Tuesday, July 10, 2012

National Service for "Our Kids".... Again?

For reasons I can't quite fathom, Thomas Ricks wrote an essay arguing for a national service requirement for all young adults, and the New York Times published it. Thomas Ricks offers an informative blog, The Best Defense, through Foreign Policy Magazine. He's capable of informed comment on a variety of important issues relating to the military and national defense. I am thus surprised both by the superficiality of Ricks' argument on national service for high school graduates, and by why the Times would publish that essay instead of something more clearly within Ricks' established sphere of authority.

Ricks proposes a "revived draft" involving three tiers of service,
  1. Eighteen months of military service, not involving deployment but instead focused on mundane tasks such as "painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, with "low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition."

  2. A non-military option involving "slightly longer period and equally low pay," performing such tasks as "teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly". After two years participants would qualify for "tuition aid".

  3. Opting out - with the consequence being a complete loss of eligibility for government programs, "no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees".

Already, numerous problems appear. By offering significant benefits to those who choose the military without any associated risk - in fact, the proposed service sounds like a cushy cakewalk as compared to what Ricks has in mind for those who don't choose that option, and that's before you consider the shorter term of service and free tuition - you will flood the military with applications. Perhaps that's what Ricks intends, and he wants the military to have first pick of who can participate in its program, but there's only so much need - most applicants would be turned away.

That would put the military in a privileged position in terms of picking and choosing who would receive the most cushy forms of "service" and get the biggest benefit from service. Ricks suggests that this could be done by lottery", but I expect the military would want to be able to vet applicants before they even qualified for the lottery. And although I would like to believe that the military would approach the issue with a commitment to fairness and equality, I somehow believe that children of privilege would end up getting preference for admission and plum assignments. Also, given the significant privilege Ricks would provide for the military service, losers of the lottery would cry foul - "Expand the program," "This is discriminatory," "Do you have any idea who my father is"....

There's another issue: If all teens are required to participate in the "draft", kids who would enlist directly into the military will be stateside, "painting barracks, mowing lawns", etc., instead of being deployed. Perhaps Ricks would propose a fourth option - satisfying the national service through active duty enlistment? Would ROTC count as completion of the national service requirement, as if you remove the economic incentive to participate in ROTC while in college I suspect you would see a significant drop in participation by students who, having done their 18 months of barracks painting, were already getting free tuition. Five tiers, then?

Now compare what a person performing military service might do (painting barracks, mowing lawns) to what Ricks imagines an 18-year-old in non-military service might do (teaching in low-income areas, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure). I'm not aware of any reform movement that believes that 18-year-old kids are suitable classroom teachers for inner city schools, and the skills required to rebuild "crumbling infrastructure" are not modest. It appears that Ricks wants to privilege military service over non-military service, but he does not appear to appreciate the level of skill required by some of the tasks he would assign under the civilian program.

Finally, the libertarians. Government programs are funded through taxes, sometimes through dedicated taxes. If people who opt out are excluded from Medicare (and Social Security?) will they have to pay FICA? Even assuming, fifty years down the line, the "disqualified" individuals haven't achieved enough political clout to vote themselves back into Medicare, it's unlikely that we're going to tell retirees to die in the streets because they didn't participate in a public service program in their youth. Also, frankly, the potential loss of Medicare benefits is not likely to have much of an impression on an 18-year-old - Ricks has to appreciate from his experiences with the military how many 18-year-olds think, and it's not their robust abstract thinking skills and careful planning for the future that makes them appealing targets for military recruitment.

Ricks also presupposes that the participants in the national service program will be unmarried and will not have children. While I grant that marriage rates for 18-year-olds are low, there are plenty of older teens who are married, and even more who have children. And the same type of issues that arise with 18- and 19-year-old enlisted personnel will arise with older teens "drafted" to work on military bases. You will have single parents, you will have married couples, you will have program participants who become pregnant during their service, and you will have children to deal with. Let's also not forget about drugs and alcohol.

Some participants will also have medical issues and disabilities - unless we create yet another tier of (non-)service, allowing people to avoid service while remaining eligible for public benefits based upon their medical conditions.

Ricks seems to approach older teens with the eyes of a drill sergeant - that with enough discipline and oversight they can be made to work as a team, to comply with behavior codes, and to largely fall in line. Ricks appears to believe that a similar level of compliance can be achieved among teenagers, including many who would not be able to handle actual military discipline, in contexts that have high stakes and would necessarily involve a lot less oversight. It would be difficult to replicate the techniques used by the military to achieve unit cohesion, and peer pressure to comply with behavioral codes, even for those people whose service was performed on military bases. The idea that you could create such order and discipline in a gargantuan civilian program, offering everything from meals on wheels to daycare to public school teaching, is absurd.

And for housing, if the best idea Ricks can offer for accommodating hundreds of thousands of teenagers who are participating in the civilian public service program is that we should be "imaginative", "For example, V.A. hospitals might have space", why don't we admit up front that this is a non-starter? Ricks doesn't do much better in terms of the military side, suggesting that we might house "conscript soldiers on closed military bases". Reopen closed bases so that conscripts could paint the barracks, mow the lawns, and drive generals around closed bases? I'm not seeing the benefit.

