Thomas Ricks and the Draft, or “Let’s take a bad idea and make it worse!”

Having heard from GEN McChrystal his thoughts on conscription, Thomas Ricks decided to weigh in with his deep thoughts on the matter.

I’ll give Ricks credit for this- he recognizes that the first flaw in a draft plan is there is no place to put draftees.  So rather than recognizing the lack of need for a draft, he promptly decides what is really needed is a whole lot more busywork.

A revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school. Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.

Those who don’t want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay — teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.

And libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him — no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.

As always, when someone comes up with a notional conscription scheme these days, they propose a non-military option.  Ricks takes a relatively simple problem (providing the services with manpower) and complicates it enormously in an attempt to provide “fairness.” His scheme is unworkable for a number of reasons.

First, while a draft passes constitutional muster under the power of Congress to raise armies, and to regulate the services, there is no such similar provision to induct persons into a civilian labor force. Indeed, any such attempt would run afoul of the 13th Amendment prohibitions on indentured service. He doesn’t say it, but implies that he is sidestepping this problem by making his draft “voluntary.” There are two counters to this. Either such conditions amount to coercion (and arguably fall afoul of equal protection status under the 14th Amendment), or the system is not a draft in any form, and so his entire premise of conscription is bogus, has done nothing to provide manpower to the services, and instead only amounts to a massive government boondoggle. I’m leaning toward the second of those scenarios.

Second, said massive government jobs program is economically very unsound. We just had an example in 2009 of the difficulty of finding “shovel ready” projects on which to spend the massive $900bn stimulus. What makes Ricks think the government would be any better at finding productive work for all the unskilled labor suddenly dumped into its lap via his proposal?

And where are we to house and how are we to clothe, feed, and provide medical care to the four million or so youths inducted into national service annually? Economies of scale would call for centralized facilities, but then you end up with 50,000 teenagers stuck at a camp in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. If you spread the service force across the inhabited portions of the nation, where the tasks he wants them to perform are, the costs of “hotel services” for the force skyrocket to prohibitive levels.

And let us take a moment to look at the political and economic effects of what he would have this non-military force perform.

  1. Teaching in low-income areas- first, I can’t imagine the NEA and other teacher unions would be all that wild about the competition. Further, given that many of the youth in the program will be recent graduates of these unsatisfactory schools, what on earth would qualify them to teach? Are we to spend 12 months instructing inductees in teaching in order to get 9 months of teaching out of them?
  2. Cleaning parks- Why? Are our parks that bad off? Most communities use either non-violent prisoners, or folks sentenced to community service for such mundane tasks. If Ricks force-for-good is doing this task, what will those under civil restriction do instead?
  3. Rebuilding crumbling infrastructure- First, Ricks presumes the federal government will have plenty of money to throw at such projects. Second, such work is often skilled or semi-skilled labor. So we’re back to having to train this force before we can use it. And don’t forget that most infrastructure building and repair jobs today are performed by contractors employing union labor. I can’t imagine those unions being displaced from lucrative jobs will embrace this plan.
  4. Caring for the elderly- We’re faced with the task of either training this notional force to perform semi-skilled labor, or we’re going to displace unskilled labor out of the market, increasing civilian unemployment.

The costs associated with simply administering such a scheme would be astronomic. The operational costs would likewise be very high. And the economic costs to the rest of the country would be high. How many civilian jobs would be lost because the government, in effect, outsourced jobs to itself that should properly be in the private sector, or at minimum, at the state and local level.

As for Ricks non-deployable force of “garritroopers,” do we really need a set of second class citizens in the services? Ricks seems to think having manual labor on hand for these tasks would save the services money in the long run. Really? No. Most of the chores he envisions them doing are either so incidental to service life that they are not a significant impact on manpower use and availability for training, or, more commonly, they are already contracted out to private companies.  Now, Ricks would argue that conscriptees would be cheaper labor. But he’s wrong. The real cost of manpower in the services isn’t during their service. It’s afterwards.

Let’s say the Army hires a contractor to mow the grass at Ft. Meyer, VA. And during the course of mowing the grass, one of the contractor’s employees manages to stick his hand in the blades and get it amputated. Guess what? The total additional cost the government is $0 dollars. The contractor, through his insurance, will compensate the employee.  But if the government has PFC (SCS/ML*) Smith mowing the lawn, and he similarly manages to lose a hand, the government will be paying disability benefits to him for the rest of his life.

Ricks engages in some world class fantasy to paint a scenario where his scheme could actually save money in the long term.  It’s an incredibly facile look at the utilization of manpower, and lacks both an understanding of how the labor market works, and the limitations of government. Absolutely no good would come from attempting this (or any remotely similar scheme) jobs program.

