"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Retirement System That Used to Be the American Army

In discussing the move yesterday to permit women in combat units in the Army, I commented earlier today that the decision didn't matter, so long as America has no intention of sending combat units into actual combat.  

Put differently, as I said to the Regular Son when we were talking about women in combat, if the Army is a war-fighting enterprise, then women in combat units is a bad idea.    But if the Army is, as it increasingly seems, a jobs program, then whether or not women are in a particular unit that, in the pure abstract, is called a "combat" unit just doesn't matter.   If the purpose of the Army is no longer fighting wars, but simply a means to let poor and working class youths "be all that they can be," i.e., a way of providing jobs to otherwise less-than-employable young men and women, then who cares whether combat units are combat-ready or effective.

It may, however, be worse.   What if the armed services aren't even jobs programs in the future, but a huge retirement system with a minor sidelight in pretending to be a military?   It's like what some wag said about GM... it's not a car company anymore, it's a retirement and healthcare system that makes cars as a hobby. 

Mead over at The American Interest lays out the gory details of the DoD's future pension tsunami:

The Pentagon may have an even larger problem than sequestration: trillions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities. Over the past few decades, military pension costs have inflated rapidly with no signs of slowing down: The liability currently stands at $1.2 trillion and is expected to rise to nearly $3 trillion over the next quarter-century. Along with similar increases in military compensation and health care spending, these ballooning costs have led the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments to warn that “military personel costs will consume the entire defense budget by 2039.”

I wish I had an answer to this, just like I wish I had an answer to the insolvency of Social Security and Medicare.   But I don't think there's any easy answer.   We are going to have to (a) renege on promises we've made to seniors and military retirees; or (b) gradually grow weaker and weaker as we transfer resources from productive enterprises and national defense; or (c) more likely, both.  

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