Saturday, July 18, 2015

An Immodest Proposal: Universal Uniformed Service

This post is a little different for me.  It is not a knife review, or a digest of current events, or even anthropological; instead it is an idea of mine that I bend my friends and wife's ear about frequently.  My wife has been asking me to write a post about it for a while, so here goes.


A WPA Bridge

I think that our country needs to institute a system of universal service for people turning 18 .  My reasons for thinking this are manifold, but one thing that I want to point out right away is that I am not advocating for universal military service, but I do think it should be uniformed service (for simplicity's sake, from here on out I will abbreviate this idea as UUS for Universal Uniformed Service).  This is a multifaceted idea, so I have difficulty knowing exactly where to start explaining my idea, so I will start with a description of how I would envision universal service working in order to get to why I think it should be adopted.

In my mind the ideal term of universal service would be four years.  This would then sit between the completion of High School and the rest of people's lives.  Realistically, I have a hard time imagining anything more than two years being within the realm of possibility for getting people to agree on.  After all, two years of service starting at 18 years of age and continuing to 20 years would mean that most 20 year olds would have spent one tenth of their life in government service.  From that perspective, two years is a very long time.

Each year over 4 million Americans turn 18.  That would mean that if UUS were adopted, more than 8 million Americans would be in the course of their terms of service at any given time.  This number far exceeds any number that could realistically be useful as military personnel.  Having 8 million enlisted soldiers at any given time would be a massive drain on our economy, and would not make our armed services more effective.  Considering that most of those soldiers would essentially be conscripts it would probably seriously impair the effectiveness of our armed forces.

Our current number for active duty uniformed personnel is approximately 1.4 million people, with a similar number in reserve.  This is out of roughly 140 million people that would be considered "Available" for military service.  Out of the 140 million available, roughly 120 million could be considered "Fit" for service.  Essentially this means that one percent of the US population of service age is active duty military, and a total of two percent is active and reserve.  Out of the total population half a percent is active and another half a percent is reserve, for a total of less than one percent serving.  But that doesn't mean that only one percent serves, in total roughly 7.3 % of the population has served or is serving at any given time.

But 7.3% is still a small fraction of the population.  This means that the burdens of service for our country are borne by less than one tenth of the population.  More than 90% of the population is not involved in unformed service.  This seems very problematic to me.


Aside #1:

What's wrong with letting a small minority bear the burdens of service?

Firstly, and most obviously, if the vast majority of people do not serve their country then that means that the majority have not invested their own effort directly into the country.  If one accepts a fascist perspective on this, that means that the majority does not value the rights and privileges of citizenship since something unearned has no value.  The way I see it, when the majority does not serve, the real danger is that the majority does not truly see themselves as a part of the country.  The country, the government, the nation, becomes an alienated abstraction.  It is hard for a democracy to function when people do not see themselves as part of it.

Less obviously, having a small minority involved in the military means that the majority views the military as an Other.   When service is voluntary this is exacerbated.  This also leads to the serving minority feeling distinct from the majority.  It is not healthy for a society to view it's military as a distinct class of people.

The most obvious potential negative of having what is essentially a separate military class is that military dictatorship becomes a greater possibility, but I personally think this is less of a threat to our republic at this time than another consequence of our current system.

When military service is borne by a small voluntary minority it is much easier for a country to go to war.  Our all volunteer military is dangerously close to being a professional military, rather than an army of citizen soldiers.  This means that politicians and the public find it easy to start thinking of soldiers as if they were mercenaries.  It is then much easier to go to war.  After all, it's not my kids getting shot for opaque reasons in some godforsaken corner of a country whose name I can't spell, it's those people getting shot.  It's their job after all.

This is the real danger, to my mind, of our current system.  Our all volunteer military means that there is close to zero negative consequences for our politicians when they want to use American money and American lives to go kill people for poorly articulated reasons.  When we had a draft and the government decided to start pumping American teenagers into Vietnam, the push back from the US populace was massive and hugely destabilizing.  As we near 14 years of war in Afghanistan the US populace's response is simply ignore the fact that we are at war.

Universal service makes it harder to send teenagers to die and/or kill other teenagers.


But back to how to make universal service work.

The trouble with the idea of simply reinstating the draft is that, frankly, our all volunteer military is just more effective than the old model armies were.  it doesn't seem like a good idea to make our military less effective.

Also, as I mentioned, if we instituted universal military service, we would end up with more than four times as many soldiers than we currently have when we already have the second largest standing military in the world.  We already spend more on our military than anyone, and our military is extremely large.  So how can we institute universal service in a way that actually serves our country?

