United States Corona CorpsApril 24, 2020
My mom raised me on her own, on a secretary’s salary. Each day she’d wake up at 6:30 so she could be in her car by 7:30 to make the drive downtown to the Southwestern School of Law, where she oversaw the secretarial pool. She had little to no idea what I was up to during the day. I was a mediocre kid (being generous) at a mediocre high school (University High School) in Santa Monica, surrounded by kids who used to steal cocaine from their parents and race their parents’ cars on Sunset Boulevard. Not so much Fast & Furious as Lame & Entitled. Key to my escaping my tumble toward an unremarkable life was my best friend, Brett.
Brett’s defining feature was his faith — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brett, his family, and his church took me in. I played on their sports teams, went to dinners on Monday family nights at the Jarvises, attended dances, and even dated (if you could call it that) some Mormon girls. There was no proselytizing, nobody ever asked me or my mom for anything, or made me feel anything but welcome.
Brett also gave me the sense that I could go to a good college, as he had decided he was going to Stanford. Brett was smarter and harder working than me, but not that much smarter or harder working. After his freshman year at Stanford, similar to his older brother and his dad before that, Brett went on a mission. In his case, to Brussels.
The LDS church has 67,000 full-time missionaries around the world. Most are young people under 25, serving for 18-24 months. They fund their own missions. Most missionaries proselytize, but service hours are required daily. In some parts of the world, they serve purely humanitarian/service missions.
The Peace Corps
In 1951, Representative John F. Kennedy said, “young college graduates would find a full life in bringing technical advice and assistance to the underprivileged” around the world. In that calling, they would “follow the constructive work done by the religious missionaries in these countries over the past 100 years.”
Almost a quarter of a million people, including pro wrestler Chyna and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, have served in 142 countries for the Peace Corps. With the outbreak of corona, all volunteers were evacuated from their posts.
I believe missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers, members of our armed services, and other public service people share an experience that’s key to the repair of our country: service to others that results in empathy and cooperation.
Some of the most important legislation of the 25 years post WWII was shaped by leaders who shared a common bond, larger than their politics or party — they had served their country in uniform. The saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Maybe, but I’m certain there are no progressives or conservatives in foxholes, just survival via the guy/gal next to you. The US is desperate for more leaders who’ve served in foxholes.
Specifically, we need a United States Corona Corps: volunteers 18-22 who will serve in a variety of roles to cauterize the spread of Covid-19.
Our nation’s response to corona has been a deadly mix of arrogance and incompetence. Distinct of the touching moments Americans reflexively manufacture, the hard truth is we have more deaths than China and Italy combined and more infections than much of Western Europe combined. This misery and economic destruction has been levied on our nation despite having more time to prepare for the virus, spending more on healthcare than any nation in the world, and supposedly having the most innovative private sector on the planet.
Stalin said one death is a tragedy, millions of deaths is a statistic. If several hundred Americans had perished due to incompetence and hoarding ventilators for, it would be involuntary manslaughter. But 49,000 deaths and counting is a statistic. Shameful.
The 2020 pandemic will be a stain on our nation’s history. The firewall between the pandemic and a profound change in the American experience is (now) a simple metric: the apex of the relapse. We know, without a vaccine or therapy that can be administered to tens of millions within months (unlikely), the virus will have another wave in late fall. If it comes back bigger and badder, FDR’s fear will be realized: fear itself will gain purchase, and we’ll lose our superpower as a nation … optimism.
The equation for flattening the curve is simple: Testing x Tracing x Isolation = Flattening. On the whole, unless you are a Floridian, Americans have answered the call to take up arms (distancing) against the enemy. Testing is still a sh*tshow, but private-sector leaders (Bezos, Bloomberg) are trying to fill the void of federal incompetence. The missing link may be tracing. We currently have approximately 2,500 tracers who focus mostly on STDs and food-borne illnesses. The amount of time, hours really, between someone coming into contact with the virus and being isolated is paramount. We need 100,000 to 300,000 tracers.
An Army Stands Ready
This fall, 4 million kids are supposed to show up on campuses around the nation. I have 170 kids registered for my fall Brand Strategy class. I don’t believe it’s going to happen. The thought of 170 kids sitting elbow to elbow in a classroom presents our trustees with a challenging scenario.
