Militarizing America: The Nick Kristof Plan

So often, the problem with the New York Times op-ed page is not just the left-leaning politics, but the poor quality of the contributors, despite the fact that they occupy some of the highest-paid and most-visible perches in the punditocracy. And the hallmark of poor quality punditry is the failure to think through the implications of one’s arguments. So it is with today’s column from Times columnist Nick Kristof.
Kristof’s thesis is that the US military is actually a “socialist” institution that should be a model for our society:

[I]f we seek another model, one that emphasizes universal health care and educational opportunity, one that seeks to curb income inequality, we don’t have to turn to Sweden. Rather, look to the United States military.

Now, it’s reasonable as far as it goes to point out that the military, being wholly-owned and operated by the government, does not behave like a private for-profit enterprise. But does Kristof really think the military isn’t too bureaucratic and inefficient to be a model for the private sector? Hint: it is, because it’s a government bureaucracy, but we tolerate that because it performs an essential and irreplaceable function. Even leaving that aside, however, let’s look at the essential characteristics of the military as a workplace, few of which Kristof seems to have thought through and many of which, I’d guess, he would find objectionable as applied to the private sector:

1. The workforce is not free. You join the military, unless you are discharged, you must serve out your enlisted term of years. Most American workers are free to change jobs, and even if you have a contract for a stated period, the Thirteenth Amendment protects you in most cases from being compelled to do more than pay money damages for quitting. Not so with soldiers, who can be imprisoned for desertion. Also, enlisted soldiers often must live in housing provided by their employer (depending on their rank and other conditions), and ordinarily have few rights of privacy against inspection of their living quarters. They can be shipped hither and yon without their consent.
2. The workforce is not unionized. The military’s complete control over working conditions is in no way obstructed by collective bargaining or work rules. Nor are wages protected by statutory schemes such as the Davis-Bacon Act.
3. The employer is largely immune from suit. Americans with Disabilities Act? Sexual harrassment litigation? Medical malpractice? Age Discrimination in Employment Act? Never heard of them. Most of the workforce is under 40, disproportionately male, physically fit, and until very recently did not permit open homosexuals to serve. Military culture is distinctive, and feminists in particular have long complained of the persistence of a ‘macho’ culture. The upper ranks of the military are naturally dominated by men, because women are barred from the jobs (i.e., combat) that provide the most important opportunities for advancement.
4. The entire workforce is armed and wears uniforms. I’m guessing this is not the case in the New York Times newsroom.
As it happens, the things that make the military so cohesive, and so willing to accept wages and working conditions that would be objectionable in the private sector, are inseparable from its dangerous and violent mission, focus on combat and, yes, its irreducibly masculine culture. As Jonah Goldberg traced in his excellent book Liberal Fascism, Kristof is following an impulse here that recurs with great regularity in the liberal imagination: the desire to replicate the “socialist” nature of the military – or of civilian life in times of total war – without its military-ness. Goldberg draws extensively on the history, from post-World War I progressives (including FDR) seeking to recreate the conditions of the wartime Wilson Administration, to LBJ’s War on Poverty, to Jimmy Carter’s “moral equivalent of war” on energy consumption – he might have added Kristof’s colleague Paul Krugman, who is constantly harping on the economic conditions of the World War II era as a model. But they always fail; men who will run uphill into a machine gun nest for their comrades simply will not do the same thing to sell dishwashers, and no amount of re-imagining of fundamental human nature will make them do so. Militarized societies inevitably founder on this basic reality; they face constant pressure to become wholly militarized and regimented, yet sooner or later they still fail to sustain conditions in which ordinary citizens act like soldiers. As my RedState colleague Repair Man Jack commented, “they tried that in Germany and Italy once. The results weren’t what anyone could have hoped for.”

30 thoughts on “Militarizing America: The Nick Kristof Plan”

  1. I think Kristoff is trying to show that even something that is thought of as hidebound and unchangeable like the military is actually not.
    Of course, the military does have some big advantages, in much the same way that private schools do. It gets to kick out anyone who doesn’t see things or be able to do things their way. So in a way, Sarah Palin is a traitor to the military. Because the military has to wash out 20% of new recruits as physically unfit and unable to make fit. Since Palin did her famous helicoptering in the cookies to the kids to protest Michelle Obama’s stance on actually eating well, it makes her a traitor.
    Kidding only partly, but the fact that we put up with some inefficient nonsense on the part of our armed forces is because it actually is very effective, both as an armed force, and as a large scattered “company/family/community.” Meaning, sorry Republicans, it means that the government actually does things well when it has to. More than Wall Street does.
    The military has enormous amounts of regulations and oversight, yet it manages to help design and procure weapons of incredible sophistication (another anti-Republican issue, since many more recruits also wash out due to poor education. You really do need to pay for things). But Wall Street is fighting any regulation on a $30 TRILLION hedge fund industry. If the idealistic and honorable men and women of our armed forces (and they really are our best and brightest) need the oversight, you don’t think our banks, hedge funds and insurance companies don’t?

