Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sorry, No, Pseudo-Conscription is Still a Bad Idea

Dana Milbank has jumped onto the bandwagon of those who think that the cure for "kids these days" is some form of conscription.
As I make my rounds each day in the capital, chronicling our leaders’ plentiful foibles, failings, screw-ups, inanities, outrages and overall dysfunction, I’m often asked if there’s anything that could clean up the mess....

But one change, over time, could reverse the problems that have built up over the past few decades: We should mandate military service for all Americans, men and women alike, when they turn 18. The idea is radical, unlikely and impractical — but it just might work.
But, even if we incorrectly assumed that the military wanted universal conscription, it's not even slightly realistic to have every 18-year-old serve in the military. While Milbank refers to Switzerland, in which "sons of bankers and farmers alike do basic training for several months and then are recalled to service for brief periods", none of the proponents of conscription are suggesting a similar approach. They instead prefer a period of a year or several years in which the young person is forced to participate in some sort of nebulous national work program that may (but probably won't) involve military service.

What we would end up with, at best, is what Milbank describes later in his editorial, based on his notion that "the structure is less important than the service itself",
My former colleague Tom Ricks proposes bringing back the draft in the United States but allowing for a civilian national service option — teaching, providing day care and the like — for those who don’t want to join the military.
Ricks' proposal was bad, as well, but at least he attempted to explain how it might function. The notion is that we are going to fix the nation's problems my making people take people away from their academic studies or jobs for a year or two, and compelling them to work in daycare centers or equivalent vocations? Seriously? And note the disdain for teaching as a profession - it's presented as something a random high school graduate can do, and roughly equivalent to working in a daycare center.

Milbank agrees with my past assessment that the cost of such a program would be huge. "Staggering" might be a better word. But he insists,
But so would the benefits: overcoming growing social inequality without redistributing wealth; making future leaders, unlike today’s “chicken hawks,” disinclined to send troops into combat without good reason; putting young Americans to work and giving them job and technology skills; and, above all, giving these young Americans a shared sense of patriotism and service to the country.
There is little reason to believe that Milbank's draft would overcome growing income inequality. The type of job skills that marginal high school graduates (or drop-outs) could develop through such a program would likely leave them qualified for low-paying jobs. Even for those who serve in the military, if you consider the difficulty that many veterans presently have finding employment, why does Milbank believe that those who are conscripted and serve for less time will fare better?

Without redistributing wealth? Sorry, but a program that takes a "huge" amount of government revenue and applies it to a year or two of national service would certainly be "redistributing wealth". There's also more than money at stake. For 18-year-olds who plan to attend college, you're delaying their entry into the workforce by at least a year (assuming the program is only a year long). For 18-year-olds who are employed, you're costing them their jobs. For 17-year-olds who would otherwise have job prospects, you're ensuring that employers won't consider them for anything more than temporary positions. That is, there's a tremendous opportunity cost imposed on the young people who are conscripted into the program - perhaps not wealth redistribution in the classic sense, but nonetheless imposing a genuine financial harm on those drafted into the program.

I'm not clear on why Milbank believes that this service, even if we pretend it could all be military service, will result in fewer military mobilizations. Milbank references "chicken hawks", the term applied to people like Dick Cheney who fastidiously avoided service during their youth but had no compunction about entangling the U.S. in wars. But where's the evidence that veterans, once in office, are any less hawkish than non-veterans? Veterans got us into the Korean War and Vietnam War, the first Iraq War, and any number of lesser conflicts. John McCain is a veteran, yet he's one of the most hawkish members of the Senate.

As for "putting young Americans to work and giving them job and technology skills", how would that work? Yes, the military involves a lot of job and technology skills, but often not the sort of skills that fit well with the modern civilian workplace. It's not clear how many of Milbank's conscripts would achieve similar skill sets, as their terms of service would be shorter. Beyond that, Milbank mentions... teaching and daycare. A young adult can already work in a daycare center straight out of high school, and in some cases before they even graduate. While it might be possible to create a small, focused program that allowed high school graduates to develop cutting edge skills, the sort of blunderbuss approach Milbank favors all-but-ensures that most participants will gain very few skills that would benefit them in a subsequent job, save perhaps at the bottom end of the job market.

Oh yes, and "above all", giving "young Americans a shared sense of patriotism and service to the country". I can't help but think of my uncle who, unlike many of the chicken hawks to whom Milbank alludes, insisted upon joining the military and upon combat duty despite a physical condition that would have allowed him to either avoid service or bide his time behind a desk. If anything, his patriotism was bated by his experiences, and the schisms within his unit made it anything but the sort of happy melting pot that Milbank seems to envision. Milbank's vision seems oddly in line with what you see in Vietnam, where conscripts may find themselves in a civilian uniform, working behind the front desk of an army-owned hotel... or cleaning the rooms. But there's little reason to believe that conscripts assigned to random, menial employment would feel much of a connection with those outside of the daycare center where they work, or that those who obtained more prestigious assignments or ranks would view them as equal. And last I checked, Vietnam's government was not one I envied.

Milbank later adds, "Gun-rights groups would cheer an armed citizenry", but where does that even come from? Milbank cannot seem to maintain a consistent thesis as to whether the conscripts would be performing military service, or whether they would be working in daycare centers. Perhaps he imagines that all conscripts will go through military basic training before being shipped off to work in daycare centers? It's hard to tell what he has in mind.

Milbank notes, "an article published by the libertarian Cato Institute argued that compulsory service 'can be a pillar of freedom,'" but fails to note the inherent tension between "libertarianism" and conscription, or for that matter between freedom and conscription. A libertarian might endorse bringing real meaning to the "unorganized militia", with the government providing broad opportunity for citizens to avail themselves of military training within that context, but let's not pretend that conscription is a libertarian ideal or that a libertarian with his head screwed on correctly would confuse it with "freedom".

I'm not particularly concerned that yet another pundit has endorsed a type of service he personally eschewed as a cure for the nation's ills, although I remain amused by arguments that boil down to, "The best way for young people to develop a set of values similar to my own is by being conscripted into a type of program that I, personally, avoided." There's no chance that universal conscription will become law. However, I do think that much of the hand-wringing about kids these days, and about how to provide better opportunities for young people who have more than their fair share of obstacles to overcome, could be channeled into a voluntary service program, a "bridge year" or two in which participants could be matched with suitable peer groups, and dispatched to communities where they could perform productive work and develop genuine job and leadership skills. But I guess that sort of idea isn't as fun to kick around. Besides, while conscription is something the government would have to impose, for somebody who is positioned to actually generate the necessary money and attention, proposing a "bridge year" program might invite the response, "Great idea, what are you doing to bring it to life?"

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