Idea Time: National, Family & Community Service

Every incoming president brings with him an agenda of long and short term items, but few have walked into the Oval Office with more emergencies, crises, and other urgent matters than President Joe Biden.

More than ever, how well a President governs will depend on how good he is at managing his time and cultivating his team – an American president is more a coach than a general. That’s why I have no problem with Biden’s 78 years, which also translate to experience and wisdom.

But while the President can’t focus on the longer term yet, that doesn’t mean we cannot. Indeed, we should have been reading and discussing – we citizens and our representatives – about certain matters that will massively impact us sooner or later, but we wasted the past four years.

In this column I will address the potential impact of powerful technological and economic trends – specifically, Artificial Intelligence and robotics – but first I will note that some of “yesterday’s long term problems” are hitting now, and they can be addressed in bi-partisan fashion (had Donald Trump done so, he would have won) in a way that can alleviate the economic emergency that resulted from the COVID-Crisis: America must rebuild its crumbling old and build its vital new infrastructure. The time has come for Republicans and Democrats to come up with a real plan that also stimulates the economy.

Now for AI and robotics. Whether or not the danger is exaggerated, it is real, and it was accelerated by the pandemic. Not only economists but our most successful and respected industrialists – led by our own Andrew Liveris – warn that many millions of middle and working class jobs will be soon wiped out.

For decades the biggest and nastiest partisan battles centered on social programs for the poor – Liberals calling them a vital safety net, conservatives saying (when in polite company) they are a waste.

Over time, and aided by laudable bipartisan efforts (Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich come to mind) waste and fraud have been addressed (corporate welfare and fraud, not so much).

The political challenge posed by technology is that it’s the American middle class – the bedrock of our society, in fact, of any free and democratic society – that is in need of massive action and subsidies. College aid and loans, mortgage deductibility, etc.  have been around for a while, but they’re no longer enough.

If and when 1/3 or ½ of middle and working class jobs are wiped out, it is middle class life, i.e. our American way of life, that will need bailing out. And this is not a socialism/capitalism, free market/big government argument, because if there are no jobs, there is no job market and no invisible hand to create them.

So the point of this commentary is to urge us to begin a discussion, and since we must start somewhere, I begin with Universal Basic Income (UBI) which some countries are already experimenting with.

However, I propose a UBI with a twist, which I call National, Family, and Community Service (NFCS). Let’s stick to round numbers. If 1/3 of jobs are wiped out, then the remainder must be spread among the rest of the working population. Perhaps that can be done by reducing the working hours of the average employee by 1/3. The accompanying salary reduction would be catastrophic for all families, although that is where the subsidy comes in. I am not talking about handouts, but a long-delayed recognition of work our society and country needs but does not compensate, such as raising our children and taking care of our sick and elderly. That’s the family part.

National and community service can be military and non-military in nature – social, medical, parks, church, neighborhood patrol, etc.

The final part has no clear category, but addresses perhaps our biggest most valuable national resource: the undeveloped talents of our people. Every single one of us and our friends and family have talents that we did not turn into careers in our youth.

We can do it now. The artists, musicians, mechanics, and counsellors among us who have been working on their ‘hobbies’, along with the inventors and scholars, even latent scientists – all those people can finally make the contributions to humanity they always knew were in them. Part-time, paid by the new program, or in new careers developed with government support. Education can now be provided more cheaply in hybrid in-person/online form.

Because the profits of totally machine based industry will be insane, personal taxes of the superrich and corporate taxes will have to be raised – to save the middle class, i.e. their customers, and the society that contains them all.

The subsidies should also come from plugging tax loopholes at home, but I also propose an alliance of Industrialized nations to go after and shut down international tax havens. There is lots to talk about.


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