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What’s Wrong With The Franklin Project? – Part 3
Reading Time: 8 minutes

This is part three of a five-part series on national service. Part 1 introduced the controversy and corrected a major misconception. Part 2 looked at national service through the eyes of conservative giants, Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, and Ronald Reagan.

So, what’s wrong with the Franklin Project?

Plenty.

The Franklin Project promotes the idea of a renewed ethos of national service in America. It’s mission:

The Franklin Project envisions a future in which a year of full-time national service—a service year—is a cultural expectation, a common opportunity, and a civic rite of passage for every young American.

I pointed out in part 1 that The Franklin Project’s mission is very similar to William F. Buckley’s vision for a national-service ethos, first introduced in his 1974 book Four Reforms and expanded in his 1990 book Gratitude.

I also pointed out that Buckley’s plan differed from Franklin Project’s in several key ways. In some ways, Buckley’s program was more ambitious, but in other ways more subdued.

Before anyone gets the idea that I wholehearted endorse the Franklin Project’s plan, I do not. But it’s possible to endorse their idea without endorsing every feature of their plan.

Suffice it to say that I do believe America needs an expectation of service. On that point, Franklin Project and I are in complete agreement. Likewise on the idea that society must find away to offer opportunities to serve that match society’s urge to serve. Finally, we agree that service strengthens and improves volunteers as much or more than the volunteer work itself improves society.

On each of those three fundamentals, I agree with both Franklin Project and William F. Buckley.

Part of my purpose in this series is to inform the discretion of two sets of people. First, those who would dismiss the idea of service because it smacks of liberal hooey. Second, those who accept blindly that the Franklin Project’s prescriptions are, on the whole, wise or effective. Parts 4 and 5 speak to the former. This post to the latter.

So, again, what’s wrong with the Franklin Project?

While the Franklin Project itself advances an idea endorse, its massive Plan of Action published in 2013 documents a wish list of bad ideas built upon many failed programs and broken promises. The plan, while ambitious in length at nearly 40 pages, is lazy in thought, as it mostly seeks to swell government programs that train new generations of bureaucrats. Finally, much of the Plan of Action, if implemented, would do the exact opposite of what the organization hopes to accomplish, just as Milton Friedman warned in 1990.

Some will say, “Bill, you’re naïve. The people who put that plan together are advancing a hidden agenda.” To be honest, I believe some are. I also believe many signers of the plan accepted the bad with the good because they believe in the vision. Regardless of motives, conservatives must point out the errors in the plan. Conservatives who agree with the vision but despise most of the details should offer an alternative. As I said in yesterday’s post, stomping our feet and yelling “no” isn’t enough, because there is a growing demand for the vision and a pent-up need for a service ethos.

Point by Point

Here are the high-level points of the Plan of Action. On the right is a simple critique of each point:

Point

Critique

• Link military and civilian service as two sides of the same coin; OK—this seems like a reasonable idea..
• Challenge all young adults (ages 18 to 28) to give a year or more of full-time service to their country; OK—this is the core idea of a new national ethos
• Establish national service corps, building on those proposed in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, that will unite each generation in common purpose through service; NO—Edward Kennedy had very few good ideas, and his Serve America program wasn’t one of them. I agree with Gen. McChrystal that a big federal program isn’t the answer.
• Strengthen and expand the existing infrastructure of the Peace Corps, VISTA, AmeriCorps, and other national service efforts; NO—Reagan gutted VISTA because it fraught with corruption. AmeriCorps is exactly the kind bureaucrat training program that exploits young people and lobbies for more funding for more exploitation.
• Call upon the private sector, industry groups, and professional associations to take the lead in supporting and expanding national service corps within their fields; OK—the private sector should absolutely take the lead in service and everything else. Private enterprise stands to gain a lot from a new service ethos, and business leaders should invest their own money and talent and time in advancing the cause
• Partner with the growing non-profit infrastructure—in colleges, community organizations and faith- based institutions—and leverage new technologies to embed full-time national service across our society; and OK—faith groups, states, communities, and college should join with business leaders in managing projects, administering programs, and expecting service of candidates for jobs and admission
• Ask all federal departments and agencies to use civilian national service members to help accomplish their missions. NO—this exploitation of youth, a training program for bureaucrats, and a pool of (poorly) paid lobbyists for bigger government

Score: 4 OK, 3 NO

In that list of goals, we see two conflicting themes woven together. The points I marked OK, while not necessarily perfect, aim at providing volunteers with opportunities to suffer for a worthy cause. Yes, suffer, just as B. T. Collins described the California Conservation Corps as Hard Work, Low Pay, Miserable Conditions.

The other thread forms a noose around the private sector. The three NOs combine to grow government while degrading volunteers in bureaucratic jobs and lobbying efforts. I will return to the problems posed by these noxious weeds in our garden of service, but first let’s point out more ugly specifics in the Franklin Project plan.

The National Service Corps

General McChrystal assured Business Insider that a big government program is the wrong approach. Apparently, the Plan’s authors failed to consult General McChrystal.

Young adults would serve full-time in national service corps. The civilian national service corps would be in areas where full-time civilian national service has been shown to make a significant difference.

A national service corps without a bloated federal bureaucracy? Impossible. Moreover, we see another disturbing trend in the Plan’s text at this point: emphasis on good done by volunteers instead of on the good done to volunteers. This is a big problem throughout the rest of the plan, as Buckley pointed out in Gratitude:

While acknowledging the good can that be done to the various beneficiaries, we reiterate that we have primarily in mind the good that is done to the volunteers themselves.