The one word answer is: Infrastructure.


In my vision, the primary mission of a UUS would be Infrastructure.  Our country doesn't need a larger army, but our infrastructure is crumbling.  In many cases critical pieces of the US infrastructure are still left over from the WPA projects from the Great Depression.  Much of the remainder of our infrastructure is left over from the Cold War.  Our bridges and roads are crumbling.  Utilities are antiquated.  And there is next to zero political will to seriously fix our infrastructure problems.

The Great Recession could have been an opportunity to engage in a new round of infrastructure renewal, but rather than spending tax dollars on rebuilding the foundations that our economy is built on, the money was spent on bailouts and stimulus packages.  Workers were not trained in trades.  New infrastructure was not built.  New jobs were not created.  Bankers were saved from their own malfeasance and economic stratification was exacerbated.

And our infrastructure is still crumbling.

A UUS with Infrastructure as a primary mission would mean that we would literally have armies of young people literally building a better country.

And infrastructure doesn't just mean roads and bridges.  Part of the infrastructure development could be building renewable energy systems like solar plants and wind power.  Data networks, water pipelines, sewer systems, integrated waste disposal systems that combine sewage and yard waste to more efficiently produce methane to make our waste treatment energy neutral and a source of fertilizer.  There are many ways that an ongoing commitment to infrastructure renewal and improvement can make our country stronger and provide more opportunities and a higher standard of living to people.

One of the obstacles to building new national infrastructure is cost.  A significant portion of that cost is in labor.  One of the advantages of having a uniformed service doing much of the labor is lower labor costs.  I envision a system where the Engineering Corps is paid similarly to soldiers.  This would mean much lower labor costs.  The average enlisted soldier, with less than two years in, makes a little less than $1,500 per month (not counting benefits).  The average union laborer makes a little less than $1,000 a week.  If we were to have 3 million people building infrastructure at an E1 (Enlisted 1) pay rate that would mean $4.5 billion in pay per month; vs. $12 billion in labor costs for the same amount of work at the federally mandated Davis Bacon Prevailing Wage.  So the savings would be almost 2/3 on labor pay.

Of course, if our country could actually commit to spending money on infrastructure the way it spends on the military industrial complex $7.5 billion dollars would be nothing. Heck, we spent that much on just a single no-bid contract to Dick Cheney's business partners during the second Iraq War.  When it comes to the money lost through war profiteering by politically connected companies in the military-industrial complex $7.5 billion in wage savings is a rounding error.


Aside #2

As should be very obvious from the last couple paragraphs, there are already two major politically powerful groups that would almost certainly be opposed to this type of plan:  Unions and the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC).  This would pretty much mean that the idea that I am laying out is one that has zero chance of ever getting the support of any politician.  The Democrats aren't going to want to alienate the Unions, and the Republican (and many of the Democrats) aren't going to want to alienate the MIC.

From a Union perspective this idea I am proposing is essentially taking millions of Union jobs away from trades professionals and giving them to minimally trained young adults. Taking Federal Infrastructure work away from unions would be a hard pill to swallow.  I might argue that this system will give millions of young adults real-world experience and training in vital trades, and could in fact strengthen Unions in the private sector, but government work is an important part of the bread and butter of labor unions.

Nonetheless, I feel that between Unions and the MIC, the Unions are less likely to be such an insurmountable obstacle.

When it comes to war-profiteering firms like Halliburton that fund political campaigns and then provide employment to the politicians they supported after they are out of office, it is hard to imagine any possibility of this sort of idea gaining any traction.  If we had a Universal Uniformed Service it would remove the need for things like private security companies to provide security for soldiers, or private corporations to do construction in foreign countries for the military.  All of a sudden, instead of having unlimited billions to give to politically connected corporations the US government would have to start using uniformed personnel to do work that should be done by uniformed personnel.  It would be a return to the kinds of systems that were in use back in WWII with the Construction Battalions (Seabees). (Bear in mind, the Seabees still exist, but for some reason our government prefers to funnel money to companies like Halliburton)

Since 9/11 we have spent $1.6 TRILLION (that is one thousand six-hundred billions of dollars) on the war on terror.  I will just share this quote on the breakdown of that money:
Breaking down that figure into its parts provides an even better sense of scale. Of that $1.6 trillion, the Department of State received a 6% chunk for foreign aid programs and diplomatic operations and just 1% was spent on medical care for veterans. The largest share — or about 92% — was allocated to the Department of Defense, which distributed funds to the government’s civilian contractors who manufactured the necessary jets, drones, and missiles; helped run prisons like Abu Ghraib; and, provided security and support to outnumbered U.S. troops on the ground.

