Albion Monitor /Commentary

'Volunteerism' Lets Clinton Off The Hook

by Ted Rall

NEW YORK -- The oversized stop sign is still there. Ten years ago this October, the truck rolled into the Greenwich Village intersection at maybe 30 or 40 -- not that fast, really -- but just fast enough to slice the taxi driving perpendicularly into two neat pieces.

The driver opened the door of the front half and got out of his cab intact, but his two passengers -- a mother and her daughter -- died instantly when the semi passed over their bodies. I think of those two women whenever I stroll across that intersection on my way to Kim's Video. That's what it takes to get a new sign installed in New York City.

Institutionalized guilt labor lets the government off the hook
This week's Presidents' Summit for America's Future, a three-day symposium designed to inspire Americans to volunteer their spare time, reminded me of the stop sign in the Village. Bill Clinton, proud sponsor of a welfare law that doomed millions to hopeless poverty, joined his fellow former leaders, miscellaneous politicians and other corporate hooligans to whitewash graffiti from a wall in Philadelphia, put playground equipment together and gather trash in slums that wouldn't exist if not for their policies.

Clinton called for 2 million Americans (the other 260 million get to do nothing, apparently) to clean our streets, patrol our neighborhoods, treat our sick and teach our children -- tasks our former government used to pay sanitation workers, police officers, doctors and teachers a decent income to perform.

Former General Colin Powell commented: "This is not the time to say, 'Are you substituting for government?' This is a time for each and every one of us to look into our own heart, to look into our own community, find someone who is in need, find someone who is wanting." Mr. Powell, phone your office -- your former neighbors are waiting to hear from you in West Harlem.

Bill Clinton's New Volunteerism calls for Americans to serve their communities as a duty of citizenship, but it's no less cynical, or cheesy, than former warlord George Bush's Thousand Points O' Light program. Quite simply, it's the logical culmination of declining wages, a stagnant minimum wage and the export of good jobs overseas -- after years of shoving real pay downward, now Bill Clinton wants you to work for free.

Work without pay may be good for the soul, but it makes absolutely no sense economically.

First of all, volunteerism devalues work by implying that anyone can perform duties like teaching math with little or no training. But as anyone who has ever tried to cut their own hair can attest, there's a reason sane people leave certain things up to the pros. Who would you rather have teach your kid -- a real teacher or someone who can't find anything decent to watch on TV?

More importantly, each volunteer replaces a paid worker -- and puts another family on the unemployment line -- necessitating, presumably, more volunteers to take care of them.

Second, institutionalized guilt labor lets the government off the hook. They continue to collect a third of your income, but now they don't have to deliver anything in return. Does your road need repaving? Why, that's a job for you volunteers! Pitch in and rent out your own steamroller! Soon the military-industrial complex will be replaced by unpaid militiamen and waste-water treatment plants will be operated by the Boy Scouts. Clinton and his big biz handlers want us to expect nothing from our ever-increasing taxes, allowing them to abdicate all of their responsibilities at our expense.

Third, the call for volunteerism echoes the idealism of the New Deal, when WPA and CCC workers built bridges and parks all over America. But that was during the Depression -- and even those workers received paychecks. The United States is in the midst of the strongest and longest-sustained economic expansion of the last fifty years, with a stock market that just won't quit and corporate profits at impossible highs.

Americans will never appreciate the need to revoke colossal errors of governance until their unpleasant consequences come fully to pass
Contrary to the moans of our overfed politicians and CEOs, we live in the most incredibly wealthy country on earth, not in Mali. Encouraging already overworked Americans to give up what little free time they have now to volunteer their time and energy will reduce payrolls and eviscerate consumer spending, which drives two-thirds of our gross domestic product.

Lastly, there's the stop sign protocol, that law of human behavior that necessitates that total disaster must occur before reform can take place.

Just as a community protest would never have been as effective as the deaths of two women in a taxicab at getting a big stop sign installed on West 10th Street, Americans will never appreciate the need to revoke such colossal errors of governance as the welfare reform act until their unpleasant consequences come fully to pass. Let the litter gather on the sidewalks; let the armies of homeless wander the streets.

Not until the bridges collapse and the schools all close and everyone's children die from disease and graffiti blankets Beverly Hills will Americans begin to fully comprehend the dire consequences of the past few decades of budget cuts and punitive lawmaking. Until then, every act that mitigates those consequences -- whether it's painting a wall or tutoring a child -- is unpatriotic and treasonous.

Ted Rall, a syndicated cartoonist and writer for Universal Press Syndicate, is the author of Kill Your Parents Before They Kill You, a collection of essays and cartoons due to be published this fall

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Albion Monitor May 5, 1997 (

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