.

With student loans, first you borrowed the money from a bank. Then you went to college or a trade school. When you finished school and went to work, you repaid the loan.

At least, that's the way it was supposed to work, and it did for the majority of the borrowers.

But there were also thousands of young people who failed to repay billions of dollars in loans.

That didn't bother the schools, because they got their tuition whether the student learned, slept through class, or dropped out.

It didn't bother the banks, because the loans were guaranteed by the federal government, everybody's generous pal.

One outfit it did bother was the government's General Accounting Office, which said the program was such a far-flung, hopeless mess that it was impossible to monitor.

In hindsight, it might have been more prudent and cost-effective to have the loan program administered by the crime syndicate. Guys like Big Joe from Cicero have always had about a 99 percent success rate in dealing with deadbeats.

Clinton hasn't been specific about how his national-service program will work. Will these young people perform national service first and get the reward of education or job training later? Or will it be the other way around, with the reward up front? Or maybe both at the same time? We don't know. Maybe he doesn't know either and is waiting for Hillary to decide.

I suppose lawyers could draw up contracts that would require the young people to put in their year or two of national service after they've finished their schooling.

But what if some of them welsh on the deal? It would be impractical to drag them out on the street and say: "Here, patrol this tough neighborhood with that policeman" or "Get in there and recycle that trash dump." Genuine enthusiasm is needed for such work.

In that case, they could be sued. But that would just provide more job opportunities for lawyers, and Clinton is already keeping many of them busy.

Then there is the question of who will administer the program. Obviously, the federal government is going to provide the money, which makes sense. Who else can legally print the stuff?

But Clinton says he doesn't want a lot of bureaucrats running it. Instead, he will turn to, among others, community organizations.

That brings back faint memories of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. One of LBJ's programs gave large sums of money to do-gooder community organizations, which were supposed to help street gangs redirect their youthful energies into positive activities.

But the street gangs had their own ideas of positive activities. So they graciously thanked their benefactors, grabbed the money, and used it to redirect larger drug profits into their pockets. The gangs didn't have any MBA's, but they knew an economic opportunity when they saw it.

Well, I'm sure that in time Clinton will have answers to all of these questions.

Just stay tuned to MTV.

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