Public Service and Skin in the Game

Thomas Ricks laments that the combination of the all-volunteer military and lower top marginal rates mean that the wealthy have "checked out of America and moved into physical and mental gated communities." To solve this problem, he proposed bringing back the draft.

Thomas Ricks laments that the combination of the all-volunteer military and lower top marginal rates mean that the wealthy have “checked out of America and moved into physical and mental gated communities.”  To solve this problem, he proposed bringing back the draft.

The military option. You do 18 months of military service. The leaders of the armed forces will kick and moan, but these new conscripts could do a lot of work that currently is outsourced: cutting the grass, cooking the food, taking out the trash, painting the barracks. They would receive minimal pay during their terms of service, but good post-service benefits, such as free tuition at any university in America. If the draftees like the military life, and some will, they could at the end of their terms transfer to the professional force, which would continue to receive higher pay and good benefits. (But we’d also raise the retirement age for the professional force to 30 years of service, rather than 20 as it is now. There is no reason to kick healthy 40-year-olds out of the military and then pay them 40 years of retirement pay.)

The civilian service option.Don’t want to go military? Not a problem. We have lots of other jobs at hand. You do two years of them — be a teacher’s aide at a troubled inner-city school, clean up the cities, bring meals to elderly shut-ins. We might even think about how this force could help rebuild the American infrastructure, crumbling after 30 years of neglect. These national service people would receive post-service benefits essentially similar to what military types get now, with tuition aid.

The libertarian opt-out. There is a great tradition of libertarianism in this country, and we honor it. Here, you opt out of the military and civilian service options. You do nothing for Uncle Sam. In return, you ask for nothing from him. For the rest of your life, no tuition aid, no federal guarantees on your mortgage, no Medicare. Anything we can take you out of, we will. But the door remains open — if you decide at age 50 that you were wrong, fine, come in and drive a general around for a couple of years.

This is rather daft.

First off, it would have zero impact on the problem.  (And, I’m granting, for the sake of argument, that said problem exists.)  The children of the rich would continue going straight to the best colleges their parents could get them into, choosing option 3.  And they’re not getting federal tuition aid, mortgage guarantees, and so forth now.

Second, Ricks’ system would have the perverse downside of taking away the jobs of the poorest among us.  All of the work being done now by those without marketable skills, enabling them to earn at least a subsistence income, would instead by done by kids coming out of high school and middle-aged people who facing the prospects of old age without health benefits.

Third, Ricks has managed to simultaneously bring back the draft and yet not increase our pool of young men who have undergone basic military training!  Peeling potatoes, painting rocks, and driving generals aren’t exactly useful wartime skills.

Fourth, no Medicare?   So, we’re going to give people free medical care for decades in exchange for 18-24 months of menial labor?  But deny it to those who finance it but opted out of drudgework?  That makes no sense whatsoever.

Fifth, do we really need our youth to waste 18-24 months of their formative years doing scutwork?   Wouldn’t we be better off letting those who are college material get their degrees and then offer loan forgiveness for doing useful work afterwards?

Had Ricks’ plan been in existence in 1984, when I graduated high school, I’d very likely have opted for the military option.  But, as it was, I opted for the military option. Partly because I wanted to serve and partly because I didn’t have the money for school, I joined ROTC and the Army Reserves, thereby cobbling enough money together to pay my education expenses as I went along.   While I would likely have gone to better schools under Ricks’ system, I would have also wasted valuable time doing menial labor.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    As life expectancies advance, the cost of a 2 year hitch falls.  Separating it from proposed add-on benefits, as a public works labor force and public growth experience, it has merit.
    You know, <a href=”“>China Blue</a> was on TV out here last night.  The Chinese are sending their 14 to 16 year olds off to work 20 hours a day in jeans factories.  That is a big source of their competitiveness.  They work like did, say 100 years ago.
    Two years, and forty hours a week, after high school or college (student’s choice) is not such a high burden, in a history of the world sense.  It might even help balance the books, literally, in dollars and cents.
    (On health care, basic-care vouchers for citizens are still best, for a variety of other reasons.)

  2. john personna says:

    “They work like [we] did, say 100 years ago.”

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I guess it depends on what he’s trying to accomplish.  If you look at the incomes of the neighborhoods from which enlisted recruits come,  to the extent to which that’s a proxy for their own family incomes they appear to be reasonably representative of Americans from all income levels.

    Does sweeping streets constitute the same “skin in the game” as sweeping mines?

    For all Americans to really have “skin in the game” we’d need to enlarge the military dramatically.  Right now we have about 3 million active and reserves.  There are at least 10 million in the age cohort he’s talking about.  Add officers, career military, and so on and we’d have a military of at least 15 million.  Such a thing would be enormously expensive and our military spending is already nearly the size of that of all other countries put together.  How much military spending does he have in mind?

    Wouldn’t the geopolitical implications of such an enormous military be extremely grave?  Lots of other countries would be even more alarmed than they are now.  I suspect such a reform would drive a global arms race of incredible proportions.

