Public Service and Private Greed

kennedy 320 Public Service and Private Greed

On Election Day in 1960, my family placed a hand lettered sign in our living room window on East 59th street in Brooklyn that read “Kennedy for President”. A few months later, as a seven year old boy, I remember watching President Kennedy on our black and white television ask us to pledge “what we could do for our country”. It was a thrilling, inspiring moment. I think that the start of my lifelong commitment to public service can be found somewhere within that poetic and historic speech.

I began my career working in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back in 1977 when EPA was only seven years old. I worked to improve public participation in our water pollution control programs. A few years later I was part of a small team that set up the Superfund toxic waste clean up program. Since the mid-1980’s I’ve led a series of public administration programs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The goal of those programs was to promote public service and educate professional public servants. Through most of that time, these past three decades, our culture has glorified private enterprise and denigrated public service.

Public service does not necessarily mean working for government. It means serving the broader community and pursuing something other than personal profit. President Obama has made it clear that we all share responsibility for taking care of each other.  That is the essence of public service. I think of public service as both an activity and a value, and as our highest secular calling.

Last week, by a vote of 321-105, the House of Representatives enacted a dramatic expansion of the AmeriCorp program. Under this new legislation the program will grow from 75,000 to 250,000 slots. The Senate is expected to do the same very soon. AmeriCorp funding provides stipends that range from $11,800 to $22,800 (though most are set at $11,800) along with educational benefits as well. The jobs are typically in nonprofit organizations working at the local level on education, social service, energy and health programs.

As the vote indicates, there is strong bipartisan support for encouraging public service. Senators Orin Hatch and Ted Kennedy have co-authored a number of these statutes over the years. This is not to say that Congressional support was unanimous. For example,  Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C) complained:  “Well, I think it’s important that we encourage volunteers, but this is a paid job. This is a government-authorized charity.”  Fortunately, this is not a mainstream view. Most everyone gets the idea that community service ought not be limited to those who can afford to work without being paid.

The revival of public service stands in sharp contrast to the finance industry’s greed and sense of entitlement. The disgusting spectacle of the AIG bonus scandal is the most visible evidence of Wall Street’s fall from grace. I’m not sure what is so complicated about the notion that bonuses should only come to those who earn money for their companies. When the finance industry is finally re-regulated, most of the riskiest financial practices that have evolved over the past few decades will be illegal.  The free market will be preserved, but the unregulated, anything goes market, has already died.

As the shattered economy begins to revive, I expect to see some old fashioned values return. Hard work, thrift and a less cavalier attitude toward risk are definitely back in style. Some fear that American creativity and entrepreneurship will fade along with the demise of downtown’s Masters of the Universe. I suspect not. I think the community organizers on the streets of Southside Chicago and Bed-Sty along with the engineers working on solar cells in their garages are the real risk takers in our society; So too are the soldiers, cops and firefighters that put their lives on the line for all of us every day.  The greedy jerks that risk other people’s money while pocketing their up-front cash are not worth worrying about.

Everyone understands the idea of public service. We all know what it means to offer a helping hand, or to be offered one when we are in need. We also know what greed looks like. For too long we have justified greed and selfishness in the interest of promoting a free market.  That was a mistake. We need a little less private profit and a lot more community service. The expansion of AmeriCorps is an important step in the right direction.