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Entitlement Mentality Affecting US Military Preparedness

Posted by Steve Markowitz on October 1, 2013

Today the focus is understandably on the US government shutdown.  President Obama blames the Republicans and the Republican Congress blames the President.  Both contentions are political mere sideshows to the real economic problems facing the Country.  The United States’ overall fiscal problem is that we spend too much money, more each year that we bring in in tax revenues.  How the money is spent or wasted is secondary to the fact that we are stealing from our children’s future to our benefits today.

There are times when it is reasonable for a country to spend more than it brings in such as real economic crisis and war.  However, when a Country continues to run deficits year after year and ignores the perils of the excessive behavior, it is a clear sign of a country degenerating, both economically and morally.

As the federal government grew during the past hundred years, accelerating in the past fifty, it found new ways to generate revenues, i.e. taxes.  Some of these revenues were used appropriately to build infrastructure and supply Americans with essential services.  However, more recent the taxation system became a methodology to redistribute wealth from some Americans to others.  This includes corporate welfare with companies given special tax breaks, as well as entitlements to individuals, some of who are deserving and others who are not.  Also, as the federal government grew, a greater number of Americans became employed by that government and are now dependent on it for their livelihood.  Finally, when enough funds tax revenues could not sustain this perverse payments system, the government began running ever larger deficits.

One’s personal views and needs will likely affect who one believes is truly deserve it of the government’s sugar. This is irrelevant to the fact that when a government takes resources from some Americans and gives it to others it is a corruptive force.

Often those on the Right focus on entitlements given in the form of social programs as being corruptive to the capitalistic system.  While this assumption is correct to an extent, the social welfare given businesses, i.e. the military and other pet projects of the Right, are just as corruptive and damaging to the overall economy.

McKenzie Eaglen and Michael O’Hanlon wrote an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal last summer titled Military Entitlements Are Killing Readiness that reviews how the corruptive entitlement mentality is damaging the United States’ military and its preparedness.  Eaglen O’Hanlon list some of the entitlements military personnel currently receive including: 1) health coverage for life with minimal cost sharing, 2) retiree pensions and 3) housing allowances, grocery discounts, tuition assistance, and tax breaks more.

While many contend that our military personnel deserve such perks for serving the Country, the same argument can be made for many parts of society including police officers, firefighters, etc.  In fact this same argument has often made for municipal workers and has resulted in many cities and municipalities having to cut services in order to honor these entitlement benefits.

Now, the increasing cost of the entitlements is beginning to squeeze out the United States’ military capabilities and preparedness.  Here are facts presented by Eaglen and O’Hanlon:

  • The Navy will retire more ships over the next five years than it will build, with the fleet now at only 285 vessels.
  • The Air Force has one-third the number of bombers it had during the early 1970s and is currently is aging.  The relatively newest B-2 stealth bombers are two decades old.
  • In 2014, active duty Army and Marine Corps personnel are set to decrease by over 10% from 2010.

Should the above decreases be the result of a shrinking budget, while it may be bad policy, it would be an understandable economic decision. However, these decreases are more problematic when considered in tandem with the pay/benefit increases given military personnel that according to Eaglen and O’Hanlon include:

  • From 2001 to 2012, inflation-adjusted compensation cost per active-duty service member grew 56%.
  • From 2000 to 2010, the military’s health-care costs skyrocketed 180%, to $49.8 billion from $17.8 billion—more than double the rate of the national increase.  Tricare, a highly subsidized health care system for military retirees, provide members free health care for life.   This had led to over use. For example, in 2004 benefit recipients used outpatient services 44% higher than in civilian plans; with the inpatient rate 60% higher.
  • Military retirees have very generous pension benefits.  One benefit includes receiving 50% of the average salary for the three highest pay years after only 20 years of service.  This benefit also includes a cost-of-living adjustment.  In 2011 this system cost $20 billion, but also has a perverse impact on combat veterans who rarely serve for a full 20 years and therefore receive no pension benefits.
  • There are currently 760,000 civilians working for the military, a number that continues to increase even though the number of active-duty military personnel has decreased.

