14 February 2016

DoD’s next challenge: managing the fall of our military welfare state

Summary: The military is often described as a test tube for American social science, running experiments such as integration of race, sex, and gender in its relatively controlled society. But the largest social science experiment in the military — perhaps the largest in US history — is DoD’s socialism. We close our eyes, preferring not to see it. Now the military’s spending priorities are changing, and we’ll see the effects on recruitment and retention as it is eroded away. Here Jennifer Mittelstadt explains the history and workings of the military “welfare state”. 

Military socialism under siege

Under pressure from the increasingly outlandish cost of hardware (e.g., carriers, the F-35), DoD has chosen to cut compensation of its people. It is one of the most important and least covered defense issues (a minor sideshow, keeping the A-10 Warthog, has received 100x the attention).

One of the best articles I’ve seen in years about this is “Welfare’s last stand” by Jennifer Mittelstadt (Assoc Prof of History at Rutgers) at Aeon, 21 September 2015 — “Long in retreat in the US, the welfare state found a haven in an unlikely place – the military, where it thrived for decades.”

Her essay does not respond the usual rebuttal to these facts: this social safety net is compensation for risk borne by our troops. In fact it covers everybody in our uniformed services, during peace and war. It is not limited to those in war zones. It is not limited to those experiencing non-combat risks greater than those of most civilian jobs (and the even smaller number exposed to risks greater than those of the most dangerous civilian job (logging and fishing).

I assume Mittelstadt called it “military welfare” for the shock value. In fact welfare is much more selective in its benefits than the “safety net” inside the military — so “military socialism” fits better.

For more see her book The Rise of the Military Welfare State (2015) — which I ordered today.
Opening of “Welfare’s last stand”

Over the past four decades in the United States, as the country has slashed its welfare state and employers gutted traditional job benefits, growing numbers of people, especially from the working class, grasped for a new safety net – the military. Everyone recognises that the US armed forces have become a global colossus. But few know that, along with bases and bombs, the US military constructed its own massive welfare state. In the waning decades of the 20th century, with US prosperity in decline, more than 10 million active‑duty personnel and their tens of millions of family members turned to the military for economic and social security.

The military welfare state is hidden in plain sight, its welfare function camouflaged by its war-making auspices. Only the richest Americans could hope to access a more systematic welfare network. Military social welfare features a web of near-universal coverage for soldiers and their families – housing, healthcare, childcare, family counselling, legal assistance, education benefits, and more.

The programmes constitute a multi-billion-dollar-per-year safety net, at times accounting for nearly 50% of the Department of Defense budget (DoD). Their real costs spread over several divisions of the defence budget creating a system so vast that the DoD acknowledged it could not accurately reckon its total expense.

Jennifer Mittelstadt.

Most Americans would not imagine that the military welfare state has anything to do with them. After all, in the era since the end of the draft and the advent of the all-volunteer force, military service has become the province of the few: just 0.5 per cent of Americans now serve in the armed forces.

But the history of the military welfare state tells us a great deal about citizenship and welfare. Its rise correlated with and, in some instances, caused the decline of the civilian welfare state, creating a diverging and unequal set of entitlements. And the recent transformation of the military welfare state – a massive privatisation and outsourcing -– signals an even more dangerous future for the civilian welfare state.
———— End excerpt. Read the full article at aeon. ————

Our leaders have two goals: maintain a large and strong military (requiring a long-service corps of highly trained experts and professionals) and cut the cost of maintaining this force (to continue feeding the ever-growing hunger of military contractors with large contracts for high-tech equipment.

This collides with a citizenry having little interest in overseas adventures and decreasing interest in military service — with an increasing number of young people no longer even fit for military service. DoD has compensated for these trends during the past 35 years by increasing pay and benefits. Even so they had difficulty filling the ranks during the post-9/11 wars.

Now DoD plans to reduce compensation (broadly defined) for those serving in the armed forces — perhaps hoping that recruiting more women will offset their reduced incentives so there is no repeat of the Army’s 1990s retention problems. Perhaps they assume that our rotting education system and slowing economic growth will push increasingly desperate children from the lower middle class into uniform (as the 19th century British military filled its ranks). If not, they will find recruitment and retention increasingly challenging.

Even if successful, this means the US military’s culture will change — probably radically. If unsuccessful, even more radical changes might prove necessary. it’s another round of social experimentation with our troops as guinea pigs.
Interesting comments at Lawyers, Guns and Money about this article

{I} learned to be a liberal in the US Army. Aside from the silly rank games, it was a liberal utopia. Nobody went hungry, universal health care without copays or coinsurance, everyone had clothing and shelter, and there was education free or nearly free right on post. We succeeded or failed as a unit and nobody got left behind.

To have fellow soldier go without food would be unthinkable in the military. To have a few million children go without food is a fap dream to right wingers everywhere. {By Tsam.}

You look at that and think “that’s awesome, liberalism works.” Others just learn to take it for granted and don’t even realize it’s there. Much like society as a whole doesn’t realize how much of what makes it work is the remnants of what the “socialists” built over the 20th century.

One of my officer cousins posted a “things that people in the military know that others don’t” thing a little while ago, one of the things being “we know what it’s like to live with socialized health care,” their benefits apparently being a fate worse than death. Because I’m a nice guy and because I value peace at the inevitable family reunions, I managed not to respond “yeah. Too bad you don’t know what it’s like to have no health insurance.”

… unfortunately, people who have these kinds of benefits tend to take them for granted.

It’s no accident that the “Nixon/Reagan Democrat” demographic that swung hard from one party to the other – white Southerners and, to a lesser but still significant extent, “ethnic white” Northerners – were the same people who were the foundation of the New Deal coalition and benefited the most from the new liberal state. Live with the benefits long enough and you start to forget they were ever not-there. It’s the nasty side of the “what has the party done for me lately?” aspect of politics. (By CP.}

And even with the silly rank games, the Army ethos(?) stress the egalitarian. Soldiers and officers wear the same uniforms; in the field they eat the same food and live in the same conditions. In my day young officers were trained that the soldiers ate first (when we had hot food); if there’s not enough food, the lieutenant goes hungry.

When my wife was in grad school, we brought some of her fellow students on base and did the windshield tour. That’s the medical clinic, that’s the church, that’s the subsidized day-care center, that’s the subsidized/non-profit grocer, there’s the free gym. One asked if soldiers leaned liberal with all of this. Unfortunately, generally not; it’s invisible to most of them. {By Wapiti.}

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