I write letters: on service and government

Alan Khazei, CEO of City Year, writes an op-ed for Harvard’s 2010 Commencement. A good piece, but one that also suffers from an increasingly common malady: the impulse to reject old ideas simply because they’re old, without providing evidence for their actual failure. I think you often see this with people with CEO mentalities – rather than be introspective about what did and didn’t work about the ideas, they overreach in an effort to be inspirational and throw out perfectly good ideas because one generally attains more influence from peddling new ideas (even if the new ideas are bad!).

I’ve reprinted my comment on Khazei’s op-ed after the jump:

Mr. Khazei:

In an otherwise stirring and laudable call for voluntarism, you’ve built a bizarre strawman in your sixth paragraph:

“In the wake of President Obama’s election, however, most in Congress looked backward for inspiration. Many Democrats reverted to the New Deal philosophy of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, Republicans to the tax cuts and small government philosophy of former President Ronald W. Reagan. One side took refuge in ideas that were 75 years old, the other in ideas that were 30 years old. They are both out of date. They depend on the stale and discredited argument that you must be either for big government or against it, that government is either the solution to all problems or the cause of them.”

I suspect there’s a reason you chose not to name one Democrat in Congress who takes the Manichean view that “big government is the solution to all problems”: it’s because you can’t, because there aren’t any.

More importantly, though, this paragraph seems to imply something that’s just wrong on the merits. While voluntary, non-governmental service is no doubt immensely valuable and important, the biggest problems faced by the incoming 111th Congress were of the kind that cannot be solved by greater entrepreneurship or public-private partnerships. You can’t fix a credit crunch by teaming with a bunch of nonprofits and businesses, and greater innovation isn’t going to meaningfully reduce double-digit unemployment. The most important, proven solutions to these problems, Keynesian fiscal stimulus and easy monetary policy, live squarely in the domain of government.

Government isn’t the solution to all problems. But for macroeconomic emergencies the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, it’s most of the solution.

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