The Optimist

Corps Concerns

In an age of globe-trotting American college kids, ubiquitous Internet access, and cell phone networks that reach even sub-Saharan cattle herders, does the world still need the Peace Corps?

The Peace Corps turns 50 this year, and its friends will tell you that the U.S. government-run program is as spry as it ever was: It retains a strong reputation, considerable bipartisan popularity, and the vocal appreciation of generations of returned volunteers. But a less friendly observer might point out that the agency also exhibits the signature fault of its Baby Boomer peers: It can't seem to move on from the 1960s.

The Peace Corps was born the year the Beatles first performed, Yuri Gagarin hurtled into space, and the United States joined the Vietnam War. The agency's model and aims, famously prescribed by President John F. Kennedy, are all of a piece with that moment in history. But the world has changed, and the Peace Corps should, too. A new model could deliver the volunteer experience to many more people for the same resources.

At the heart of the Peace Corps program are its volunteers: The organization has around 9,000 in the developing world at any given time, working on grassroots projects for two-year stints. The agency's mission is "to promote world peace and friendship" through three core goals: providing trained men and women to work in developing countries, increasing the world's understanding of Americans, and vice versa. Reflecting the agency's Cold War roots, Sargent Shriver, the first director of the agency, suggested that Peace Corps service was an "unparalleled opportunity to win friends and advance the cause of peace and freedom."

When it started, the Peace Corps had this playing field all to itself. In 1961, the agency was the only American volunteer organization operating internationally. But times have changed. For one thing, the corps no longer enjoys a monopoly on service abroad: In 2008, more than 1 million Americans reported volunteering in another country, according to Benjamin Lough at Washington University in St Louis. Alongside a number of other government-backed programs, organizations ranging from church groups to private companies to Doctors Without Borders send people overseas to provide everything from manual labor to advanced technical expertise.

The Peace Corps was designed to benefit its host countries by placing well-educated (if usually inexperienced) young Americans in undereducated developing economies. But in recent decades, those countries have stepped up their game in producing college and university graduates. Only 3 percent of the college-age population of Guatemala, a reliable favorite Peace Corps destination, actually attended college in 1970. That figure is 18 percent today.

The same is true of other countries with a large Peace Corps presence. Indonesia's college enrollment has grown from 3 to 21 percent over that period, and Panama's has climbed from 7 to 45 percent. It is surely worth thinking about the technical efficacy of spending more than seven times Panama's income per head each year keeping a Peace Corps volunteer at her station -- the agency's per-volunteer cost is around $104,000 -- when she has no more education than nearly half of her native-born peers in the country.

What about the first and foremost goal of winning friends? The original idea was that young, idealistic volunteers living in communities for extended periods of time would foster goodwill toward the United States. But according to Peace Corps surveys, only 44 percent of host country nationals who have interacted with a volunteer believed that Americans are committed to assisting other peoples. We do not know what people who had not met a Peace Corps volunteer would have said, but the result suggests that a lot of factors besides meeting 20-something American expatriates are determining attitudes toward the United States.

The Peace Corps is operating in a world where people in even remote regions have exponentially greater access to sources of information about American culture and foreign policy than they had in 1961. In 2008, about two out of every three dollars spent in movie theaters outside the United States were spent on U.S.-produced films. Millions of U.S. tourists and non-Peace Corps volunteers go abroad each year. And, worldwide, the Internet and TV are flooded with news about U.S. foreign policy from local and international sources. How many volunteers would it take to make up for the images broadcast around the globe of "Made in USA" labels stamped on the tear gas cannisters and rubber bullets shot at Egyptian pro-democracy protesters this month?

That leaves the third goal of the agency: promoting U.S. understanding of the rest of the world. The Peace Corps' accomplishments in this area are considerable: Over the years, the program has created a near 200,000-strong alumni base of people aware of -- and frequently very committed to -- global development. Talk to returned volunteers, and it is obvious that the Peace Corps can provide a hugely enriching and life-changing experience.

But even here, the world is a very different place than it was in 1961. Between 1996 and 2009 alone, the number of U.S. citizens traveling to Africa tripled to 399,000 a year; 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad in the 2008-2009 academic year, up from around 75,000 20 years ago. A lot of those studying did so in developing countries -- 13,681 in Africa and 3,670 in the Middle East, for example.