Before getting bogged down in motives, let’s move on to look at he constituent elements of this national service corps. These I will critique individually:

  • Education Corps: to mobilize youth to serve in our lowest-performing schools, while working to 
ensure that every young child receives the high-quality education they need to succeed in the 21st century;
    • If operated by the states or communities, this is probably a worthwhile goal. I do not see a role for the Department of Education, though, as the DoE has all but destroyed America’s schools, particularly poor schools
    • If this is just a lobbying team to press for every-increasing taxes, we can do without an Education Corps
    • The challenge of this corps is to give volunteers tasks challenging enough to let them grow
  • Conservation Corps: to help restore the health of America’s endangered parks and rivers and engage youth in other conservation and clean energy efforts;
    • Conservation corps in every state that wants one could offer a fantastic experience for volunteers, just as Reagan’s Ecology Corps did in California
    • The idea of “engaging youth in other conservation and clean energy efforts bothers me. Does that mean lobbying for laws to advance bad science? Does it mean rooting through my garbage for the stray aluminum can in the wrong bin? Does it mean knocking on doors telling citizens to turn some lights off? These are not activities that do good to the volunteers
  • Opportunity Corps: to support programs to empower low-income Americans and to engage youth disconnected from school and work in full-time national service;
    • This sounds like ACORN, frankly. Let’s just say “no” to the opportunity corps.
    • The powerless, low-income Americans can develop skills and self-esteem by volunteering in one of the programs that does not simply admire the virtues of poverty
  • Health and Nutrition Corps: to educate young people on the importance of good nutrition, physical activity, and preventative [sic] care, and to enhance the quality of life, address the childhood hunger problem, and lower health care costs;
    • This is school, not service
    • I see few opportunities here for good things to happen to the volunteers
    • Or do the obese kids get shoved into this program?
    • If the last, then lets take the kids with dietary and exercise issues and turn them over the likes of B. T. Collins for hard work and a five A.M. reveille.
  • Veterans Corps: to recognize, support, and utilize veterans as civic assets and leaders through civilian national service by and for veterans and to expand opportunities for civilian national service members to support veterans and military families;
    • Veterans affairs being a legitimate federal issues, I have no problems with this
    • Even the idea of providing opportunities for civilians makes sense, since the beneficiaries are veterans
    • Being a veteran myself, I assure you volunteers in this program will have opportunities to develop patients and self-esteem J
  • Professional Corps: to enable young lawyers, health care professionals, financial experts,
technology specialists, and other professionals to unleash their talents to help address public problems and help those in need; and
    • Um, no.
    • Let the people with advanced degrees work in private industry and serve as mentors
    • This is way for government to get cheap labor
    • If states, schools, churches, and communities want to run these program, I can say OK, but it’s not a federal matter
  • International Service Corps: to provide opportunities to serve to help strengthen education, health, the environment, information technology, and small business creation around the world.
    • Why not
    • But these functions should be done by and through charities, not the federal government

I don’t like the list of sub corps at all. Yes, I said “ok” to a few items, but the notion of a national service corps leads to all those horrible outcomes that panicked Milton Friedman.

I particularly detest the Opportunity Corps, and so should anyone who believes in service. Because, as William F. Buckley wrote:

[T]here is one decisive way to sentence national service to death, and that is to conceive of it as a fight against poverty. The diminution of poverty is properly a national objective, but to confuse it with national service is to play the sorcerer’s apprentice. Only confusion and chaos will result from tampering with the suitable formula.

And Buckley goes on to point out the impossibility of eliminating poverty:

It is regularly left to crabby conservatives to point out that poverty will almost always be defined as that condition in which, roughly, the lowest-earning quintile of Americans live, never mind reassuring historical comparisons between the material level of life led by the poor of 1990 [or 2015], and the level of life in which families judges relatively affluent by contemporary evaluations lived earlier in the century.

Bingo. About 20 years ago, I fired off an angry column about a World Health Organization report identifying the principle health issue facing America’s poor as obesity.

Obesity!

I have no doubt the WHO report is true, but until the late twentieth century, obesity was a physical-economic impossibility for America’s middle quintiles, much less its bottom. A few extra pounds were the proud symbols of wealth until the War on Poverty made Doritos and television national rights.

When it comes to the War on Poverty, our volunteers can make love instead.

At this point, there’s no need to further critique the plan’s specific goals. Instead, my advice to the Franklin Project is to go back to the drawing board, this time with a more balanced representation from conservative schools of thought. If, that is, conservatives are willing to help.

Within the flawed plan dwell a few items conservatives can support, such as the veterans corps. Turned over to state, private, or charitable organizations, many of the other concepts can serve as directional goals for a national service program. (Well, except for the food and trash police, and the poverty programs.)

The Franklin Project’s Plan of Action seems to have follow a predictable development pattern: someone points out a good idea, conservatives ignore it, liberals rush to exploit it, and we are left with what the liberals hand them. Stanley McChrystal seems to have opened up the idea of a service ethos which attracted two types: believers in service and believers in government. In the battle over the Plan of Action, believers in government won.

That does not excuse conservatives from their duty to try to influence things like The Franklin Project. Being reflexively independent and bent toward sticking with the status quo, conservatives tend to leave ideas like national service to others. When the “others” fill the void we leave with plans to grow government, we turn on, not only the plan, but the idea itself. We must resist that impulse.

A conservative lion, William Buckley, pointed out the need for an ethos of national service 41 years ago and again with renewed vigor 25 years ago. How did conservatives respond? We let the left pick up the ball and run with it.

Tomorrow in part 4, I will attempt to explain why conservatives should care about the issue of service and the consequences of stomping our feet and shouting “no.” Part 5 will propose simple first steps toward a conservative service solution.

Thanks for your patience.

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