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A Modest Proposal

Yesterday and today I was reading repeated news stories about the pending bailout—much of it intended to prop up companies with failed business models and incompetent management. Also distressing are the stories of extravagant bonuses for financial managers who are likely responsible for creating some of the same economic mess that is causing so much turmoil in world markets.

Running through my mind was also a re-reading of the recent statement by Norman Augustine before the U.S. House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee (it’s short and a great read—check it out). I definitely resonate with his comments about how we should invest in our technology and research to ensure that our country has a future.

And I was thinking about how can we reward a spirit of honest hard work rather than a sense of entitlement, and avoid putting money into industries where greed and incompetence have led to huge disasters, where those same miscreants are using the full weight of political pressure to try to get huge chunks of bailout money to continue their reign of error.

And all this came together when I saw a story about the lack of medical treatment and high rate of suicides for returning military after extended tours in the battlefield. And then I read this story and this story about the homeless—just two out of many recent stories.   

Why can’t we direct a little of our national wealth into a new GI Bill, similar to the original in 1944? Provide money so that our men and women who are returning from honorable service to the country can get the counseling and medical care they need. And then, ship them off to colleges for a degree. If they show real promise and/or have a degree already, then cover a graduate degree.   

These are people who volunteered years out of their lives to serve the interests of the rest of us. They were willing to put their lives on the line for us. And some died. And others have suffered severe physical and psychological trauma. They have shown they are able to focus, sacrifice, and work hard. My experience over the last two decades has shown me that most veterans and active-duty military personnel make good students for those reasons.

Service doesn’t provide intellectual ability, certainly, and not all can excel, but I am certain that many (if not most) can do well given the chance. And if regular college isn’t the right fit, then a vocational education program or appropriate apprenticeship should be covered.

Money should be allocated for additional counseling and tutoring for these students, too. They are likely to have a great range of physical and psychological needs than the usual student population, and we should address that. And money will need to be allocated to help provide the facilities to house and teach these students.

While we’re at it, maybe the same should be offered to those who have provided other service, such as in the AmeriCorps or Peace Corps? And perhaps those who take new jobs helping rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. I’m not a politician or economist, so I’m not sure what we should do for details, but the basic idea would be that someone who gives 4 years of service to the country should get 2-4 years of college tuition, fees, room and board.   

We might also want structure it so that degrees in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines have some form of extra preference or encouragement, although we should not discourage any valid course of study—except we should definitely not fund any degrees in finance!

Then maybe give a tax credit to any companies that hire these people after they graduate.

And make this good for anyone who served since, oh, 2001, and for anyone who signs up for one of the covered services before, say, 2015. If those dates don’t make sense, then pick others. But extend it forward to help encourage people to join some of the covered services—they could certainly use more people—and start far enough back.

Yes, I know there are currently educational benefits and health benefits for our veterans, but I am suggesting something more comprehensive for both, and for possibly a larger group. I’m suggesting that we invest in our future by making sure we do our utmost to patch up the injuries suffered in duty to our fellows, give them a shot at a better future. And that better shot is not to turn them out into our cities where there are no jobs, where the homeless live, where drugs and street crime may be rampant.

The whole process would give a huge boost of education to the workforce we want to have for the future. We don’t need more assembly line workers. We need engineers, technologists, scientists and more. Not only will we be educating them, but the endorsement we would be making about the importance of education, and the care for those who serve, will pay back indirectly for decades to come. It worked in the 40s and 50s, and led to huge innovations and a surge in the economy.

Will it all be expensive? Undoubtedly. But I’m guessing it is far less than what is in the budget bills for bank bailouts and propping up failed industrial concerns.

And when it is done, we will have something to show for our investment—far more than simply some rebuilt roads and a re-emergence of predatory lending.

But as I said, I’m not a politician, so what do I know?

Update: I have learned that there is a new GI bill, passed last year, which addresses some of the items I suggested above. Great! It doesn’t cover quite the breadth of what I suggested, and only covers the military. Somehow, I missed this when I did my web search….