David R. Henderson  

Obama's View of Service

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In a strange ad on TV, President Obama encourages us to serve. My purpose in this post is not to make a point I have already made elsewhere (here and here), namely, that everyone who produces a product or a service for others does serve and that many people in government who are said to "serve" don't.

This time, my point is different. Even on his own terms, President Obama's view of service makes no sense. Most of his examples work. The ad shows people doing volunteer work for others and he calls them explicitly "volunteers." Here's the part that doesn't work: he shows an American walking on the moon. It's true that that person wasn't drafted; he volunteered for the job. But he wasn't a volunteer in the sense that is usually meant. He was a paid employee of the U.S. government.

And in case we missed the point, President Obama ends up saying words to the effect, "You may ask, 'what's my moon.'"

Here's what I think is going on. President Obama wants us to think "service" means either volunteering for non-profit activities (which most of us already agree is service) or doing government work and being on a payroll.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
OneEyedMan writes:

Maybe he wants us to think of service as anyone who takes a below market wage in the service of others. I still don't understand how astronauts would fit within that framework, but might include religious leaders, social workers, and soldiers.

Brandon Robison writes:

Let's not also forget Obama's plans for involuntary servitude for school age and high school age kids, which he of course calls volunteer service.

eric writes:

"How To Serve Man." It's a cookbook!

scott clark writes:

I am not so sure soldiers make a below market wage. Soldier pay has gone up 50% since 1998. They get housing, food, training, excercise, high tech equipment to work on, healthcare, pensions. So the military is competing in the market and they are competing on compensation.

AnnaMerkin writes:

I think he is suggesting that service entails any venture (for profit or not-for-profit) that seeks to strengthen the country's competitiveness - whether someone working as an astronaut or space engineer, someone volunteering for a cause that strengthens the "human capital" in America, or someone who educates future scientists, entrepreneurs, etc.

It seems fairly obvious to me. Then again, I actually think the guy believes that we've lost a sense of responsibility to the broader community in making our country a better place.

Chuck writes:

I really think your reading too much into this David Henderson. Obama wants people to volunteer within their community, and feels not enough people are doing this. Yes, we already know what this means. Obama isn't redefining it, he is re-publicizing it.

I know you like to over-analyze things, but this isn't one of them. Just move on and go on with your usual critics.

Methinks writes:

I don't really care what Obama means.

I resent my wealth confiscated from me (as I am one of the people who still actually pays taxes) to pay for huge collectivist propaganda campaigns to shame me into believing that the state is more important than my family.

I don't need Obama to define my community or my responsibilities for me.

Les writes:

In my opinion Methinks has it exactly right!

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Chuck,
If I'm reading too much into it, which, I admit, I do from time to time, and if he simply wants to encourage people to volunteer in their community, then you need or he needs to explain why he used the well-paid astronaut.
David

Ben Mason writes:

Soldiers earn exactly the market wage. Astronauts earn exactly the market wage. Bloggers...

JP writes:

AnnaMerkin -- I think you're missing Prof. Henderson's point. Everyone who provides what other people want or need does a public service. The person who runs a bagel shop and makes all those commuters happy in the morning is performing no less of a public service than the person administering drivers' tests at the Department of Motor Vehicles or the person drafting regulations at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

guthrie writes:

Let's not forget that the Apollo mission is a lynchpin in Obama's rhetoric to highlight 'hope' and 'aspiration', such as his plan to delete oil as an energy source and replace it with... something...

So the invocation isn't out of character, weather it makes sense or not.

BTW 'my moon' IS the moon, but only if I can go there as a private business owner...!

Tre Jones writes:

I disagree. I don't think he "wants" us to equate service with government work. Even if that is the valid extensional conclusion drawn from the images, I believe the intended message is a Lakoff-ian suggestion: service is a great and noble act.

The signal isn't as devious as you imply. Astronauts on the moon frequently connote (intensional meaning, in the language of linguists) greatness, honor, and patriotism. This ad is just trying to get those connotations to rub off on public service.

A separate issue: you can make an economic argument for public service. Yes, I do a public service as a business owner by providing goods that are desired more than the price I sell them for. But frequently the opportunity cost of public service activities isn't that I sell fewer goods. Instead, public service frequently occurs during leisure time. A Sunday afternoon spent working a bake sale for the local homeless shelter instead of watching televised golf generates additional value.

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