    What he’s proposing has never been done in American history.  We’ve always exempted large segments of the population from military service even when we had a draft.  Women weren’t subject to it.  Both during the American Civil War and in the WWII through Vietnam eras the wealthy could always buy their way out in one way or another.

    If he’s worried about “mental gated communities”, shouldn’t he be encouraging the separation of children from their parents at birth to be raised in communal institutions?  By draft age whatever he’s concerned about has already taken place.

    I think he may have been reading Starship Troopers.  Or maybe Brave New World.

  4. James Joyner says:

    I’m not sure the cost of losing years in the prime of life goes down just because we add more time at the end.  Indeed, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

  5. john personna says:

    Dave, I’m assuming that a good share would choose civilian options, and that the military would have their pick of those who chose their option.
    James, “losing?”  I think that is at odds with modern theories of <a href=”“>choice happiness.</a> (the author, Gilbert, being a researcher into  “affective forecasting”).  More likely whatever we do in those young, healthy, vigorous years will be (in retrospect) a positive experience.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Dave, I’m assuming that a good share would choose civilian options, and that the military would have their pick of those who chose their option.

    Does that accomplish the objective of removing Americans in the upper income quintiles from their “physical and mental gated communities”?  I don’t see it.

    In order to achieve that objective you’d need some sort of common basic training for both civilian and military options and you’d need to house even the civilian corps in barracks.  Otherwise it’s just taking what we already have and making it involuntary.  What does that accomplish?

  7. john personna says:

    I’m not really buying into the author’s framework.  We did hear that drafts and mobilizations broke down social divisions in the past.  Given the constant of human nature, I think we could expect some of that again.  Nonetheless, I wouldn’t see that as a major motivation.
    Remember, the notion of National Service predates this guy.  It’s bigger than him.  You may remember Senator McCain endorsing it here:

    I’m not a real advocate either.  I’m just open to the idea, as one of the ways to make the 21st century work for us, here in the USA.  I’m not sure that our going progressively unemployed while the Chinese work their butts off is really the answer.  I’m not sure we have a sustainable dynamic, nor do I think whining at China will fix things.  It could be (more thinking aloud here than advocacy) that a national service could help give us a competitive boost.  Maybe we need a raft of youthful labor, and a prospect of high income later in life.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Will his proposed means have even that effect?  Or will it divert efforts into tilting at the latest political windmill?
    Entrenched constituencies will prevent the youthful civilian corps from tackling any of the jobs that could really give us such an edge.  They won’t be able to teach because teachers’ unions would oppose it.  They won’t be able to work on infrastructure projects because those must proceed at Davis-Bacon rates (and be unionized).
    Picking up waste paper on the streets?  Planting trees in national forests?  I don’t see how those constitute a solid response to Chineese working their butts off.

  9. Rock says:

    The Draft? We can’t afford the draft. Where are we going to get the money? From China? We are broke. The congress can’t even adopt a budget. We are up against the dept ceiling and resort to funding the government through continuing budget resolutions. Like the poor, there’s too much month left at the end of the money. The draft is laughable at this point.Although I’m sure that any military manpower shortages will be solved with the repeal of DADT. Millions are waiting to serve.

  10. john personna says:

    Your teaching idea is a good one, Dave.
    When you say we can’t do it because it would be stopped, rather than because it is bad, I think you’ve accepted a piece of my argument.
    That’s really the saddest from of anti-government rhetoric, when someone accepts that a thing would be good, but says we can’t do it anyway.  It’s like saying “breakfast would be good, but it might be bad, so I won’t have any.”
    (Rock, if we had basic-care vouchers for all citizens the cost structure for the military would change radically.)

  11. sam says:

    “Wouldn’t the geopolitical implications of such an enormous military be extremely grave? ”
    While I’m not opposed to the draft in principle, the idea of our having a military as large as the one described by Dave did give me pause. Having a military that size, not even taking the cost into consideration, would carry with it the temptation to use it. But then, hey, we’ve got one one-fifth of that size and … But still. I’m pretty much convinced the existence of the draft contributed greatly to our going into Vietnam.

  12. john personna says:

    In this guy’s formulation the “Libertarian Opt-Out” is kind of odd, but I assume that any plausible plan would have a civilian service option, and that it would be very popular.  To say that the military enrollment would be large is to say both that many would choose it, and that they would all be accepted.

  13. JKB says:

    Or we could just mandate that every high school, public or private, have a mandatory Jr. ROTC program for 10th grade, and maybe 11th.  Common experience during a time when the kids are just marking time anyway.  Marching, shooting guns, practicing orienteering, etc. what’s not to like for a much more modest cost.  It’ll be just like 1975 again only with girls drafted as well.  If you don’t want to make it part of the curriculum, you could have it run by the Reserve center.
    I like the magical, raise the military retirement to 30 years thinking.  Like many of those who retired at 20 wouldn’t have stayed longer if it wasn’t up or out with dwindling billets.  But what we need is a lot more well-paid colonels and Master Sergeants taking up billets best filled by younger lower ranks.  Or would they rather have more Captains deciding at year 10 that the odds are they’d not make it to retirement before being separated so it is better to resign and rebuild their life at 35 rather than 45.  That’s happened in the past and always left a “Major” hole in the ranks.