Covid-19 is pulling back the curtain (via Zoom) revealing a mediocre, yet expensive, jagged pill of learning that had been washed down by a four-year campus experience and certification. Tuition has progressed from extraordinary to risible. Prices need to come down, and a hybrid model of online and offline learning must improve dramatically. A recent survey reports 74% of college students are dissatisfied with online courses, and 1 in 6 incoming freshmen are considering deferment.
Families already halfway toward a degree or farther may tolerate the disruption. But there will be an explosion in the number of parents/kids who consider a gap year between high school and college. Google searches for “gap year” are up 69% since March, and traffic to the Gap Year Association is up 25% year to date.
Gap years should be the norm, not the exception. An increasingly ugly secret of campus life is that a mix of helicopter parenting and social media has rendered many 18-year-olds unfit for college. Parents drop them off at school, where university administrators have become mental health counselors. The structure of the Corona Corps would give kids (and let’s be honest, they are still kids) a chance to marinate and mature. The data supports this. 90% of kids who defer and take a gap year return to college and are more likely to graduate, with better grades. The Corps should be an option for non-college-bound youth as well.
The Corps would be trained in modern handheld technologies that provide facile, crisp communication and organization skills that arrest geometric spread. In addition, Corps members could become apprentices for jobs in key parts of the supply chain we now deem essential (delivery, warehouse workers, etc.). We send young people to the front lines of wars not because they are immune from bullets, but because they are willing, see enlisting as an opportunity, and want to serve something bigger than themselves.
With an ageist Covid-19, the Corps would be a fighting force with powers of defense no other cohort has. The mortality rate among people under 25 infected with corona is low. If they contract the virus, they would then qualify for an immunity badge that would likely, should virus recurrences become a static part of life for the next several years, enhance their utility and earnings power.
After 12-24 months in the Corona Corps, volunteers would receive a financial remission equivalent to 25-100% of tuition, based on household income, at their chosen university, putting higher education within the grasp of more households and reducing what has become an immoral burden on our youth — student debt. The cost, including $30,000/year salary while in the Corps, would be approximately $50 billion. That amounts to 2% of the funds allocated toward Covid-19 stimulus thus far. Put another way, for an additional 2% we can purchase a warranty that significantly reduces the need for another multi-trillion stimulus.
Our current efforts to combat the virus have been a cocktail of incompetence and borrowing trillions from future generations to flatten the curve of wealth erosion among Americans who are already rich. The PPP will go down as one of the most wasteful, even damaging bailouts in American history. We should be protecting people, not jobs. American small businesses were the wolves of the global economy. We’ve turned many of them into bitch poodles waiting at the door for government to come home and feed them.
Capitalism on the way up, and socialism on the way down is cronyism.
Small business owners and their investors are some of the wealthiest people in the country who have grown lethargic on a historic event — an unprecedented 11-year bull market. These firms need to get into fighting shape for what will be a new normal, not the consensual hallucination of a “V” recovery the administration and CNBC have entered into. The bailouts of Lockheed/Chrysler, LTCM, and banks all point to one learning (or lack thereof): the only financial CPR that saves the economy long-term is protecting people, not jobs or companies.
The reason American firms hire faster than any firms in the world is they can fire faster. By tying giveaways to unnatural retention of jobs, we just push unemployment back several months and waste funds that could provide what small business really needs: demand. For the cost of PPP we could provide 55 million US households with $12,000 of stimulus. Instead, we are putting millions in the hands of Shake Shack management, Axios investors, and … Harvard, the richest university in the world.
Greatness is in the agency of others.
Let’s fund a Corona Corps of young people who achieve true greatness for our country, while developing skills, empathy, and grit. 2.7 million people served in Vietnam. 21% of those killed were 21 or younger. Let’s assemble a fighting force of 500,000 18-25-year-olds, best suited to fight this foe, to defeat an enemy that’s taken more lives in 30 days than fell in a decade in Vietnam. We have an army of super-soldiers standing ready. Let’s arm them.
Life is so rich,
P.S. On this week’s Prof G Show, I spoke to Senator Michael Bennet about how we keep borrowing from future generations to protect corporations and fight endless wars. Also this week, catch yours truly in the mini-docu series VICE on Showtime, Sunday at 8, or stream at your leisure.