Witnessing the uprisings in the Middle East reminded me of the need to hold all governments accountable, and listening to the commencement speech at Middlebury College last month reinforced the importance of serving a cause greater than oneself. In America, one logical way to achieve these ends would be for people my age to enter public service after graduation, but the choice is not an easy one.
The moral argument for committing to public service has long been compelling. Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy inspired a generation to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." President Obama has used his own exceptional oratory skills to make similar calls to my generation. The reality is, we face drastically different challenges than the ones that JFK's baby boomers took on.
America is up against an astronomical debt, enormous environmental responsibilities, expanding international commitments, and a stalemate on nearly every contentious issue. But despite this mountain of problems, the public sector is shrinking. From 1961-2010 the number of federal employees has stayed roughly constant, while expenditures have risen to 4.7 times 1961 levels, and the population has more than doubled. This trend is unsustainable, and has already led to reliance on dubious private contractors, such as Xe (formerly Blackwater).
Sooner or later these problems will fall to my generation, but many of us are wary of entering public service.
For one, the barriers to entry seem prohibitively high. A prime example is the internship process for thousands of college students. These programs bring young blood into government offices while giving students a chance to evaluate possible career paths, but competition for these coveted spots has reached absurd new heights. Finding an internship now requires submitting tens of applications, an inside connection, and worse yet, the ability to foot the bill for room and board. All of this, and we're the ones working for free.
Even if we find a position, which is far from guaranteed, most of us come out soured by the long, stressful, and impersonal process. It is difficult to contemplate embarking on the inevitably tougher search for a paid government job, and even harder if you need to wait for a security clearance.
Another turnoff is that vicious partisan rhetoric has become sickeningly prolific on both sides of the aisle. I find it sad that the words 'critiques' and 'debate' have been replaced by 'attack.' One particularly low point came in 2004 when Vice President Cheney said he "felt better" after cursing Senator Leahy on the floor of the Senate. Like many Americans, I am tired of watching supposedly full-grown adults disrespect one another over a difference in opinion.
Besides setting a bad example for my generation, this inability to cooperate creates deadlock, which encourages officials to make unilateral decisions. The use of the military is a perfect example of how this problem affects my view of public service. As long as I have reason to believe that the decision to use force is being reached transparently and by consensus, I will always be willing to put my life on the line defending American interests. However, recent military deployments, ranging from Iraq to Libya, leave me far from convinced that proper procedures are being followed.
In the end, my generation is itching to make a difference, but we need guidance in order to fully utilize our largely untapped potential. A senator telling us to volunteer for their election campaign is not enough. It is time to make a greater moral and financial investment in the new generation of public servants that will be charged with finding innovative solutions to our nation's most pressing problems.
Looking to get involved? Start with the public service portal at USA.gov.