(Update: I had a brief opportunity to discuss this issue with Kelly Wright on Fox News recently. You can view that short interview at the link above).
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) wants to look tough on budget issues. In an editorial published in USA Today explaining his decision to lead the passage of a budget that reduced vested veteran pensions by an average of $84,000 to $120,000, Mr. Ryan founded his message on the urgent need to “do the right thing.” In doing so, he created a painful irony; Ryan’s budget seeks to save $6B over the next 10 years – equivalent to less than six-tenths of one percent of projected federal spending over that period — by extracting it from compensation already guaranteed to people who earned it risking their lives and defending their country. In other words, despite his assurances to the contrary, he wants to do exactly the wrong thing.
The military and veteran population stand in awe at Ryan’s explanation. He apparently believes we are not only naive enough not to overlook the gaping moral maw between his words and actions, but also dumb enough not to see this for what it is: just the beginning. If he can decouple vested veteran pensions from inflation while we still have people dying in combat, there will be nothing to stop him from continually enlarging the legitimacy of promise-breaking until veterans wake up one day and realize the pension package they’re getting bears no resemblance to what they and their families earned.
Ryan presents a classic false dilemma. He wants us to believe the nation must choose between keeping promises to veterans and remaining secure. He admonishes us that “since 2001, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost per service member in the active-duty force has risen by 41% in inflation-adjusted dollars.” What he doesn’t mention is that when the $6T eventual price tag of those wars is counted, personnel costs will define a tiny percentage of their total price tag, despite the fact that any success we register from those conflicts will have been wholly earned not by machines, but by the people who fought and died to carry out the nation’s will. Paying people isn’t something we do instead of staying secure as a nation . . . it’s the very way we stay secure. People win wars, not machines, bureaucracies, or defense contractors.
What Ryan also doesn’t mention is that part of the reason money is running short these days is that he voted to authorize and expand the two wars whose costs have now finally become so inescapable that he and others can no longer deny them. As these costs fall due, the search is growing frantic for the most politically expedient way to ameliorate them, and politicians like Ryan are finding it easier to target troop pensions than to engage DoD in genuine reform. Mr. Ryan obfuscates his purpose by hiding behind Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his generals, claiming their desire for pension reform vindicates his attempt to extract budgetary savings on the backs of warriors who have just endured the most punishing operations tempo in national history.
But notwithstanding that the Chief of Staff of the Air Force claims DoD wasn’t even consulted before the Ryan-Murray provision was inserted, what Ryan doesn’t advertise is that Hagel and the generals are struggling to make ends meet because Congress and the President have underresourced the department without granting it mission relief, leaving them with a problem they can’t legally solve and have a solemn duty not to abandon. Hagel, Dempsey and the service chiefs desperately want reform, and are entitled to the presumption they’d rather not achieve reform in the predatory manner thus far undertaken. But this isn’t reform. This is the opposite — it’s the avoidance of reform. This is cheating . . . by saving money without having to engage in reform. This is back-door budgeteering. Nothing more.
Reform is deliberate, methodical, and transparent. This is an attempted legal heist. Mr. Ryan clearly hoped it wouldn’t be noticed. He now laments being caught red-handed by veterans and their representatives, who now rightly wonder whether Congress has already forgotten what it promised in exchange for a dozen years (and counting) of voluntary misery. The unease now sensed from among the veteran population should be taken as a dire warning: haphazardly breached promises that send the wrong kinds of signals to current and past service members will fundamentally disrupt the eagerness of Americans to serve in the future. Abraham Lincoln said this during the Civil War and it holds true still, especially given the dozen years of abusive management practices that have already ground down our all-volunteer force.
Ryan wants to have an economic discussion masquerading as a moral one, but the veil he constructs is as thin as the paper upon which he scribbles down new promises certain to be broken when it becomes politically expedient. Ryan admits he seeks to take $100,000 dollars out of the retirement accounts of veterans who earned that money by risking their lives in combat. This is morally repugnant, but clearly Ryan and his colleagues are more compelled by economic convenience. He thinks veteran pensions are just another lavish government handout to be squeezed in the name of fiscal conservatism. Incredulous, veterans find themselves on the wrong side of socialist impulses undertaken by an avowed counter-socialist; Ryan seems to be saying working age retirees don’t need all that money, so it should be taken from them and given to some other budgetary recipient who needs it more. Ryan has made a career railing against this very thing, saving his lone exception for a most unfortunate notion.
