Public-private joint efforts | Ott Observations


I’ve been thinking about President Biden’s proposals to help students with college debt. 

I do believe there is a real problem with the costs of attending college, which limits who can attend. This works against a growing and more sophisticated economy that needs more and more people with higher education skills.

But I don’t think the Biden plan is a good one. 

I agree with those opponents who say it’s unfair to arbitrarily excuse debt for some while others worked hard to repay their school debt. But more importantly, I don’t think the plan does much about either the cost problem or the shortages of skilled people.

There is an approach to school debt that has proven successful and could be applied more broadly… in concert with labor gaps in our country. 

Our military academies provide a free education, with the stipulation you serve five years of active duty after graduation. 

To combat nursing shortages, hospital systems have started offering free education in exchange for a five-year commitment to work in the sponsoring hospital.

This approach could be applied to our teacher shortage. Aspiring teachers could be educated for free in exchange for their willingness to work the first five years at a school with a chronic teacher shortage. 

They get a guaranteed job right out of school and no pressure to repay school debt from a teacher’s starting salary.

This approach might also help increase staffing to address the overwhelming number of people applying to the U.S. for asylum. 

Applying for asylum is legal, and applicants are supposed to be assessed for legitimacy of their need. The problem is that our processing system has been deluged by the number of people coming to the U.S. for a chance at a better life. 

The situation has invited justifiable criticism about both the humanity of people waiting months to be processed and the risks of dangerous people entering our country.

Anyone who wants to get out from under school debt could work in this process for a period of time in relation to their amount of debt. Our needs include people to investigate applications as well as people to do the social work of helping accepted applicants find their place in the U.S. 

Many communities, including St. Louis, want such people to revitalize neighborhoods in decline and to fill chronically unstaffed jobs. With more help, we can streamline this process to everyone’s benefit.

Our federal government can provide more help as well. The Army maintains resources and logistical expertise to house and feed hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the field of combat. When we’re not engaged in a war, why not use these resources similarly for the thousands seeking asylum? 

It would be very good practice.

Many labor intensive industries would benefit from an organized and predictable flow of asylum seekers and immigrants transitioning into our workplace. 

Produce farmers, restaurants, hotels, roofing and lawn service companies are all dependent on an adequate workforce for relatively low skill and low paying jobs. 

Our economy would clearly benefit.

I’ve always believed disaster relief could be improved by better public-private coordination. 

FEMA can jointly plan in advance with and rapidly deploy private charities such as Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other organizations that know how to organize volunteers. 

Again, logistics can be managed by our military, especially when heavy equipment or air/ship transport is required. The hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico a few years ago is a perfect case study to determine how relief and recovery could be accomplished much faster through better organized joint efforts.

Americans have the will to accomplish noble things. It’s embedded in our national DNA. 

Consider the Berlin airlift. Shortly after World War II, the Russians blockaded West Berlin, cutting off all supplies. The U.S. led a coalition of nations to airlift everything one of the largest cities in Europe needed to survive. 

For over a year, airplanes were landing almost every 30 seconds with coal, gas, food, medicine and other critical supplies.

Overall, 250,000 flights delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies.

Sometimes, stubborn ideology gets in the way of our will to accomplish great things. 

I believe in a free market and its ability to eventually self-correct. But corrections take time and a lot of citizens end up suffering. 

The intelligent application of something like school debt relief and other government funded incentives can speed transitions for the benefit of all.

Besides national will, public-private coordination requires leaders with extraordinary complex project management skills. 

Before he became president, Herbert Hoover led the effort to feed Europe after World War I. President Truman asked him to come out of retirement to do the same thing after World War II.

Too many people in government cabinet and agency positions are placed there due to political loyalties, not proven skills. At critical times in our past, our government has reached out to skilled people who can manage complex initiatives. 

One of those times is now.

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