Makers & Takers vs The GI Bill

When Ronald Reagan convinced the nation that the nine most dangerous words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help, the Gipper knew better, even if his audience didn’t. Reagan was a member of the WW II generation and half his colleagues in Hollywood, from Newman to McQueen to Matthau, got their educations, training and first homes through the biggest of big government programs, the G.I. Bill.

Yet Reagan’s 1980s laugh line has become 21st century conventional wisdom, justification for slashing and spurning every government program in sight and, more recently, for constructing false and divisive labels about America being a land of good "makers" and bad "takers." This is a good time to recall that the generation that fought World War II,  memorably described by Tom Brokaw as "the Greatest Generation," didn't just serve their country. They also happily took more government aide, support and incentives than any other generation in the history of the world. And the United States is better, stronger and more prosperous because of it.

WW II vets register at Indiana University.
Consider what happened immediately after World War II ended: Millions of veterans lined up for hours, sometimes days, to register for free college educations, to buy homes with no money down and mortgages cheaper than rent, to sign up for vocational training and job counseling, and to apply for business and farm loans -- all courtesy of Uncle Sam and the original, epically generous G.I. Bill. The U.S. needed jobs, an educated work force, new industries, new products, new businesses and new housing, and the G.I. Bill, at great cost that has proved to be the most productive investment in history, jumpstarted it all, turning America into the world's first true super power.

Just imagine how a politician today would be pilloried if he proposed offering an entire generation free college, subsidized mortgages, job training and medical care. Why that would be a costly boondoggle, outright social engineering – it would violate Reagan’s dictum that government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem. Today’s unthinkable, however, was yesterday’s matter of course.

In the midst of war, two politically polar opposites -- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the American Legion -- joined forces to push Congress to pass the bipartisan G.I. Bill to aid 16 million veterans. That was 1 out of 8 Americans living at the time, most of a generation. The stated goal was to help vets rebuild their lives after war. But this investment in America’s future powered far more than a return to the status quo. It transformed the nation and the American Dream. It opened up the colleges that were formerly elite bastions (and kept them open ever after). It raised suburbs out of bean fields so a nation of renters became a nation of homeowners. It grew the middle class from 1 in 10 before the war to 1 in 3 a decade after. And it provided a legion of educated men and women to provide the medical, engineering and scientific prowess to conquer dread diseases, usher in the information age, and win the Cold War.

Such luminaries as Bob Dole, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William Rehnquist, Warren Christopher, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and George McGovern, among many others, got their starts with help from the World War II G.I. Bill, as did 14 Nobel Prize winners, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 450,000 engineers and a million assorted lawyers, nurses, businessmen, artists, actors, writers and pilots. Bob Taylor, a key creator of ARPAnet, the government funded project that became a little thing called the Internet, was G.I. Bill-educated (aftger serving in Korea). We seem to have forgotten that it was not unfettered free markets that transformed postwar America so much as a massive government program that intervened mightily in the housing, lending and education businesses, pushing (and subsidizing) them in ways they had long resisted – spreading the wealth as never before. Or since.

Costly? Sure, but the G.I. Bill was truly a hand-up, not a hand-out, as those who took the benefits ended up giving so much more back. The bill itself more than paid for itself. A 1988 congressional study found that every dollar spent on education under the bill returned $7 through increased productivity, higher wages, consumer spending and tax revenue. Fifty billion (in today’s dollars) earned a $350 billion return. The G.I. Bill left America safer, stronger, more united, and more prosperous. That’s called investing in the future, and supporting what the Founders would have called the commonwealth.

The creators of the original G.I. Bill understood that it would have power to transform America because it touched most of a whole generation. There is nothing like it today. Yes, there is still a G.I. Bill, but given the small percentage of the population in military service, fewer than 1% of Americans will receive those benefits, which in any case are not nearly as generous as the original. The G.I. Bill will never again be the sweeping engine of opportunity and prosperity that it was for America's Greatest Generation and the entire country. And America needs such an engine.

Before he died, FDR proposed a solution: national service. Young people would do good while earning education, medical, housing and pension benefits -- not just veterans, but everyone who pitched in to serve the commonwealth, a civilian GI Bill. National service could be used to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, expand the ranks of teachers, increase public health services, retrofit the country for money-saving energy efficiency -- investments that could yield dividends for generations and end the scourge of high unemployment. Polls suggested a receptive public when the immensely popular FDR proposed it, but the idea died with him. Bill Clinton tried a modest resurrection with his AmeriCorps project. Much more would be needed.

In an era when college is a growing financial burden for families, when home ownership grows less affordable each day, when the U.S. is losing its competitive edge in advanced degrees, and when the American Dream so generously nurtured after World War II is under siege, it is time again to expect greatness from our government – our common enterprise, our commonwealth. It is time to realize Reagan’s old saw was not truism but self-fulfilling prophecy. Before he convinced us otherwise, our American government bested the Great Depression, created Social Security, won WW II, ended racial segregation, eradicated the scourges of polio and small pox, harnessed the atom, put a man on the moon, rebuilt war-ravaged Europe and Japan with the Marshall Plan, and raised America to new heights by opening college and homeownership to a majority of Americans through the visionary G.I. Bill. Such is the legacy of greatness we inherited, the accomplishments of wise and bipartisan government. We all built that.

Now, for the first time in our history, polls show that Americans expect their children to inherit less prosperous lives than the current generation. This is a direct result of our embrace of those nine dangerous words, of seeing the commonwealth as a taking, when is fact it is all about making America better and stronger. Which legacy shall we leave behind?