Certainly our Country should take care of its military servicemen and women, especially those that served in combat.  However, that does not justify pay scales or benefits that are considered sacrosanct by some.  As these pay and benefit costs squeeze out available funds for weapons and training, we are not only doing the Country an injustice, but also those that serve.

It is politically impossible to rein in the cost of any significant governmental program as long as the government is allowed to deficit spend..  Only when we stop robbing from future generations will true political wrangling and compromise be allowed to assist in bringing government spending under control, a requirement for any successful democracy in the long term.

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2 Responses to “Entitlement Mentality Affecting US Military Preparedness”

  1. Dave C. said

    I’d like to take some time to address your general categorization of military benefits as “entitlements,” which you cite by reference to the Wall Street Journal article Military Entitlements Are Killing Readiness by McKenzie Eaglen and Michael O’Hanlon. Unfortunately, it seems that you’ve adopted Eaglen and O’Hanlon’s position that benefits to military personnel such as “…housing allowances, grocery discounts, tuition assistance, tax breaks and more…” are, indeed, entitlements. Given the connotation of entitlements outside of Social Security and Medicaid/Medicare as generally negative, I believe the direct correlation to these benefits for military personnel as “entitlements” does a tremendous disservice to our men and women in uniform.

    The current annual rate of compensation for an Army E5 Sergeant at the 75th percentile is $27,646 (http://www1.salary.com/E5-Sergeant-Army-Salary.html). This particular category of military personnel might arguably be said to be the backbone of the Army’s fighting force, with many personnel among this rank serving as career soldiers. Without this non-com category of soldiers, there would be no viable Army. Even given their important role in our military, their (75th percentile) rate of pay equates to about $13 per hour for a 40-hour work week. I don’t know how in the world we can expect a career soldier with the responsibility and experience of an Army Sergeant to support a family on $13 per hour without providing supplemental compensation such as housing allowances, discounted groceries, tuition assistance and tax breaks. There is no way the Army could sustain a viable force without such supplemental compensation paid out to entice the most experienced personnel to serve in the capacity of an E5.

    In your posting, you also cite the increase in inflation-adjusted pay for military personnel over the past decade. In July of 2000, an E5 with more than 6 years of service was earning $20,580 (http://www.military.com/benefits/military-pay/charts/historical-military-pay-rates.html). While this figure might not be adjusted for inflation, this figure may reflect – when averaged with pay increases throughout the military over the past decade – an increase within the overall 56% which you cite. Given that assumption, I believe the pay received by an E5 in the year 2000 (less than $9.90 per hour for a 40 hour work week) was also woefully inadequate compensation for a career soldier supporting a family, without the supplemental compensation of housing assistance, grocery discounts, etc.

    The military reductions you cite relative to decreasing numbers of ships, planes and personnel are, indeed, dangerous to our national defense and, at the very least, “bad policy” as you suggest. (That’s a discussion for another time.) The increase in healthcare costs to the military, however, which you cite from Eaglen and O’Hanlon, are very well in line with the private sector during the same time period. The overall increase in private sector healthcare costs from 200 to 2010 was 133.8% (http://kff.org/slideshow/health-spending-trends-and-impact/). The difference between this rate of increase and the 180% cited by Eaglen and O’Hanlon is, I believe, entirely attributable to government inefficiency in management of virtually any program, particularly healthcare programs. (Don’t get me started on the ACA!!) The increase in healthcare costs to the military over this time is, I believe, no indication at all of inappropriate benefits or “entitlements.”

    As for military retiree benefits, the rate you cite from Eaglen and O’Hanlon is exactly in line with most civilian-sector public servants in the public safety sector. NYPD police, for example, can earn half their final-year salary after 22 years of service (http://www.nypdrecruit.com/benefits-salary/overview). While we hear horror stories about police and fire fighter benefits bankrupting cities (see Detroit), there is no evidence to suggest that the retirement benefits in particular are the cause of the bankruptcies (http://money.cnn.com/2013/07/23/retirement/detroit-pensions/). As you suggest, I believe that our military personnel are entitled (yes, entitled) to the same – or better – benefits as their civil-servant counterparts in police and fire service. (No, this argument should not be made for other civil servants.) The issue with the retirement benefits running out of control is, like with healthcare management, mismanagement of programs within our municipal, state and federal governments.

