President Obama, in his inaugural address, spoke about service to America. Does he have a license to ask us to provide such service? I think so, and I’ll tell you why.
Does anyone now remember when then President Bush II made a big speech about all American citizens needing to do more volunteering? It was in his first year, before you-know-what happened, when he was most famous for the line, “it’s your money!” and his main policy goal was the destruction of Social Security. He suggested that all American citizens, over the course of their lifetimes, should plan to volunteer 4,000 hours of their time to work for good causes. That’s two years, full time.
I was so furious that I was on the verge of gnawing my fists. Here was a lazy minded son of privilege who had never, to my knowledge, ever volunteered for anything in his life. A man who seemed to have energy only for self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment. A man who seemed to be devoid of empathy in the manner of a common brick: totally. And with that stupid grin he tells us that we, on the other hand, need to plan two years of our working life for unpaid service to America. Yes, I hate him, you might as well know it.
Obama’s request of us was more artful and less specific, but is he in a better position to ask us in the first place? Yes.
Think about this: I know some lawyers in Los Angeles who eschew big money work, preferring to devote their careers to law in the public interest. They work for organizations which provide legal services to people who otherwise could not afford the assistance of counsel. Some of these lawyers are extremely talented, and many did in fact have successful careers in the big money work before switching to public interest. I have often characterized their efforts as having a large volunteer component, i.e., if you take the large salary that they could command in for-profit legal work, and subtract the salary that they are paid for the public interest work, the remainder is the value of their volunteer work for a given year. For purposes of simple mathematics, let’s say that they could make twice as much money but choose not to. So they are providing six months of volunteer service every year. That’s a thousand hours per year, and some of these people have been at it for a long time. They are the heroes of service to America.
President Obama was the head of the law review at the law school of Harvard University. When he graduated, he had a clear shot at a hugely lucrative career for a big city, big money law firm. But he went to work for law in the public interest. He paid for his lavishly expensive education himself, and he only finished paying off the student loans a few years ago. He made a great sacrifice in the hope of helping people less fortunate than himself.
So yes, Obama has a license to suggest that we, too, consider offering some service to America. Try it, you might like it.