Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Drafting with Charlie Rangel

There has been considerable discussion in the blogosphere about the latest installment of Representative Rangel's legislative proposals to reinstate the draft. Some of the discussion has been abetted by Milton Friedman's well publicized opposition to a draft and his recent passing. This is obviously a non-starter in Congress, based on the reactions of the current and incoming leadership. But it's a worthwhile discussion to have.

Of the several varieties of this legislation that Rangel has proposed in the last four years, I am most sympathetic to a version that includes both sexes and a wide age range (like 18 to 42, as in this latest proposal), with essentially no exceptions. If something like this were to be done, it should be done in a manner such that everyone has an equal chance of serving.

However, I don't necessarily subscribe to Rangel's reasoning:

"There's no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm's way," Rangel said.
One could just as readily make the argument that if we had millions of people available for military service at little additional cost, we would find ways to use them.

To my mind, the largest problem with the draft is that it puts a lot of untrained people not just in a position to get themselves killed but in areas where they might compromise the safety and mission of the well trained armed forces who would still do most of the work. A commenter (k harris) at Angry Bear put it well:
As a matter of rightness, we need to settle on who should serve, on whether service should be compulsory, and on how service should be compensated.

Some of those questions also spill over into preparedness, but preparedness goes beyond just those questions. We have been sending accountants and school teachers into a quasi-policing, quasi-combat situation. It's stupid. We have a highly mechanized, highly computerized method of war-making. Grabbing people off the streets, either through conscription or through reserve obligation, and tossing them into the military, is not going to get the job done. It was never a good idea to shove a rifle, or a pike, into a conscript's hands and put him on the battlefield. These days, it is not a good idea to put a conscript or a reservist into the logistics chain or a behind the lines hospital orderly uniform, much less on the battlefield. If we are going to keep fighting battlefield wars, and it looks like we are, then we need to do a better job of matching skills to jobs. That means interrupting people's lives during peacetime, giving them the specialized skills they need, and then turning them loose again. Keep bringing them back to keep skills fresh, in case we need them. That's a shared burden. It also helps keep battlefield soldiers supported in a way that may save lives.
The fundamental issue is not a draft but a mass mobilization of the population. In the wake of 9/11, much of the population was willing to be mobilized. Manpower applied to homeland security and the "War on Terror" could have been increased substantially without conscription. We would be five years ahead of where we are now in terms of training the citizenry to resist or respond to attack and to match them to the areas where they could help the most.

During these five years, there as been a frustrating absence of Presidential rhetoric about how citizens can participate meaningfully. If militant Islam is now such a threat to our existence as a society, then why are we not encouraged to change our way of life as a society to meet it? Is our patriotic duty as a citizenry really just to keep the economy humming along, so that tax revenues are generated to pay for the military budget? There's little outlet for patriotism in going to the office or the mall. To channel the patriotic fervor into something constructive, we need people to engage in something new, not something routine.


PGL said...

K Harris did a nice job of addressing the larger point, which you address. The concern that Milton Friedman had - which Brad DeLong echoed - is the possibility that conscription could be used to pay below market wages. Of course, politicians need not set wages below the market - but then when have we trusted politicians to do the right thing.

The thing that bothers me about this war is the lack of recognition for its costs in the form of an explicit tax increase. Then again - I can remember all too well that LBJ ignored the December 1965 advice of his CEA to raise taxes in order to keep the FED out of that Faustian choice - raise interest rates or watch inflation accelerate. It seems LBJ reasoned going to Congress for a tax increase in 1966 would be bad politics. Of course, George W. Bush is infamous for listening to his political advisors rather than his economists. I guess that's why Milton Friedman shied away from advising this President.

Anonymous said...

When nuclear war became "unthinkable" then the draft became unfair.

A nation that refuses to use all its military strength to fight a war and win should not even think about a draft.

Opening a bomb-bay door offers no glory to our young men and women.

Today in the face of nuclear weaponary we must all face the same risks not just 18-24 year olds.

Nathan S. Empsall said...

I agree that Rangel's reasoning is flawed, but that a draft could be a decent idea. I wouldn't, however, call it a "draft," since draft suggests military conscription, and I would make it so much more than that. I like Hagel's idea of mandatory public service - military as one option, but Teach for America, Americorps, the Peace Corps, and other similar programs as other possibilities. I wouldn't go all the way to 42, though - make it like the Israeli program. You must do two years between ages 18 and 25. This might instill a sense of service and civic duty in more of America's youth.