Ask Not What Ted Kennedy Can Do For You, But What You Can Do For Ted Kennedy's Sense of Paid Voluntarism


Yesterday, President Barack Obama delivered (finally!) on arguably his most hope-changiest of all his campaign promises to use your tax dollars to support make-work jobs that will (finally!) allow America's vast, all-ages reserve army of the unemployed to be paid volunteers with AmeriCorps.

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act

reauthorizes and expands national service programs administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency created in 1993. The Corporation engages four million Americans in result-driven service each year, including 75,000 AmeriCorps members, 492,000 Senior Corps volunteers, 1.1 million Learn and Serve America students, and 2.2 million additional community volunteers mobilized and managed through the agency's programs.

Channeling the legislative history of, I don't know, The PATRIOT Act and authorization of force in Iraq, the current head of AmeriCorps boasts that "its remarkably swift journey through Congress" and its bipartisan heritage (GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah cosponsored the Senate version, don't you know, apparently between belting out tunes as a solo artist ever since the Singing Senators lost more band members than Spinal Tap over the past decade) proves it's a fan-fucking-tastic indicator of the "growing national consensus that service is a powerful response to the economic and social challenges facing America today" (I must have been out working when the pollsters called my house about that one).

The law shovels out $5.7 billion of your taxes over the next five years to "boost volunteerism" at AmeriCorps and elsewhere. In an era of trillons of dollars in wasteful spending, that's a real bargain.

And just in case you're wondering how the new dough is going to be spent, here's a Mad-Lib press release explainer from AmeriCorps, which seems to be ripped from the ramblings of a straw-man Army bureaucrat from the early seasons of M*A*S*H:

The Serve America Act, which goes into effect on October 1, would increase and enhance opportunities for Americans of all ages to serve by increasing AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 positions over the next eight years, while increasing opportunities for students and older Americans to serve. It will strengthen America's civic infrastructure through social innovation, volunteer mobilization, and building nonprofit capacity. The new law is also designed to strengthen the management, cost-effectiveness and accountability of national service programs by increasing flexibility, consolidating funding streams, and introducing more competition.

As an interesting side note, AmeriCorps already got an extra $200 million from the stimulus bill. But it's good to know that they are now getting enough cash to consolidate funding streams and delve into the thorny question of strengthening "management, cost-effectiveness and accountability." Hope and change. Obama, you've done it again!

More on the bill here.

A few things regarding this piece of self-congratulatory lard every bit as bloated and morally compromised as the man for whom it is named (as it happens, Obama seemed to be confusing Teddy K with JFK, proclaiming ""I want all Americans to take up that spirit of the man for whom this bill is named; of a president who sent us to the moon; of a dreamer who always asked 'Why not?'").

First, public or national service is profoundly un-American as a historical concept and comes always and everywhere slathered in the stink of trench warfare and rhetorical horseshit. This is especially true when it is paid service even as those participating and spending your tax dollars luxuriate in the silky-smooth language of altruism. Which, last time I checked, was supposed to be free. Jesus rendered unto Caesar; he didn't ask for a block grant from Pontius Pilate in return. That Obama pushes national service and voluntarism even as he works to limit tax breaks for charitable giving that drives all sorts of philanthropy is a classic screw-you, my-way-or-the-highway move.

Second, AmeriCorps is a program with a long and distinguished history of sucking even by government standards. It effectively comes in second to the standard-issue DMV bureau, with its director in 2003 dubbing it "another cumbersome, unpredictable government bureaucracy." Yeah, yeah, they can fix all that and become squeaky clean, yadda yadda yadda, and that still doesn't address the more basic fact that it is at best superfluous to what Americans, young and old, are already doing: Which is volunteering and "giving back" to the community up the ying-yang.

And to the extent that laws such as this confuse actual contributions to increasing living standards with getting some sort of paycheck from a non-essential government agency, they do far more damage to American ideals than we normally admit. As Julian Sanchez wrote here a few years back, "AmeriCorps boosters are less interested in the good works that serve as the program's public justification than in the grand sense of national community it's meant to inspire. Without AmeriCorps, after all, young people might conclude that they're perfectly capable of giving back to their communities without either the assistance or the direction of the federal government. And wouldn't that be a tragedy."

Third, there's the Teddy question in all of this. Let's leave aside Kennedy's often-grim personal life, which is suffused not with the spirit of service or even noblesse oblige, but a truly ugly sense of entitlement and prima nocturne expanded to cover virtually every element of social interaction. His legislative accomplishments that have really helped people over the years are thin. His role in pushing and passing the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, a costly and unnecessary law that brazenly steals from the less-wealthy and gives to the more-wealthy in the guise of social justice, is a signal example of how "the lion" gets a pass from the press. He played a leading role in the deregulation of airline pricing and (even more important) interstate trucking, the latter of which is surely one of the greatest reasons why so much in America is now within reach of even poor people. But elsewhere, again and again, you see in his legislative machinations not an attempt to actually help the wretched of this country, but a incoherent and archly ideological commitment to failed feel-good policies such as No Child Left Behind, which traps at-risk students in public schools that no Kennedy offspring has ever been caught dead in. In this, sadly, he is not unique in the Senate, especially among those (e.g., Ted Stevens, Robert Byrd) whose tenures are similarly long-lived.

We don't need a national service bill to begin with. But we definitely don't need one named after Ted Kennedy.