Read more:
Many people think that they are supporting the troops when they unquestioningly support the War on Terror, but the numbers show that the troops are an afterthought at best when it comes to the expenditure of our nation's treasure.  The one percent that serves gets one percent of the money, the rest goes to that other One Percent.

A conservative estimate on the amount of that money that has been wasted out of the $206 billion paid to contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq (as of 2011) was $31 to 60 billion.  Like I said before, when it comes to the incomprehensible scale of the colossal corruption of the US war machine, saving $7.5 billion in labor costs is a rounding error.

And it is this massive collusion of political and corporate interests that I feel poses the greatest obstacle to universal service.  Politicians rely on these corporations (and unions to a lesser degree) for the funding necessary to run for office, and then those corporations provide positions and pay for the politicians after they leave office.  Politicians don't just need the corporations to get their jobs in the first place, they are also a means to wealth after holding office.  In return for the money spent on the politicians, the politicians give the corporations life by feeding them the wealth taken from taxpayers.  The corporations make the politicians careers possible, and the politicians make the existence of the corporations possible.  Everybody wins, except for the taxpaying public.  A system of universal service would pose a grave threat to many of the most profitable aspects this system that our government and economy is currently predicated upon.


But back to my idea.

As I alluded to in Aside #2, even though my vision is that the primary mission of a UUS would be infrastructure, I am not envisioning infrastructure as the sole role.  8 million people is a lot of people.  Earlier I threw out the number of 3 million people employed to work on infrastructure, that still leaves 5 million people.  I would expect that at least a million of those people would be employed in the military, so now we are left with 4 million people.  There are a lot of things that we could do with those people.

The US government currently officially employs 2.6 million people, but that doesn't count Uniformed or Legislative employees, so the actual total is closer to 4.2 million people (2% of the labor pool).  But even that number hides the true number of people employed by the government.  In 2005 the federal government employed roughly 7.9 million contractors.  Now we are starting to see where those 8 million young people would really be useful.  When you factor in the millions employed by state and municipal governments, the total number of people whose pay derives from taxpayers comes to around 17% of the US labor pool (40 million people), but most of those people are not directly employed by the government, most of them are contractors, and it is the low level contractor work that would largely be replaced by a UUS.

Conservatives may enjoy lambasting the government as inefficient, but federal budget bloat is not caused by government employees, it is caused by the shadowy way that taxpayer money can be endlessly funneled to private corporations in the name of efficiency.  A UUS would gut the heart of this mechanism while posing a fraction of the labor cost.

The remainder of the 4 million people in the UUS could be employed in a wide variety of positions.  Some could be employed in healthcare as an expanded Medical Corps, the Peace Corps could be expanded and we could have armies of young Americans working around the world to better the lives of billions.  Rather than having private security providing security for government and military installations we could have a Security Corps.  And one of the keys to making my idea useful, and the key to making it possible for the system to be truly universal, would be a Clerical Corps.  At all levels of our government and military, many of the jobs being performed are clerical jobs.  While many of those positions do require highly educated individuals, many of them do not.

In order for the UUS to be universal, it would need to be something that every citizen could do.  If every position required an able body and a fully able mind then many would not be eligible to serve.  This would mean that disabled Americans would not be able to serve, and would not be equal to those who were able to serve and share in the benefits of service.  For universal service to be fair and meaningful, everyone who is willing to serve has to be able to serve.  That means (to crib directly from Heinlein) if all you can do is sharpen pencils, then the government would need to create a pencil sharpening position for you, and provided you sharpened pencils adequately for your term of service you would earn the benefits of having served.  If the UUS offered a truly diversified set of options for modes of service then it could in fact be a system of service that was open to all Americans.

In my mind, I imagine the start of the term of service being like the current start, Basic Training.  I would envision everyone going through Basic Training, including firearms training .  But obviously if the system is universal then not everyone will be able to make it through military Basic.  I would envision that there would be a variety of Basic Training tracks, with Mode of Service options being presented at the end of Basic Training.


Aside #3

Firearm training:  In my ideal scenario, the Basic Training for everyone would involve firearm training.

Considering the ubiquity of firearms in this country, I find the lack of basic firearm safety training for most people to be criminally negligent.  Guns are readily available to anyone over the age of 18, but most Americans never get taught how to use one safely.  Not everyone needs to like guns, not everyone needs to use guns regularly, but everyone who lives in a country where there are more guns than people should have a basic understanding of what guns are.

