Favoritism demeans all
This past weekend, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post described how difficult it is for the military to get out of the grocery business. "The next big war facing the U.S. military," Mr. Chandrasekaran wrote, is "confronting the enormous cost of pay raises, benefits programs and other taxpayer-subsidized services, which have increased almost 90 percent since 2001 and have become the fastest-growing part of the Defense Department’s budget."
Groups back these benefits because they themselves benefit, building constituencies and seeking favor to bolster their strength and political influence. It's not merely altruism.
Two comments in the article concerned me. The American Logistics Association (ALA) sent a letter co-signed by the leaders of the Armed Forces Marketing Council and the Coalition of Military Distributors to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saying, "Commissaries are core to the high standards of military quality of life. They represent a reciprocal commitment from the taxpayer to the military people for their dedication and sacrifice.” Then in an interview ALA president Patrick B. Nixon said, "The military community is different from the rest of the nation. These stores are manned by people who are familiar with their situation, who appreciate what they’re doing for our country.”
If commissaries are "core" to military quality of life, then we aren't paying service members professional wages. We have a professional military, not – as some people assert – an "all-volunteer" force. Is the active and retired military community so different that we have to isolate them from other retail customers? If so, then we have not done enough to integrate them with the rest of the nation.
We, as a nation, do appreciate our service members' sacrifice. Many of those fighting overseas come from reserve and national guard units. They are our neighbors; they cannot set themselves apart. When the military and its members set themselves apart from the nation they're sworn to defend, we have a problem – not just with motivation in defending the nation but also in allowing the nation to show its appreciation for their invaluable, selfless commitment.
Government should provide efficient, efficient public goods and services. But cash remuneration provides greater utility and more flexibility to service members with less risk and lower long-term cost to government than subsidy or direct provision.
So yes, let's deliver a taste of home for members serving overseas. Yes, let's compensate well for a job well done. Yes, let's provide a guiding hand as members transition to civilian life. But let's make it a full transition to once again become part of "we" instead of being set apart.
The trick in changing the status quo is not to single out any one group for fleecing, but to bring all back into the fold.