Sunday, June 05, 2005

The welfare state.

Warning notice! Views expressed in this article are probably going to offend some members of the military, some Filipino’s and just about every US Government civilian employee employed overseas. However it’s an issue worth discussing and I have put a lot of thought into it, so consider yourself forewarned! (Long post follows).

Mark, over at Gardner in Korea, posted a line a few days back that got me to do some heavy thinking. ( I know, that’s unusual in itself.). Frustrated with dealing with the exchange, “ [it’s] just more evidence of shady dealing over here. I can hardly wait until we cut sling load on this freeloading, USFK welfare-addicted state.”

Now ordinarily one could just dismiss this, as a Soldier complaining, so that means he must be happy right? Actually, I think he has hit on a very pertinent theme that is applicable at any large US military base overseas. Namely that, without meaning to, the military has created a welfare state and a dictatorship at the same time.

I can see yourself scratching your head and asking, “Skippy, what the hell are you talking about? Serving overseas is a hardship and our Soldiers, Sailors, Airman and Marines (I hate the term ‘men and women of our armed forces’) deserve the very best we can give them”. Well yes, but its also quite clear that the authors of the current system did not very well consider the law of unintended consequences

I am not real sure how things work over in Korea, but I am real familiar with how things work over here in Japan. For a service member or a civilian government employee living on base, life at a military base in Japan is a great deal. From both a quality of life standpoint and from a compensation point of view, the average person living overseas at a military base can live about 1 to 2 pay grades over what his compatriot in the US can live at.

Now I need to be upfront here. I am not in anyway trying to belittle the hard work done by our men and women serving overseas in our armed forces. (See I can use the term!) . And certainly in many locations our service personnel are living in less than optimum conditions and dealing with a whole host of deprivations. Also, in both my previous life and my current one, I benefit from the items I am about to discuss and sure as hell don’t want to change any item of my current existence. However one does have to wonder some times about the way some folks over here use and abuse the system.

For an active duty service member and/or a civilian government employee serving on a military base and living in government housing, being stationed overseas is just about one of the best deals going. And our folks being Americans and being smart, have come to recognize that and have made the best of it they can. Some times they simply go too far. Thus the welfare state mentality develops.

And fundamentally, provided no rules are being broken there is nothing wrong with that. However the senior leadership , in turn , has no right to be surprised when people do not act in the way that they had hoped, and do not seek the planned path of service that powers that be have dictated for them. Its here where the problems begin and it all has to do with money and privileges.

Now I also need to caveat what follows. The majority of personnel do play by the rules. However there is a minority and sadly, some of them are of Filipino extraction and some are of other ancestry, that have come to perceive that Uncle Sam has a duty and obligation to take care of them in every way. This is going to take a little while to explain, but ask Mark or CDR Salamander and I’ll bet they second my opinion.

Specifically, personnel stationed over here in Japan are paid a generous cost of living allowance. (COLA). That COLA is designed to make up the difference between the cost of items in the US and the cost of items out in the Japanese economy. And that difference in cost can be significant. Gasoline costs $3.40 per gallon over here; a case of beer any where from between $25 to 40 dollars and admission to a movie is 18 dollars. A train ticket to Tokyo costs $6.00 one way. Hell, a cup of coffee in Starbucks costs $3.20 for a small. However what that ignores is that a significant portion of the military population lives on base and has alternatives available to them that are not available to your average Japanese citizen. We can shop at the commissary, paying comparable prices to the US, Gas is only $2.09 a gallon, and movies and recreational activities are reduced in cost. ($3.00 for a ticket and $18.00 for a round of golf. That is why I can play golf as much as I do.)

Here is where the law of unintended consequences kicks in. One of the most frustrating things that I have seen, both in my active service and after, is that fact that a lot of folks don’t go outside the gates of the bases except on infrequent occasions. Its a shame because there is so much to see in this great country and the train system is excellent. However because the bases have been here for a while and the quality of the services provided therein is improving with every year, many people simply bankroll their COLA and save it up for a rainy day, furniture, or to send home to take care of mom and dad. They become isolated in a government created little world.

Housing is the key here. Japanese housing, while making great improvements, will never be as big as an American on base apartment or house. The situation is made worse, because instead of maximizing the number of units that can be made available by building apartments and duplexes and double houses, they try to recreate America by putting in yards and other nonsense. So they waste valuable real estate that could be put to better use. No matter what though, a house on base beats one off base for one simply reason: free utilities and insulation. Spend a winter in Tokyo sleeping on a futon and you will know what I mean.

Once the housing is secured, other insidious pieces of the welfare state kick in. Recognizing the availability of dependency under US tax law, some less than honest folks have gotten their mothers and/fathers sponsored as dependents. Dependents that are able to get visas to enter the country and live with the service member. It must be a problem because the folks in the military medical community have sure expended a lot of effort complaining about it. And it’s created an underclass that exists on bases, folks bagging groceries, working at the movie theater, and other places doing low wage jobs, but still enjoying the privileges of living on the base.