Paul Ryan says of military members, “[w]e owe them a benefit structure they can count on.” This is the most revealing sentence in his editorial, because he uses the word benefit. No, Mr. Ryan doesn’t owe them a benefit. Military retirement isn’t a social benefit. He owes them the compensation promised by their country. It’s not a benefit. It’s a vested pension. It’s earnings they already paid for. That they earned those benefits in ways Paul Ryan doesn’t understand because he’s never served doesn’t change that fact. He and his colleagues owe those who already acted in reliance on their promised pensions exactly what they were warranted, and not a penny less. Two million retired veterans (and hundreds of thousands currently serving) made career decisions based on this reliance, and cannot now go back and change those decisions. Ryan understands the irrevocable nature of these decisions on some level, given that he now wants to make sure disabled retirees don’t lose any pension money. His theory is that they made decisions that ended up limiting their horizons. What he seems to be missing is that most military retirees did the same thing. Perhaps what he’s really saying is you only really earned your pension if you bled for it enough to be disabled. Those who bled less, and merely risked life and limb for 20+ years, deserve something less. Again we find ourselves talking about who needs or deserves to be paid a pension, rather than starting by viewing an inflation-adjusted pension as the inviolate obligation we all understood it to be at the time it was offered in exchange for service in combat in time of war.
Mr. Ryan, speaking directly to you now, if you’re truly going to engage with veterans, you’ll have to learn to knock off the nonsense and talk straight. Stop playing pretend, admit what you’re doing, and either stand by it or don’t. You were part of the movement that imposed sequestration on the DoD, over the objections of everyone who knows anything about national defense. Now that the generals are telling you they can’t maintain readiness without more funding or fewer missions, you’re looking to avoid tough decisions by grabbing for some easy cash, and have chosen the place where resistance is least likely – a constituency that isn’t allowed to speak out on its own behalf and has been socialized to refrain from complaining even when abused.
Well, you miscalculated. We noticed. We noticed you didn’t bother forcing DoD to reform itself (or even pass an audit based on current practices) before you allowed it to prop up a false narrative of runaway personnel costs – notwithstanding you and others voted for the current levels of compensation in order to carry out the wars you advocated without having to advertise their true costs to the American people. We noticed you didn’t ask the President to shut down the war in Afghanistan any faster, even though doing so just one month earlier than planned would completely finance the savings you instead chose to take from pensions we earned with mortal risk and one kick in the gut after another over the last dozen years. We noticed that you didn’t bother dialing up the uber rich – those who extract the most from the free-market system guarded by veterans – and asking them to contribute a little more in exchange for their freedom to earn riches insulated from threats to national security. To do so has long been an honorable American tradition. You chose a different path, and we noticed.
Most of all, we noticed you didn’t acknowledge you were breaking a promise. You, the President (as recently as September of this year), previous generals, and two previous Defense Secretaries reassured veterans time and again that any reform of the pension system would not touch the compensation of those who already paid their dues. You haven’t acknowledged that by slipping this back-door provision into the budget, you spearheaded a successful effort to break those promises, which we consider sacred and fundamental. But you underestimated the American veteran, who is typically an unselfish team player averse to complaint, but never stupid. We have families who rely on us to fight for them, so we have no intention of going quietly while you pass off quasi-larceny as “reform.”
Paul Ryan is a futurist. He’s concerned with what runaway compensation costs might do to the national debt over the course of the next ten years. Not so concerned that he wants to look at reducing Congressional pay or the pay of generals, admirals, and senior executives. Just concerned enough to cut the pensions of the military’s middle class. Those who do the hard fighting for twenty years or so and exhaust themselves and their families in the process before heading out onto the open job market . . . where they find, at a disproportionately high rate, that learning to conduct organized violence isn’t always a boon in the private sector. But before we trust his credentials as a futurist, we should consider what he foretold ten years ago. He was then busy voting to send America’s sons and daughters into Iraq without a clear objective, a proper declaration, or even a legitimate cause. He now wants to keep the benefits of his decision while disowning the obligations. That is not only an impeachment of his futurist bona fides, but the textbook definition of doing the wrong thing.
The war Ryan supported in 2002 and doubled down upon in 2007 broke the spine of the all-volunteer force, and we’ve spent the subsequent years concealing that fact with personnel abuses and a heavy reliance on the sense of duty of our volunteers. In that time, they’ve stayed because they believed in their teammates and knew someone had to help get this country out of the mess it had gotten into. But they relied heavily on the fact they’d be able to take care of their families when the time came to re-purpose themselves, and in doing so came to depend on the pensions they earned. The Ryan-Murray provision has many of them feeling like they’ve been made fools for trusting their country’s word as a bond. If Ryan and his colleagues are allowed to proceed with taking the easy way out, Americans will regret ten years from now (or sooner) that they allowed such casual promise-breaking to inflict a slow-bleeding but mortal wound upon the all-volunteer force . . . which depends fundamentally on the reliability of promises to function.
Paul Ryan wants us to do the right thing. I agree with him. Accordingly, I encourage Mr. Ryan and his colleagues to move swiftly in reversing course and grandfathering all currently-serving career military personnel and their predecessors who’ve already retired in any reforms. Anything less might save some money, but will do so at the cost of moral bankruptcy.