When you consider how available guns are in this country, and how little most people know about guns, it is surprising that our gun problems aren't much worse than they are.  Obviously many people think that getting rid of gun rights is the solution to gun violence, but I tend to land on the side of trying to find solutions to problems that do not involve stripping people of freedoms. But this is too big of a topic to be contained in an aside.

Also, in addition to basic firearm safety and operation, I think that every American should be trained in First Aid.  Teaching everyone about guns may or may not improve anything, but teaching everyone First Aid will undoubtedly save many lives.


Now that I have vaguely sketched out the bones of how I would imagine universal service working we can get to why universal service would be a good idea.

I have already touched on ways that universal service could be beneficial to the US.  Universal service would create a more, well, universal feeling of investment and participation in our country.  Universal service should make it more difficult for our government to engage in wars of choice, and minimally would bring more aspects of our military adventures under the auspices of our government, thereby making it easier for people to find out what it is we are really doing.  Universal service would provide work experience and trade training to millions of young people every year.  Universal service would provide lower cost alternatives to current contractor models.  Universal service would undermine the corrupt systems that warp our government.

It sounds like a panacea!  And we're not even done examining the potential benefits!  But I want to take a step back and be clear that there is not magic bullet to fix all of our problems.  Even if everything I have written about came true exactly as I have described, it would not fix every problem in our society.  Our society and world are unimaginably complex, and there are always unintended consequences.  Universal service would not eliminate corruption.  Universal service would not end social ills.  It would not eliminate all crime, nor provide equality for all disabled people.  At best, universal service could be a tool used to fight the problems we face, but it would only be one tool.  But I think that is more than reason enough to try it.

Continuing in the more intangible and hypothetical vein of reasons to institute universal service, a benefit would be providing a shared rite of passage into true adulthood for young Americans.  Right now the closest thing we have is high-school graduation.  After graduation the privileged get to go directly on to college which functions as an adolescence extending super high-school viewed as a necessary step to achieving a financially solvent future.  Some people go on to trade schools.  A small percentage go off to perform national service.  And the vast majority are dumped out into a world that they are unprepared for without tradable skills or systems of support.  Two years outside of the home, away from school, away from parents, with others of the same age, learning skills, and with a kind of structured and supported step on the way to adulthood would provide young adults with a clearer transition from childhood (I can easily imagine how many would see this very differently, but that is how I view it).

More concretely, universal service would provide possible solutions to many of the political issues that we currently struggle with.  Many Americans require assistance to go to college.  Many require assistance to afford healthcare.  And most young people start out their adulthood without a nest egg to build from.  Universal service could entitle all people who complete their terms to the GI Bill.  Everyone would get access to educational funds.  Everyone would get access to VA medical care.  And upon completion of the term of service, everyone would have had the opportunity to build up a cash reserve to start their adult lives with.  This would simplify arguments about how to make higher education more accessible, plus the incoming freshmen would have had a few years of adult life under their belt before starting school.

If everyone was eligible for VA medical, politicians would not be able to get away with calling people who need assistance with their medical care parasites.  Additionally, politicians would not be able to continue to get away with under-funding the VA the way they currently do.  And let's be clear here, the US government under-funds the VA to such an great extent that it is costing us the lives of thousands of veterans every year.  Our system currently says that those who have served are entitled to medical care.  Many people think that universal healthcare should be provided, and in any case many people have difficulty affording healthcare.  Universal service would make universal access to basic healthcare a reality, and when everyone has access to the VA, then everyone has a stake in making it really work.

One of the benefits of this approach is that it also works around the problems of whether or not there would still be private care.  There would be no need to get rid of private care.  It would be a two tier system in essence, but I am fine with that.  A universally available basic health care system also makes it easier for individuals to engage in entrepreneurship since access to healthcare would not be reliant on employers.  However, this is another topic too big for an aside.

And making the benefits that we bestow on those who have served something that is universally available is the key to making this idea truly useful and workable.  Universally earned entitlements make it much harder for conservatives to demonize poverty.  This system also provides concrete incentives for everyone to serve, because there is one final piece to my vision that I think is vital.  I think that people must be able to be conscientious objectors, or to refuse to serve for religious reasons.  In order for universal service to really be of value it has to be something that people can refuse.  Service would provide benefits, and service would be possible for those who do not wish to serve in the military, but it would not be forced on people.


Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn't.  Maybe I'm a cockeyed optimist.  Maybe I'm an unwitting crypto-fascist.  I can't say for sure, but I think that universal service is a workable tool that we could use to build a better society with better economic mobility and a stronger base.

This is one of my more grandiose political ideas.  What do you think?  Let me know.

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