Budget Battle

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) wants to look tough on budget issues. In aneditorial published in USA Today explaining his decision to lead the passage of a budget that reduced the value of already-earned 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.” This is painfully ironic, given that he wants to do exactly the wrong thing by extracting $6B in savings over the next 10 years – equivalent to less than six-tenths of one percent of federal spending over that time — by taking earned compensation away from people who earned it risking their lives.

I’m still struggling to understand what it is about the veteran population that would make Ryan believe we’re dumb enough not to see this for what it is: just the beginning. If he can reduce earned veteran compensation by 1% per year 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 recognize the pension package they’re getting bears no resemblance to what they and their families earned.

Presenting a classic false dilemma by casting the need to pay people as in competition with the need to fund operations, Ryan 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 the total price tag, despite the fact that any success we can count from those conflicts will have been wholly earned not by machines, but by the people who fought and died to carry out America’s will. What Ryan also doesn’t mention is that part of the reason money is running short is that he voted to authorize and expand these wars. Now that their true costs have fallen due, he’s looking for an easy way to ameliorate them. This isn’t the right thing. It’s the wrong thing.

Ryan wants us to trust that because Secretary of Defense Hagel and the generals want reform, his back-door budget trick is a good idea. What he doesn’t mention is that Hagel and his leadership team are struggling to make ends meet because Congress and the President have conspired to under resource the department without granting it any mission relief, leaving them with a problem they can’t legally solve but can’t legally abandon. Hagel, Dempsey and the service chiefs desperately want reform. But this isn’t reform. This is the opposite of reform — it’s theavoidance of reform. This is cheating by saving money without having toengage in reform. This is back-door budgeteering and nothing more. Reform is deliberate, methodical, and transparent. This is an attempted legal heist that Mr. Ryan clearly hoped wouldn’t be noticed. He now laments it only because he got caught red-handed by veterans and their representatives, who now rightly question his motivation and judgment. Has Congress already forgotten what it promised in exchange for a dozen years of voluntary misery? This unease Ryan now senses from among the veteran population should be taken as the warning it is: haphazard cuts that send the wrong kinds of messages to current and past service members could fundamentally disrupt the eagerness of Americans to serve in the future. This is especially true 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 he’s really trying to avoid the real moral question altogether. Even in his economic argument, Ryan admits he seeks to take $100,000 dollars out of the retirement account of someone who earned it. This is a moral violation, but clearly Ryan doesn’t see it that way. Clearly, he thinks veteran pensions are not earned compensation, but a lavish handout. What he’s saying is that working age retirees don’t need all that money, so we should take it away from them and give it to some other budgetary beneficiary who needs it more. That sounds an awful lot like the definition of socialism, something Ryan has made a career railing against but now seems to embrace when it suits his politically expedient purposes.

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. Benefit. No, you don’t owe them a benefit. This isn’t a social benefit. You owe them the compensation you already promised on behalf of 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 intangible 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 promised, and not a penny less. Tens of thousands made career decisions based on this reliance, and cannot now go back and change those decisions. Ryan understands this on some level, given that he now wants to make suredisabled retirees don’t lose any pension money. I guess what he’s saying is you only really earned your pension if you bled for it enough to be disabled. For those who bled less, and merely risked life and limb for 20 years, they 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, if you’re truly going to speak 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 cuts 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 for the easiest place to grab some quick 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. You figured since the military is an overwhelmingly republican demographic, veterans would all buy in to your notions of deficit reduction without raising any questions.

Well, you were wrong. 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 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 advertise their true costs to the American people. We noticed you didn’t ask the President to shut down the war in Afghanistan any quicker, even though doing so just one month earlier than planned would completely finance the budgetary savings you instead chose to embezzle from pensions we earned with mortal risk and one kick in the gut after another over the last dozen years. We noticed most of all that you didn’t bother dialing up the uber rich – those who benefit most from the security veterans provide – and asking them to contribute a little more so we wouldn’t have to give back what we’ve already earned.

Most of all, we noticed you didn’t acknowledge you were breaking a promise. You, the President, previous generals and two previous Secretaries of Defense have 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 yet acknowledged that by slipping this back-door provision into the budget, you were the leader of a successful effort to break promises we consider sacred and fundamental. But you underestimated the American veteran. We’re gracious and unselfish, but not stupid. We have families who rely on us to fight for them, so we have no intention of going quietly while you pass off simple 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 necessarily a boon in the private sector. You see, ten years ago, he wasn’t so concerned. He was busy trying to look tough on national defense by voting to send America’s sons and daughters into Iraq without a clear objective, a proper declaration, or even a legitimate cause . He wasn’t concerned about the future, he was concerned about political expediency. And he got what he wanted. Now he wants to keep the benefits of his decision while disowning the obligations. That is 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 next years concealing that fact with personnel abuses, bonuses, and 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 rely on their earned compensation when all was said and done. If Ryan is allowed to proceed with taking the easy way out, Americans will regret ten years from now that they allowed his blurry budgetary vision and casual promise-breaking to inflict a slow-bleeding but mortal wound upon the all-volunteer force . . . which depends fundamentally on the reliability of government promises to function properly.

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 have already retired in any proposed reforms. Anything less might save a little money, but will do so at the cost of moral bankruptcy.

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