The Peace Corps does remain unique in its focus on long-term volunteer assignments in rural areas of developing countries. Still, the fact that the world is growing smaller does at least suggest there is less need for the considerable overhead attached to operating the Peace Corps under the current model than there was 50 years ago. For example, in 1970, there were fewer than 11,000 telephones in the entire country of Senegal, most of them in the capital city of Dakar. Today, there are 5.6 million of them, spread throughout the country. Similar trends worldwide are evident in the Peace Corps' own statistics -- 90 percent of its volunteers in the field now have a cell phone.

The Peace Corps' extended presence in its volunteer host countries, moreover, comes at a considerable cost. Lex Rieffel of the Brookings Institution suggests that more than half of the Peace Corps' overall budget went to staffing overseas offices compared to 28 percent that went to supporting volunteers in the field in 2004. Is there a need for a significant administrative infrastructure in country to ensure the safety and comfort of Peace Corps volunteers in nations like Belize, Costa Rica, Jamaica, or Thailand? Plenty of backpackers would tell you otherwise.

There is still a vital role for the Peace Corps. In fact, its goal of teaching Americans about the rest of the world is even more important today than it was in the 1960s, when the ties between America and the globe -- concerning issues from finance and trade to disease and the environment -- were far weaker. But the Peace Corps does need to adapt -- and it has plenty of models to follow. According to Brookings's Rieffel, there are private-sector programs that place volunteers overseas for between $5,000 and $6,000 a year, or about 10 percent of what the Peace Corps pays per volunteer. Trimming the current bureaucratic structure -- and perhaps rethinking the two-year commitment -- would expand the number of countries where the program could operate and allow the Peace Corps to attract more volunteers. Given all that, it would make considerable sense for the agency to move toward a model of awarding grants for overseas service rather than attempting to provide a full volunteer package.

One potential model is the Fulbright program. The program awarded approximately 6,000 grants in 2008 to U.S. students, teachers, professionals, and scholars to study, teach, lecture, and conduct research in more than 155 countries, and to their foreign counterparts to engage in similar activities in the United States. The cost to the U.S. government is about $32,000 per award recipient per year -- about $20,000 less than the Peace Corps. In addition, Fulbright scholarships are usually for an academic year or less, suggesting three times as many participants for each dollar of government funding. The grant program also has a wider reach than the Peace Corps in countries that are of particular strategic focus for the United States, which tend to impose risks that the Peace Corps is unwilling to take with its volunteers. Yemen, for example, has seen 70 visiting U.S. scholars since Fulbright's inception in 1946, and 426 Yemenis have come to the United States under the program. The Peace Corps, by contrast, has no one in Yemen, and indeed only two programs anywhere in North Africa or the Middle East.

In a new Peace Corps, grants could be offered directly to volunteers to cover the cost of travel and living in a developing country. The agency could set conditions on factors such as minimum length of service, security, language skills and training, focus countries, and the total cost of the proposed program. It would be a dramatic change from the current model, of course, and the corps might begin by rolling it out on a trial basis in some of its more welcoming host countries.

Regardless, the greater flexibility and lower overhead costs of a grant model would mean that the Peace Corps could both attract more applicants and deploy more volunteers even in a flat budget environment. Given the powerful impact of service on participants, these are changes the agency should warmly embrace -- even if it means accepting that the 1960s really are over.

Courtesy of U.S. Peace Corps

The Optimist

Invasion of the Alien Cattle

Why does the United States allow more foreign cattle to immigrate than it does people?

Immigrants to the United States, rights advocates say, are treated like cattle. Little do they know how wrong they are. Cattle are treated much better. In fact, as I write, alien cows are swarming America's borders, and the U.S. government is welcoming this mass of bovinity with open arms. Such inconsistency cries out for reform, and the steaks -- pardon,  stakes -- could hardly be higher.

In an age when anti-immigrant opinion shapes policy from Phoenix to Paris, there is one group that still manages to cross borders and swap nationalities with ease: cows. The United States places no caps on the number allowed in each year, and the country saw 2 million immigrant cattle in 2009, a year when only 1 million human immigrants became permanent residents and the Department of Homeland Security recorded an 800,000-person fall in the illegal immigrant population. In other words, the net flow of humans was about one-tenth the flow of cattle.

