Hey, Wait A Minute

Trumpet Voluntary

Doubts about the big Volunteer Summit.

“Business as usual no longer is enough,” explains a press release for the big Volunteer Summit (officially, “The Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future”) from April 27 to April 29. Of course business as usual has never been enough and never will be. The concept exists only for the purpose of being declared insufficient.

Orgies of high-mindedness like the Volunteer Summit–four presidents, Colin Powell, the networks, celebrities, corporations, foundations, all huffing and puffing in Philadelphia–are a cheap target for knee-jerk iconoclasm. In our culture, attitude is easy and sincerity is hard. Newsweek’s cover story is so defensive about endorsing the summit and its goal–encouraging voluntarism to help (who else?) children–that you want to reach out, pat the author, and say: “There, there. It’s OK to want to help children.” By contrast, recycling the conceit of Swift’s Modest Proposal (to eat children) would be embarrassment-free.

So let us stipulate that everyone involved in the Volunteer Summit means well. President Clinton isn’t triangulating. Colin Powell isn’t running. The ex-presidents aren’t looking for attention. The corporations aren’t looking for a PR fix. Let us stipulate, furthermore, that a little bit of good can outweigh a lot of bullshit, and the summit probably nets out as a Good Thing. But let us also consider the summit’s philosophy. Distilled from all the hot air, this philosophy has two components: 1) American society should pressure its citizens to do more good works, for children and in general. That social pressure should be a cooperative project of government, employers, and the media. 2) Those good works should involve active personal participation–not just giving money.

Why, to start, is it obviously better to give your time than your money? This notion contradicts one of the basic principles of free-market economics: the division and specialization of labor. Take an extreme example: a successful businesswoman earning $250,000 a year. That’s about $100 an hour. If her company thinks she’s worth what she’s being paid, why should it encourage her to devote several hours a week to, say, working in a soup kitchen, when others would gladly–gratefully–do that work for far less? Why shouldn’t she work a few more hours doing what she does best, and let the company turn the proceeds over to the soup kitchen? Or, more realistically, why shouldn’t she write a large check and not feel guilty about it? Would the soup kitchen really prefer an hour of this woman’s time to $100 cash?

S omething like tutoring a high-school student obviously requires more valuable skills than serving soup does. But is it compassion or arrogance for our executive to assume that her tutoring is worth $100 an hour? Because that is exactly what she is assuming when she gives her time instead of writing a check. True, the emphasis of the moment seems to be less on specific services than on a kind of semi-adoption–“mentoring” troubled kids, acting as a role model, and so on–and this kind of service is hard to buy. But she has to be pretty confident in her mentoring skills to believe that they’re worth more than what $100 an hour could buy for a kid (not gym shoes but professional tutoring and counseling, health care, etc.).

Of course, this assumes that our executive actually does write that contribution check, and that she writes it to the soup kitchen or tutoring program and not to her alma mater for a new science lab. It also ignores the potential benefits to her of personal involvement in good works. She might quite reasonably prefer spending a few hours a week tutoring a high-school kid, to spending them poring over spreadsheets in her office. She might enjoy the moral frisson. To be less unkind, she might well be truly morally enriched by the experience. All of which is fine. But it is not cost-free. If she works in the soup kitchen rather than donating the cash value of her time, this means people are going hungry so that she can be morally uplifted. A strange moral calculus.

Gen. Powell and the Three Tenors–I mean the Four Presidents–insist that the volunteer ethic is not supposed to be a replacement for the government’s role. Clinton, in particular, loves this sort of thing as a way of achieving a national goal without costing taxpayers any money. But logically, something either is an obligation of society or it isn’t. And if it is being left to voluntarism, that obligation is not being fully met. (That’s why each volunteer “makes a difference,” as we are constantly being told.) Perhaps this or that function cannot or should not be provided by the government. But to say it is a social obligation that ought to be satisfied through voluntarism is to have it both ways. Society accepts the responsibility–and takes the credit–rhetorically, while evading the responsibility in practice.

When society’s leading elements–government, business, media, and so on–all start singing in unison, it’s not a pleasing noise. The summit itself is an example of the summit’s philosophy about how things ought to work: identical and mutually reinforcing messages from your senator, your employer, your TV anchorman, your minister, your cereal box, your FedEx delivery man … all urging you to sign up and save the country. Basically this is the propaganda machinery of war being revved up in peacetime, which is one reason the rhetoric is so overheated and so full of martial metaphors. Festivities like the Volunteer Summit address a national psychological need–for the rhetoric and rallying-round of wartime–as much as they do the practical problem that is their alleged subject. And the premise that you must give of your body, not just of your money, makes voluntarism an ideal theme for such an exercise.

It’s both comic and eerie to see how easily the free press of a free country can be co-opted into these pseudowars. (For another recent example, see Jacob Weisberg’s recent column about ABC and the war on drugs.) Offer them an interview with Colin Powell, and they lose all critical perspective. In fact, a full-page newspaper ad detailing NBC’s abject surrender to the hijacking of all its news shows touts two different interviews with the former general. One of them is breathlessly but illogically labeled an “exclusive.”

Business as usual.