Best Defense

Time to stop the military welfare train?

I disagree with the post below from John Byron, king of the diesel submariners, but I agree with him that this is a discussion worth having. One of the governing principles of this blog is that no one is right all the time, and that we spend our time best by listening to the reasonable ...

tom.arthur/flickr
tom.arthur/flickr

I disagree with the post below from John Byron, king of the diesel submariners, but I agree with him that this is a discussion worth having. One of the governing principles of this blog is that no one is right all the time, and that we spend our time best by listening to the reasonable arguments offered by those with whom we disagree. 

By Capt. John Byron, US Navy (ret.)
Best Defense contrarian bureau

Your postings on the DOD spouse tuition issue and other military-family concerns begs the question: Why is the military in this business? I think it’s time for a robust discussion of the overall military welfare system.

It started in paternalistic concerns with the well-being of single (mostly) and married enlisted and officers at distant posts far from the amenities of civilian life. That was many decades ago; American life has changed greatly since then. Now we have civilization right next to nearly all posts and the full range of family services and benefits furnished in-kind by the military readily available right next door in the civilian economy.

But not all service members can take advantage of all the benefits provided in kind all the time. The imputed compensation resident in the benefit system is unevenly distributed. For example, married get more benefits than single; there’s military housing for only one-third of military families; how much you save at the commissary is a function of how big your family is; the value of auto hobby shops and boat rentals and horse stables is a function of your interests; location determines the range of services available, with many missing from many posts; etc.

In addition to this unequal and ultimately unfair distribution of benefits, the overall military welfare system has a net effect of isolating the military and its families from the society it serves. And this leads to a natural tendency towards an insulated sense of entitlement and superiority; military people are just naturally better than civilians. Or so seem to think many in uniform and their spouses. That’s an odd inversion of what ‘service’ means.

Furthermore, the military benefits system establishes direct government competition with private businesses: the Federal Government competes with its citizens. Odd in a free-enterprise society. And were this removed, the range and depth of services available on the civilian economy adjacent to military posts would greatly expand.

What makes this all worse is the pernicious effect of the 1940 Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act, updated in 2003 as the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. One cannot decry most of the valuable features of this law designed to keep members of the military from being preyed upon by shady merchants near bases: those parts of the Act are useful and even necessary. But two provisions of this law further the isolation of military members and families: they can vote elsewhere; they don’t pay many local or state taxes. Thus they have no skin in the local game… nor voice, for that matter. And the system gets gamed, with many members migrating their home-of-record to states with no income tax etc. These aspects of that law remove military individuals and their families from the life of the communities in which they reside, furthering the isolation.

So. Two major overhauls:

  • One: monetize all benefits and put the cash value in the paychecks of the individual service member (with minimal services provided in kind where absolutely necessary at truly isolated posts). End the military welfare system. Get out of the planned-economy mode of dealing with military families and let the individuals decide how they want to live and where they spend their money. (A friend makes the point that we spent 4 decades fighting communism but fully adapted most of its features in the way we run our military support system).
  • Two: make individual service members pay local/state taxes and give them voting rights only where they are stationed, not where they joined service or reenlisted.

DOD would love this. The radical reduction in benefit-related bureaucracy and support staffs would sharpen mission focus and make huge savings, even with full monetizing of benefits. And the military itself will have rejoined American society as full-fledged, fully responsible citizens. Somehow I think that better than continuation of this hot-house-flower vision of the military family. Freedom? Or paternalism?

Time for this discussion….

Tom again: What think you? Is he right? How would his proposed changes affect the all-volunteer force?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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