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What if there had been one really big idea — not necessarily a new idea, just a big one — on either side during the excessively long and embarrassingly expensive race for the White House in 2012? National service, for example?

It is ironic that George Romney, father of the unsuccessful Republican candidate and an unsuccessful presidential contender himself, became an advocate for national service long after his political career had ended. He often said, "National service should be as visible as the Post Office." Everyone sees the ubiquitous mailboxes and the soaring-flight images on the Postal Service logo.

Romney wanted national service in various forms — not just military, but also elder care, child care, conservation of natural resources, and rebuilding of national infrastructure — to become part of our culture, integral to the American way of life.

I think he was right, and it is time to take a good look at the potential for national revitalization associated with a creative program of national service.

There was, as everyone knows, compulsory military service during the Second World War. Later, in exchange for each month spent in the military, veterans of World War II were entitled to two months of higher or vocational education — tuition, fees and books — in independent or public institutions of their choice, paid for by the federal government. This was the so-called G.I. Bill of Rights, enacted because members of Congress feared that there would be widespread unemployment of Great Depression proportions when the veterans of World War II returned to civilian life.

The G.I. Bill turned out to be the greatest investment in human capital ever made in this country. And the return to the treasury — the higher taxes paid over the decades since 1950, thanks to the higher incomes that veterans earned as a result of the higher education they received — has been enormous. In effect, the program benefits proved, over the long run, to be self-financing.

In those days, young men between 18 and 26 years of age had no choice. If they were physically and mentally fit, they had to serve. It was a national emergency. Two words provided the rationale for compulsory service: Pearl Harbor. It would take a lot more than two words to come up with a rationale for a compulsory national service program today, and perhaps that case cannot be made.

But if a national service program were open now to all American men and women ages 18 to 26, and if the areas of service included nonmilitary opportunities like tutoring low-income children, cleaning up urban slums, and participating in conservation projects, it could have a major impact on this country.

The need for national service — compulsory or voluntary — lies in the evident drift and purposelessness in so many young people today.

Their parents see it; those who counsel them in high school or advise them in college see it. The unemployment statistics and the data collected on drug abuse, crime and, to a small but frightening degree, instances of youth suicide point to the problem. Does it all add up to a national emergency? I think it does.

Young people are not needed today on farms or in factories. But they could be used in meeting unmet societal and environmental needs.

Imagine the possibilities. Young people could mature and gain a sense of purpose during their years of service — as those who served during World War II did. And then they could take advantage of educational opportunities that would prepare them for productive careers — as the World War II vets did. The nation benefits, from both the service and the post-service productivity.

Anyone who hopes to succeed President Barack Obama in 2017 should be looking at national service. It would be wise to compute the historical cost and the return on investment associated with the G.I. Bill, if for no other reason than to anticipate the criticism that will certainly be voiced about the cost of any new national service program.

Of course, there is work to be done in figuring out how to arrange training and appropriate stipends for inductees into such a program and a need to design private-public partnerships that would usefully employ inductees to meet national needs. And thought should be given to the types and terms of post-service educational benefits to which every service member would have a claim. This educational benefit provision is crucially important because it would provide a solution to the current problem of unmanageably heavy student debt.

Presidential hopefuls should recognize that creative thinking along these lines could lead to a renewed sense of national purpose in America. The presidential debates should include a conversation about the benefits of national service.

William J. Byron is a Jesuit priest and professor of business and society at St. Joseph's University. He is an Army veteran of World War II who received his college education through the G.I. Bill. He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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