The Cable

Ben Bernanke: Being In the Military Won’t Actually Help You in the Real World

The U.S. military has spent tens of millions of dollars on TV advertising promoting the armed forces as a great way to acquire skills and training that will pay dividends in the private sector. But on Monday, one of the country’s most respected observers of the U.S. labor force, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, directly contradicted that message.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 17:  Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaks during a forum hosted by the Brookings Institute August 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. The forum focused on defense economy and american prosperity.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 17: Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaks during a forum hosted by the Brookings Institute August 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. The forum focused on defense economy and american prosperity. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The U.S. military has spent tens of millions of dollars on TV advertising promoting the armed forces as a great way to acquire skills and training that will pay dividends in the private sector. But on Monday, one of the country’s most respected observers of the U.S. labor force, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, directly contradicted that message.

“The evidence appears to be that there really is not an advantage,” Bernanke told a crowd at a Brookings Institution event in Washington. “If you go into the military at age 18 — versus an identical person who stays in the private sector and takes a private sector job — 10 years later, if you leave the military, your skills and wages are probably not going to be quite as high on average as the private sector person.”

Bernanke specifically called out the U.S. Army for using misleading advertising and noted that for veterans who left the military after 2001, the unemployment rate is just above 7 percent, as opposed to the national average of 5.3 percent.

“The military takes our younger people and uses them for good purposes, but it’s not really adding much to the private sector through training or other experience,” Bernanke said.

The remarks have already drawn heavy fire from veterans who say the renowned economist, widely credited for leading the Fed out of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, is wrong on the facts.  

“I am not sure where Mr. Bernanke got his information, but the current numbers just don’t reflect saying military service does not help you succeed in the private sector,” said Fred Wellman, a 22-year Army veteran and CEO of ScoutComms, a veteran-focused advocacy firm. “The most current surveys show that veterans are far more likely to be employed than non-veterans and earn higher median incomes in those jobs.”

Frustrated by the claim, Wellman added that Bernanke’s remarks were “just another example of the civil-military divide, wherein Americans have ill-informed or dated views of what veterans bring to our country.”

Phil Carter, an Army vet who served in Iraq and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says the reality is more complicated than both sides are letting on.

According to surveys and data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Wellman is correct that the total unemployment rate for veterans overall is lower than for the general public. However, Bernanke is also correct that post-9/11 veterans, specifically, have a higher unemployment rate than non-veterans when adjusting for demographic differences.

Carter said that an important factor is that veterans who served prior to 9/11 — predominantly white males — tend to do well in the private sector and are beating the national average for unemployment by a significant margin, a fact that distorts the average.

However, he also pushed back against Bernanke, noting that post-9/11 veterans won’t immediately see a benefit from military service due to the time it takes to readjust to private sector work. But, he said, those skills do pay off over time — which will be reflected in future surveys.

“It takes time for veterans to catch up, but the data show that they do catch up and, in many ways, surpass their peers over time,” he said.

Ultimately though, Carter acknowledged that Bernanke’s contention is a sensitive one because it threatens the entire premise of America’s modern military. “Bernanke’s speaking a very uncomfortable truth that goes to the core of the all-volunteer force,” said Carter. “The whole idea is it can recruit people by saying, ‘You’ll serve your country and be better off afterwards,’” he said. “Bernanke’s comments suggest that might not be true, and that’s a big problem for the all-volunteer force.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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