Rick's basic lack of understanding of the civilian side of the equation is betrayed by his belief that governments could save money by having conscripts in the civilian program - who would have to be housed, fed and clothed by the government - performing tasks like "cleaning parks". I'm not sure how dirty the parks are out where Ricks lives, but around here they're pretty clean. And perhaps Ricks sees this as a purely federally funded project - although the cost per man-hour to the federal government would be substantial, local governments would pay nothing or perhaps at most pay for the supervisor who tells the teens what do do. However it's difficult, really impossible to imagine that the cost per man-hour for a "national service" worker would be less than that paid to the same individual (but with better screening for job skills and task completion) hired as a temporary summer worker or through a private contractor. It's also difficult to see how the program would actually contribute to character growth - what benefit the individual participant would gain that they wouldn't get from any other job.

Also, as Ricks notes, we're talking about more than 4 million 18-year-olds per year, so about 8 million in service at any given time. Ricks suggests "$15,000 plus room and board" for the civilian side, with the military side being better paid - let's say another $12,000 for room and board - $216 billion, and that's before we consider administration, infrastructure, transportation, supervision, medical and dental care.... Lets also assume that 25% of participants will qualify for free college, 50% qualify for a 50% tuition subsidy, and 1/3 of eligible individuals take full advantage for an average of three years each... and further, to save costs, the benefit covers only tuition and only up to the amount of a typical state college... that's another $42 billion or so per year. We're easily looking at a $300 billion per year commitment. I expect that the education cost will be considerably higher as eligible participants are targeted by the same sort of predatory private colleges that rake in huge profits while underserving G.I.'s.

Ricks' continues his argument with a statement that is shockingly wrong:
Imagine how many local parks could be cleaned and how much could be saved if a few hundred New York City school custodians were 19, energetic and making $15,000 plus room and board, instead of 50, tired and making $106,329, the top base salary for the city’s public school custodians, before overtime.
That's akin to confusing the compensation and skill set of a private with that of a sergeant major. Ricks should have been clued in by the fact that the original source behind his two-year-old link was a "scoop" from the "New York Post". Ricks is confusing the top compensation for a supervisor, somebody who not only manages employees but may have environmental certification, and has the necessary skill to maintain and repair boilers, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, electrical systems, elevator service and maintenance, sewage system maintenance, and potentially dealing with hazardous or infectious waste.

The job that Ricks is confusing with that of the "custodian engineer" is the job of "cleaner" - and in New York City the "15,000 plus room and board" Ricks is offering doesn't sound like it would offer cost savings over the $18.13 per hour (reduced by 15% during the first two years of service) presently paid to cleaners. Moreover, who does Ricks imagine will train and supervise the "energetic" 18-year-old cleaners if not the custodian engineers presently charged with the responsibility of hiring, training and supervising that category of worker?

I will grant, if a typical high school student enters the civilian program with the level of skills you would expect of a high school graduate, and completes it with the ability to Ricks seems to believe that participants in the national service program will be able to service boilers, repair elevators, engage in heavy demolition and infrastructure repair, and the like, that would be quite the achievement. The problem is, Ricks appears to believe that significant numbers of teenagers will possess those skills when they enter the program.

Part of Ricks' goal is to weaken public sector unions:
The savings actually might be a way of bringing around the unions representing federal, state and municipal workers, because they understand that there is a huge budget crunch that is going to hit the federal government in a few years. Setting up a new non-career tier of cheap, young labor might be a way of preserving existing jobs for older, more skilled, less mobile union workers.
It's not clear either why Ricks believes that government workers are unaware of the ongoing budget crunch, or what concessions he believes they should make.

How does Ricks imagine that older, more skilled workers will be protected, or have their incomes preserved, by having their fields flooded with "cheap, young labor"? Further, after two years of service when they're pushed out of their jobs, what does Ricks imagine that those "cheap, young" laborers will do? Their jobs will go to the next round of conscripts, there will be little demand in the marketplace for the skills they developed, and the few available jobs will be flooded with applicants with an associated reduction in how much those jobs pay. Everybody goes to college, even if normal market forces would have led some to choose other paths perhaps more suited to their skills and interests?

Ricks suggests that the most important consideration is that a "draft" might make the nation think twice about entering a war,
But most of all, having a draft might, as General McChrystal said, make Americans think more carefully before going to war. Imagine the savings — in blood, tears and national treasure — if we had thought twice about whether we really wanted to invade Iraq.
Except I can see no evidence from any nation, at any time in history, that a draft has preventing a nation from going to war. And given the non-military nature of Ricks' draft - even if you're in the military you're assigned to stateside support roles, not to anything that might put you in the line of fire - I would not expect such a draft to create any meaningful public pressure to avoid war.

As a thought exercise, thinking about possible national service programs, their costs and benefits, can be an amusing way to spend some time. But

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