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An Unseen cost of Sequester: Closing Public Service

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As thousands of graduates complete their undergraduate and graduate studies this month few are likely to find career opportunities in public service. Recently a graduate of a top international relations master's program called the United States Navy's officer recruiting center at midday and reached a recording telling him to call during business hours, which was when he was calling. Although he left several messages, this graduate of an Ivy League college, who speaks Arabic and spent time living, studying, and traveling in the Middle East did not receive a call-back. Presumably, the sequester has reduced military recruiting operations.

In fact, one of the most consequential but unseen effects of the sequester and the budget cutting of the ill-informed deficit hawks is the risk of losing the talents of independent thinking, smart, well-educated young people, who would likely be exemplary public servants. Our government's failure to take advantage of graduates' up-to-date knowledge, innovative skills, and technological savvy, as well as the contributions they can make to our nation's security, will likely leave each of us and our country poorer.

As one who advises undergraduates as well as public policy master's and law students interested in government service, I have witnessed the anger and frustration of idealistic young people who are unable even to secure an interview for an entry level position to work in policy, national security, or Foreign Service arenas. They return from enlightening experiences in unpaid summer internships enthusiastic about the government's capacity to protect and change lives and, perhaps, even history. Yet as graduation approaches they discover that there are no professional opportunities in government. One young person described the process of applying for a government job, which can only be done online by uploading one's resume through usajobs.com, as the equivalent of dumping a document into her computer's trash icon.

Fortunately, many accomplished graduates have attractive private sector options. Investment banks and consulting firms are still willing to pay dazzling salaries to intelligent, educated and educable young people. Admittedly, those forced by cutbacks in government grant assistance to finance their tuition through loans may not have the luxury of seeking a lower paying government job. But, I am impressed by the numbers of those with choices who would be willing to defy the pervasive market mentality that justifies choosing the highest bidder for their services. If given the choice, they would forgo the big bucks associated with serving the private interests of the wealthy in favor of working to make a difference in ordinary people's lives. But the choice is not there.

The absence of choice both breeds cynicism and fosters dangerous rationalizations. Students see a government in which the few available jobs go primarily to those with political connections. Some realize that knowing "the right people" allows bypassing the usajobs.gov online application. They look for mentors and adapt their ideology to obtain referrals from professors with government connections. In our increasingly politically polarized environment, when government positions are perceived as limited to an elite group seeking to propagate their ideology, we are foreclosing the opportunity for insuring space for independent expertise.

Thus, those accepting a position in the financial sector rationalize that they are not really succumbing to the world in which, according Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, speculation is detached from legitimate social purpose. Rather, they maintain that they plan to make enough money so that they can eventually afford the lower income associated with government service. In some cases, it is difficult to discern whether this is naiveté or elitism. In either case, this view effectively translates into a plan to buy a high government post: a position to be purchased not necessarily earned. And the rest of us wonder why Americans so distrust government leaders.

The impact upon our country's future of turning a generation of young people away from public service, I believe, could be devastating. As more of our best and brightest are lured into the private sector, many into lucrative but socially unproductive jobs, we reduce the prestige and desirability of government service. We not only make cynics of our future leaders we foster public suspicions of government leadership. As government positions go to those with connections we preserve the status quo, maintain social inequities, and degrade the quality of public debate. When no one answers the phone at the military recruiting office and the FBI informs callers it is not taking applications for the next 12-18 months, we should all feel insecure about our nation's future.

Leslie Gerwin is the Associate Director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. She works with students at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, where she is an Adjunct Professor of Law.

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