    No, I did not serve in the military. However, I’ve had the privilege of working with former military personnel throughout quasi-military training and a brief career in federal government law enforcement. It is that experience, living with and knowing former military personnel and their families – yes, to this day – which has compelled me to speak on their behalf, to argue that if anyone in this nation receives “entitlements” it’s not military personnel. If I had my druthers, I’d provide even greater compensation for all non-com personnel in all branches of the military. We too often take their service for granted. No, they are not in it for the paycheck. They are in it to learn a trade, to become educated under the GI Bill, which provides greater benefit to our society overall, to gain experience and discipline, and very often because of their sense of duty to Country. Any criticism over benefits paid out to military personnel should be directed to our federal government leadership for their consistent, pandemic squandering and mismanagement of tax dollars. Were it not for such disgraceful negligence of responsibility we could provide even greater, much deserved benefits to our military personnel for significantly less cost.

    Aside from this particular topic, I very much enjoy reading, and agree with, your blog postings. We are certainly like-minded in many, many respects. That being said, I thank you for your time and effort in broadcasting our mutual perspective on so many important matters. I look forward to your continued contribution of a common sense perspective to your readers.

    • Thanks Dave for taking the time to share your perspective on the issue of military pay, benefits, etc. Your arguments are well thought out and backed by facts that indicate a stronger understanding of this particular issue than I have.

      I agree that the use of the word “entitlements” is a stretched in the original article and my discussion of it. I take such liberties at times as I view my discussion in field of interest more on the macroeconomic level, then on the micro level. Let me explain further.
      While I agree that spending money on the military and more specifically on soldiers is a better use of taxpayer funds than many other wasted programs/expenditures by our government, from the macroeconomic perspective that really doesn’t matter. It is my belief that if the country continues to overspend, the result will be catastrophic. While I may find it more palatable to spend on programs I agree with, the result of continuing to overspend in the long run will ultimately lead to the same place.

      Democracy, the finest form of government, has the flaw of special interests that continually fight for their particular cause and use all sorts of logic to justify the expenditures. Depending on where one comes from on a particular item/issue will determine whether they buy into the logic. Given this, and my concern for deficit spending, I have concluded that the first order of business required to attempt to correct the country’s inappropriate financial direction is to eliminate deficit spending. Only by inflicting this strongest of controls on politicians in Washington can we hope to allocate expenditures with any level of efficiency and competency.

      Now back to some of the specific issues that you raised:

      You state, “The increase in healthcare costs to the military, however, which you cite from Eaglen and O’Hanlon, are very well in line with the private sector during the same time period.” This does not surprise me. However, it does not lessen the problem that unless these costs are brought under control our military and its capabilities will get smaller as a result. The military’s health-care cost is but a microcosm of the problem for the country. But, that is a subject for another discussion.

      You attribute much of the problem with increasing healthcare costs in the military “… entirely attributable to government inefficiency in management of virtually any program, particularly healthcare programs.” I agree and will take this conclusion step further. I believe that a significant portion of this country’s deficit spending and debt can be attributed to the same issues.

      You also state “As for military retiree benefits, the rate you cite from Eaglen and O’Hanlon is exactly in line with most civilian-sector public servants in the public safety sector. NYPD police, for example, can earn half their final-year salary after 22 years of service.” Over payment of benefits for government employees upon retirement is grotesque and since unfunded robs from future generation’s tax base. That is a separate subject that I do not believe can be used to justify a policy, one way or another, for the military. More to the point, you correctly conclude that “The issue with the retirement benefits running out of control is, like with healthcare management, mismanagement of programs within our municipal, state and federal governments.” In addition, you appropriately conclude: “Any criticism over benefits paid out to military personnel should be directed to our federal government leadership for their consistent, pandemic squandering and mismanagement of tax dollars”.

      Yes, it is likely that you and I would agree on priorities for governmental spending and how it should be accomplished. That said, there is a significant portion of the country that would disagree on many of our priorities. Is this reality that is led me to focus on limiting the top level spending number. Only after that number is agreed to can any realistic/productive discussion on spending priorities be had.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

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