Cows can travel across global borders with relative impunity, covered by the umbrellas of the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement. When violence in Mexico made it more dangerous for U.S. government officials to travel across the border to pre-process bovine immigrants last year, the Agriculture Department immediately responded by opening up additional facilities inside the United States to ensure the cows weren't delayed in their relocation.

And the benefits of being a bovine don't stop at the border. Once in the United States, Canadian and Mexican cattle have to be treated just like native-born cows -- they can't be labeled differently to consumers or otherwise discriminated against. Canadian and Mexican people have no such luck. For example, Canadian Kiefer Sutherland, star of the hit TV show 24, couldn't apply for the government job he pretends to have on TV, despite his character's role as a forceful practitioner of truth, justice, and the American way.

One element of this bovine bias is that cows get immediate access to the U.S. welfare system. In 2009, 9 million dairy cows living in the United States received $1.35 billion in subsidies, regardless of their country of origin. That's about $20,000 a year per bovine household (or herd, which averages around 133 cows). Meanwhile, annual payments for the average human household on welfare are only around $16,800 -- and, of course, around four-fifths of legal immigrants aren't on any type of welfare at all, while illegal and nonpermanent human residents aren't even eligible. If you want to see a real welfare queen, check out a dairy cow.

What makes the U.S. favoritism toward cattle particularly odd is that every additional Mexican or Canuck cow actually is taking a job from a native-born cow -- a common argument against letting in non-American laborers. Demand for bovine labor has been falling over time, as both milk and beef become a smaller proportion of the U.S. diet.

Conversely, for humans, the net effect of immigration has been to create more jobs for native workers -- and especially low-skilled workers -- according to a 2010 analysis by economists Gianmarco Ottaviano, Giovanni Peri, and Greg Wright. That's because human immigrants boost demand for the output of other humans by doing jobs that would otherwise be outsourced abroad, producing goods for export, and spending money in the local market. Again, Peri compiles statistics from across U.S. states, finding that there is no evidence that immigrants crowd out native unskilled employment -- and considerable evidence that they actually increase productivity: Each 1 percent increase in employment due to immigrants is associated with a half-percent rise in state income per worker between 1960 and 2006.

Other studies suggest a somewhat less positive picture when it comes to low-skilled immigrants -- and in particular, their impact on low-skilled native-born Americans. But according to Harry Holzer of Georgetown University, the workers most likely to suffer competition at the hands of low-skilled immigrants are previous immigrants who have similar skills. Holzer also notes that both high- and low-income consumers alike benefit from the lower prices and greater availability of food, medical care, and housing that low-skilled immigrant workers produce. Meanwhile, David Card of the University of California, Berkeley, who studies inequality in American cities, argues that immigrants' impact on inequality is "modest." The real reasons for opposition to immigration, he reasons, must be social rather than economic.

From a global perspective, it is unfortunate that cows get treated so much better at the border than people. Migration is pretty much the fastest and most reliable method for improving quality of life in the human population. Work by my colleague Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development suggests that the same worker with the same skills doing the same job can earn six times more in the United States than in India, for example. Eight out of 10 Haitians worldwide who are living on more than $10 a day are living in the United States, leaving less than one-fifth of those relatively high earners living in Haiti itself. A lot of the income that Haitian immigrants are earning -- $1.5 billion-plus a year -- is sent home in the form of remittances. Meanwhile, immigration is a considerably more uncertain path to quality of life for foreign cows, many of whom are destined for the slaughterhouse.

Recent U.S. government initiatives have suggested a very weak understanding of the bovine-human imbalance in immigration treatment. While discussing his proposal to put an electric fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, Rep. Steve King said in 2006, "We do this with livestock all the time." Meanwhile, U.S. federal authorities have started attaching radio-frequency ID tags, similar to those used to track farm animals, to students from India. Both approaches will likely do more harm than good in dealing with the underlying issue.

In reality, there are two ways to remedy the imbalance. First, we might realize that we are being overly restrictive about human immigrants and, for both their sake and ours, relax immigration laws. As the current pecking order stands, domestic humans come first, followed by domestic and foreign cows, and then foreign humans. The foreign humans could be moved up one spot.

But the second, and surely more likely, response is to conclude that we are being too generous to foreign cows -- that we need a Mooveon.org or a Minutesteaks militia to kick into high gear and tackle the growing bovine menace at the border. Doubtless soon will come the day when the answer to "Where's the beef?" is "back in Tijuana, where it belongs."

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images