Why is it so many on the left feel such an abiding need for governmental control of any and all aspects, down to suggesting repeatedly that the youth of America must serve the government for a term (but only on jobs that the left thinks are good)?

I can easily see certain scenarios where conscription could be used to provide quality and quantity to our armed forces. I suppose I could generate a scheme that would do so with minimal scope for graft or abuse. But the costs would be far higher than any supposed tightening of the bonds between the military and the society at large. And I cannot see in any way, shape or form that compulsory civilian service to the government would improve the lot of our country or our countrymen, but would instead fundamentally change the relationship of the average American from Citizen to serf.

*PFC(SCS/ML) = Private First Class (Second Class Soldier/Manual Labor)

16 thoughts on “Thomas Ricks and the Draft, or “Let’s take a bad idea and make it worse!””

  1. The first thing required to manage this new civilian service force would be a massive bureaucracy. The main goal of the invented bureaucracy would be to justify it’s continued existence and expansion, plus keep the kids busy. Why do we need an expansion of an already bloated bureaucracy? What’s to prevent said bureaucracy from campaigning for extension the time of service to 3 years? And then 4? And then 20? Especially if economic times are tight? I mean, can you imagine our current fearless leader releasing 4 million young people at the expiration of their terms in October (for example) when there are no jobs available for them? Oh, and I bet they would unionize as well, creating a separate lobbying group or expanding the resources of current unions, demanding that, rather than lower pay, they get equal pay, better benefits, retirement, et cetera, et cetera.

    I just see this as an incredible risk of becoming Greece, where, if memory serves, around 50% of the working population was employed by the government.

    The Federal government is a bloated, inefficient, bureaucratic mess. Anyone who proposes expanding it, especially rapidly and extensively, doesn’t spend any time thinking about TSA.

  2. Sign me up for a platoon’s worth. I can use ’em in the motor pool every day. Beyond that, as always, Ricks proves himself a pompous blow-hard with a stupid idea.

  3. Does Thomas Ricks plan to subject himself to this draft? No? There’s no end to the schemes statist middle-aged busybodies have for the young. Drafting for war is bad enough, but at least that has proven necessary at times.

    The local schools are already forcing students to do some number of hours of “community service” as a condition of graduation, something the person who dreamed up the requirement didn’t have to do.

  4. If there is a draft, two things must apply:

    1. No deferments or excuses.
    2. The kids of politicians are the first drafted regardless of their birthday.

    Those two things will put an end to any peace time draft as well as the Neocons wanting to go thither and yon to spread Wilsonian Democracy to teh beknighted millions.

  5. Libertarians can opt out, but they lose all claim to Medicaid, mortgage guarrantees etc? Do they also lose all requirment for income tax, FICA, and various and assorted sales taxes and usage fees? I mean the disconnect is going to cut both ways right? Does he really want to see the results of that experiment? Should be amusing.

    1. I’d let anyone opt out, but they, in essence, become resident aliens. No vote, nor Gov bennies, no nothing. The opt out is permanent too. No changing your mind later.

  6. If they could think they wouldn’t be liberals.

    I am reminded of the scene from “Shawshank Redemption” where a local contractor bribes the warden into not making his low-cost chain gang available for a job so the contractor doesn’t have to worry about being underbid.

    1. Years ago I read about FDR laughing at bidness men who would preach free markets and keeping the FedGov’s fingers out of things, and those same bidness men would come hat in hand to FedGov for assistance of some kind. The inconsistencies were, and are, astounding.

    2. In their defense, there’s usually a difference between the way you’d like the world to work and the way the world actually works. I really don’t begrudge anyone who rails against tax loopholes while taking full advantage of them.

      Frankly, I consider FDR to be the worst President of the 20th century, and easily in the bottom 5 overall.

    3. No, actually, both sides have people who think. Liberals just think that people (other than capitalists) are hard-working, honest folk. Conservatives realize giving people things removes the incentive to work. Most liberal ideas are brilliant except for the whole “reality” thing.

  7. Using only methods available at the time of their construction, Ricks’ army of civilian slaves, er, “volunteers” could be put to work moving Egypt’s pyramids from there to, say Illinois, since they apparently so offend that country’s new rulers.

  8. Issue each draftee a military grade brick.
    Have the draftee-recruit qualify on the brick range.
    Disperse to the cities of our fair country.
    Commit the raw brick-troopers against the window menace facing our homeland.

    Shovel ready, stimulus commences.

    1. Come on now. I’ve known boobs, and I have seen boobs, and I happen to like them in their proper place on my wife’s chest. Boobs are very nice and, overwhelmingly, men agree on this fact.

      So, let’s have no more insults of boobs.

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