  14. john personna says:

    If it’s 20 years, is it really fair to call it retirement?

  15. Steve Plunk says:

    There are just some “problems” out there with no cure.  The rich will stay rich, the elite will still of themselves as special, and many of the poor make bad choices keeping them poor.  There’s no fix for those problems that doesn’t create a whole new set of problems.  Public policy should stay focused on real problems where solutions can be had instead of trying to right every minor wrong in the world.

  16. Nightrider says:

    A better way to get the skin in the game we need is to have tax collectors come to everyone’s house and show them what possessions they will be back for next year if we don’t cut the budget deficit.

  17. Nightrider says:

    And what is the deal with the early retirement age for the military?  Does that cost taxpayers more than it is worth?  I used to think maybe it was a necessary expense to convince people to join and stay in the military, but I don’t really know if that is true.

  18. Rick Almeida says:

    That Heritage study you cite uses the median income for the ZIP code of each enlistee.  That assumes enlistees come from the entire distribution of income from the ZIP code.  Using aggregate data to predict individual behavior is the ecological fallacy, and it invalidates the results of that study.
    If, for example, enlistees tend to come from the lower end of their ZIP code income distribution (a realsonable assumption), that leads to an entirely different conclusion.
    But that Heritage study is empirically meaningless.

  19. Wayne says:

    If the draftees don’t work hard enough, we can whip them too right?
    At least in the military there is an incentive for draftees in wartime to work. If you don’t you get sent to front lines. If you at the front lines, doing the right thing help keep you alive. Even then you run into problems in general. Yes there are some draftees that do an outstanding job but % wise not nearly as high as an all volunteer force.
    Someday the situation may require a draft but we shouldn’t do so until it is necessary.

  20. James Joyner says:


    And what is the deal with the early retirement age for the military?

    It’s not really a “retirement” but pension eligibility.  Enlisted soldiers typically retire at the grade E-7 (Sergeant First Class/Chief Petty Officer) and officers at 0-5 (Lieutenant Colonel/Commander) and then go on to a second career.  There’s just not a need for that many senior NCOs/officers.
    And it would be very difficult, indeed, to entice people at age 21, after 3 years of service, to sign on for another 27.   But they may re-up for another 3- or 4- year hitch, decide that they’re just about halfway there, and stay on.

  21. 11B40 says:

    My support for the re-institution of the military draft comes from the societal impacts. Suspension of the draft basically sends a message to our young men that they no longer have a primary, biological responsibility to participate in the defense of our society.  While Mr. Ricks’ specific proposals may leave much to be desired, the basic concept is sound.  Nowadays, a young man can ignore his societal responsibility without any qualms.  The re-institution of the draft would at least require that he address the question vis-a-vis his contribution to the society that has nutured and protected him.
    Unfortunately, re-institution would require our political leaders to show some real political courage.  When I think about our military during the last decade, the shortage of available, trained troops, the repetitive tours and the way our adult supervision accommodated itself to its leadership failures, I don’t see any reason for optimism in this regard.  Similarly, our Congressionally-approved military leaders proved quite deft at ignoring the elephant in the room, perhaps not to annoy those civilian leaders to whom they are so beholden.
    We now, in the manner of counting the number of angels on the head of a pin, go back and forth over the optimal percentage of females in our military or the joys of DADT revocation while the actual foundation of our military, the citizen-soldier is is given the shortest of shrifts.

  22. Dave Schuler says:

    Rick Almeida:
    You’re begging the question and overgeneralizing.  I’ll acknowledge that the article I cited isn’t dispositive.  That doesn’t mean it’s meaningless, though.  There’s plenty of space between metaphysical certitude and metaphysical doubt.
    I’m not predicting individual behavior from  the data I’m trying to suggest family income.  I don’t know about your experience but my experience is that zip codes are pretty small and the standard deviation among incomes within zip codes aren’t enormous.  Maybe you have proof otherwise.

  23. Rick Almeida says:

    Hi Dave,
    Thanks for your reply.  I’m not trying to “beg the question”, I’m pointing out that the analysis in that article is fatally flawed.
    The article asserts that the zip codes that enlistees tend to come from are zip codes that have a median income of over $40,000 per year.  The inference the full article makes is that the typical enlistee is not low income, as commonly perceived.
    That inference is not borne out by the analysis.  It is possible (indeed, it is in line with the common perception) that enlistees disproportionately come from the lower end of their zip code income distribution.  The data (the zip code of an enlistee and that zip code’s median income) do not allow for any meaningful connection or generalization.
    I’m sorry if you find my comments to be “overgeneralizing”; I think of them as statistical literacy.

  24. steve says:

    I like Ricks idea, but with some modification. It should be a real draft that takes a percentage of draftees, not all of them, so it need not result in a huge army. I like the libertarian option as I think that losing Medicare would be enough to make anyone but the ultra-rich think twice.
    As it stands now, only about 1% of the population has anything to do with the military. It is a socially isolated group. It is bad for the military. I also believe that the military has long acted to form a common bond among Americans that transcends normal barriers.