When the powers that be try to crack down on this, a great hue and cry ensues. There is a huge cultural difference between other Asian cultures where the more well off children are supposed to take care of the parents, and US culture where we Americans take care of ourselves. My roommate from college is married to a Filipina and it drives him crazy. One night over a few beers, he reminded me that when you marry a Filipina, you just don’t marry the girl, you marry the entire family. Now again, there is more than one side to this story and it would be very unfair to state that this is the universal state of affairs because many folks simply live their lives quietly without these issues. However, there are enough who do for this to be an issue.

Also, near and dear to my heart, these fixed based have a large support infrastructure requiring a large civilian work force to support. Here in Japan this work force is split between Japanese workers and Government employees (GS). GS workers too, enjoy the commissary, gas station, mini mart, food court and exchange, AND the Golf course. (I am amazed at how many civilian compatriots live here in Japan and compete with me for a tee time each Saturday). Not all of these folks get COLA however, but they find other ways to get by (teaching English is one). Many, like me are prior military and get retirement (at least what the ex did not steal). And if Donald Rumsfeld gets his way, our numbers will grow.

Now let’s add in the other items of a welfare state/dictatorship. There is government sanctioned gambling (every club has a slot machine place), a government television network (thanks to cable and satellite TV it’s not as pervasive as it once was. Still it runs propaganda ads extolling the evils of the gambling it allows and the virtues of women in the military though…..). A large police force, government run schools, an unelected government ( and just like in the US, increasingly decisions that affect quality of life are being made by lunkheads who do not live here, but are part of a large bureaucracy known as CNI…).

Well I think by now you can see where I am going here. This issue is a little more complicated and it is not easily explained. However anyone in the military who has spent some time overseas can understand what I am saying. Bases that were originally intended to be temporary or for set time duration have expanded and become permanent fixtures. And with it has come the same set of problems that happen, anywhere the government tries to run a significant portion of the economy.

“Ok smart ass”, you may ask, “how would you fix this?” The answer is, I would not. At least not in the way of making major changes. I would, if I were the king, make some minor changes and ask folks to stop blaming the service member for the outcome of doing things the system allows them to do.

Incentivize expected behavior. If you want people to rotate every five years of so, limit the number of years that can be spent in government housing. Make promotion boards reward personnel who do move around.

Specifically, the United States should take a hard look at whether some of the current fixed and forward deployed basing arrangements would be better served with a rotational force concept from the US. I’ll give you an example. The US keeps an aircraft carrier over here with its crew home ported here in Japan. Why could you not have a “blue” and a "gold” crew that swapped back and forth, just like the SSBN submarines do? That would reduce the population competing for housing by some 3000 personnel at least. Yes it would mean you could not cut the other 3000 personnel manning the “gold crew” but at least all 6000 personnel would be in the United States for PCS purposes. That would probably have the extra bonus of reducing the number of civilians required to support them.

BAN secondary dependents! If someone files for a secondary dependent, they should be sent home as soon as is feasible. At minimum the person should not be granted sponsorship to live overseas with the service member. If the service member gets the tax break fine, but if they need to live with mom and dad then it should happen in the US.

Either build enough housing for the population, or make greater use of services out in town. The second solution is the better one in terms of flexibility and ability to grow or shrink the force. Spend more bucks on COLA and transportation allowances (e.g. encouraging people to use the trains over here, something too many Americans do not do….) and let the Japanese economy provide services such as food stores, et al.

The previous solution flies in the face of one of the dirty little secrets of bases in Japan however. Much of the base construction, as well as the salaries for the Japanese employees, are funded by the government of Japan. This construction money is known as JFIP and it is the crack cocaine of base construction. Essentally its a jobs program for the Japanese government, however it gives them a say in what is built and where. And like Hal Holbrook said in Wall Street, " easy money makes you do things you don't want ( or need) to do."

Stop allowing military personnel in CONUS, to fail overseas screening. If they fail, then they have to get screenable quickly or its time for them to move on. If momma can’t go overseas, well then the service member has to be worked to an unaccompanied tour to fulfill his or her overseas obligation. If consecutive overseas tours are bad, (and I don’t think they are) which is what the idiots at the region say…. then consecutive tours anywhere are bad. Limit naval personnel to no more than 3 consecutive tours in any location INCLUDING San Diego and Norfolk. Make it clear that everybody is expected to put in time overseas. (The Navy says that now, but does not really mean it). They need to get back to the practice of orders being orders. Put ownership of that assignment process with Bureau of Naval Personnel and take away the review authority of the regional commander and the fleet commander.

Finally, don’t take away any of the current pay incentives, however those overseas could stand to be a lot more grateful for them. We should get down nightly and say a prayer for the boys and girls in Iraq and Afghanistan who have bought the shit end of the Global War on Terror, and realize how lucky we are to be overseas someplace else. In the end Sailor or Civilian, our job is about supporting them because right now, that’s where the war is.

I do realize that there are a lot of holes here in my methodology and I hope a lot of people comment and poke those holes in my logic. However amid the miscues, a gem of truth remains.



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