May 1, 2010  

Conscription’s costs

I must take issue with a few of Lt. Col Paul L. Yingling’s points regarding military funding and manpower. On these two points his arguments are not germane to his central thesis, and are in fact wrong. According to the Congressional Budget Office, our spending on defense as a percentage of gross domestic product reached a record low of 3 percent in 2000, and despite heavy commitments to two wars our defense spending is still well below the average of the last four decades (5 percent to 6 percent). Certainly the sticker shock produced by a program that exceeds $700 billion per year is understandable and the Defense Department is not immune to waste and excess. However, considering the above, paying 3 percent to 5 percent of our yearly income for national security does not seem off the mark, especially considering the excellent value we receive in return.

The fact that we are paying for our military with “borrowed money,” as Yingling put it, does not reduce the efficacy of our national defense. We are going into debt to pay for a war that hopefully our children will not have to fight. It does not seem excessive to borrow from a future generation that will undoubtedly be wealthier and enjoy higher standards of living than we do so they may inherit a more peaceful world.

To the question of conscription, we fully diverge in thought. I would urge Yingling and AFJ readers to read “The Record and Prospects of the All-Volunteer Military in the United States,” by John T. Warner and Beth J. Asch, in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Spring 2001) for an excellent review of the post-Vietnam volunteer military in terms of economic efficiency. To lift a few of their most salient points, it is neither cheaper to maintain a conscripted military nor is it “fair” in any sense of the word. True, we can get away with paying conscripted soldiers lower wages to reduce costs, but all we accomplish is the introduction of a hidden “tax” to the nonvolunteer soldier. The individual soldier would then “pay” in the form of opportunity cost and time. Not only have the conscripts lost opportunities to pursue their education or other economic opportunities, they won’t even receive a market clearing wage for their service. The heavy burden of paying for this public “good” shifts from the collective to the individual. How exactly will this make people more “invested” in national security matters when society pays less for it? To whom exactly is this fair?

To the idea of targeted conscription based on desired skills such as language and cultural abilities, I ask: What would the secondary effect be on the labor pool? Knowing that students would be at a high risk of being drafted, would more or fewer of them decide to enroll in Middle Eastern or Chinese studies at top universities? Introducing risk, uncertainty and higher personal costs will undoubtedly dissuade people from acquiring the very skills that we highly value in the market. These talented individuals are desired by international businesses to help us break into emerging markets. I don’t think we need to cede more ground to our foreign competitors by decreasing the labor supply of culturally savvy people and skimming off some percentage for ourselves. Instead, if we do truly need them, then we (the taxpayers) must do what every other business does: compete.

Regarding costs, Warner and Asch point out that between 1965 and1975 the percentage of the defense budget dedicated to personnel costs hovered between 30 percent and 37 percent as overall spending on defense was around 7 percent. As I pointed out earlier, defense spending declined to about 3 percent by 2000 and, despite a very competitive labor market, personnel spending declined to around 27 percent. This means that we spend less of our national income on our defense budget and even less on our labor pool. A quick calculation based on fiscal 2009 DoD Green Book data shows that our personnel spending today is an even smaller 20.2 percent of the total defense budget. Turnover of military personnel has declined from 21 percent to 15 percent, saving money in training costs and allowing us to increase the overall levels of human capital in the military.

Finally, since we have both led troops into combat, I would remind Yingling of the deleterious effect of having people in the unit who “don’t want to be there.” Despite the best efforts of commanders, officers and noncommissioned officers, there are always a very small percentage of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with poor attitudes and low motivation. Would that percentage go up or down under conscription? Could we even imagine leading a unit where 5, 10, 20 percent or more of the members were like that? In my opinion, that is exactly what would come from a draft system originating under circumstances that were less than exigent. Milton Friedman, no fan of the draft himself, popularized the maxim: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” This still holds true today.

— Maj. Tobias B. Switzer, Air Force, Olmsted scholar, Santiago, Chile