  2. I don’t think you find too many conservatives to quibble with the idea that the military is good at its job, even for all its inefficiencies. Ditto in most cases for the police and fire departments. The problem with both libertarianism and liberalism are that they fail to distinguish between these core governmental functions and things that are better handled by the private sector.
    As for education, excellence in educating students is a conservative issue. Providing compensation and job security, ensuring political indoctrination and keeping students away from icky notions of faith and morality are the liberal education priorities.

  3. The problem I have with conservatism is that even though the government does things less efficiently, it often does things worth doing that the private sector either cannot or will not do by itself. Of course, the problem I have liberals is that they think the government should do just about everything the private sector does not do.
    As for education, I’d be thrilled if conservatives were actually concerned about excellence in educating students. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of evidence of that. They are mainly concerned with blaming teachers and schools for problems with children that are well beyond their control just because by coincidence they are unionized, public workers.

  4. Also, military personnel lose significant portions of their civil liberites and must obey all orders from their superiors (the government). It’s telling that Kristoff considers the military code socialism.

  5. Precisely.
    The other obvious point I didn’t make: the military’s customers don’t have any choice in the matter. You can be a dyed-in-the-hemp peacenik and you still have to pay taxes to support it. As we have seen, it’s not so popular when you apply that thinking to car companies, banks, insurance companies, etc.

  6. Actually it is because conservatives care so much about education that they put some much emphasis on how poor the public school system is. We dislike the way the elected school boards (in league with the unions) have created a dysfunctional learning environment. While there are some bad teachers, it is their union (not the teachers) that has stopped the schools from focusing on education and instead on expanding the unions power.
    Conservatives are not anti-education. Rather they recognize something that the present system is not working and which people who have made it that way. We want to force the public schools to be accountable. Vouchers are one way for parents to fight back. The unions are against this as well as other things that will reduce their power.
    We also dislike the liberal bias that mis-educates our kids. The kids are not taught to think and evaluate facts. Rather they are taught liberal propaganda that is hogwash. They don’t prepare our children for life.
    To fix the schools, we have to break the piblic unions.

  7. I can only speak for myself on this score, but my antipathy to the public employee unions tends to be driven by their obstruction of education reform rather than the other way around.
    I went to Catholic schools (as did my parents and as do my kids), which can do things public schools can’t. They have a vastly freer hand to discipline students, fire bad teachers, run their own curriculum, and teach the basics of faith and right and wrong, and they do so at much lower costs. All I’ve ever wanted from the educational system is for more kids to have the opportunities I had.

  8. The incompetence of columnists at the NY Times is a reflection of the news media in general. Most of the product that journalists produce is bad as is the commentary. The Times is just journalism on steroids.
    The failure to articulate an intelligent idea goes to the top. See Keller and the startling inablility to explain the treasonous revelations of a CIA program. Other than an erroneous explanation of the Pentagon papers case and noting that W was president, he had nothing to say. He’d been in close consultation with their lawyers for many months before running the story and yet, couldn’t explain why they did it.
    As comedian Ron White explains — you can’t fix stupid. Stupid is forever.

  9. But why do you think that educational reform really addresses the problem? In Connecticut, a blue state by any measure, has your typical disparity of educational performance throughout its towns. Some towns have fantastic performance, other towns dismal. Do you know what they all have in common? Teacher’s unions. They are a constant, not a variable.
    Of course I don’t like union bumping rules or overly indulgent tenure policies, but it’s fantasy to believe that fixing those is really going to solve schools that perform poorly. Nor will subjecting kids to endless standardized tests. You need three things for good school performance: (1) competent teachers and reasonably well funded schools, (2) communities with stable families that value education, and (3) if you are lucky, a higher percentage of kids that are naturally smart to begin with. If you have numbers 2 and 3, then the kids are going to be successful in all but the most dysfunctional schools.
    There are outliers, like the crazy school in California that teaches gardening, where you can really place the blame on misguided liberalism, but these are the overwhelming exception, not the rule. You can’t blame schools and unions for issues that they can’t control.
    I went to a Catholic HS and public elementary schools, and while I value and support Catholic schools, I’d never say that the public schools let down their students or provide an inferior education.

  10. It is so easy to blame teacher unions for the ills of education, but it’s pure unadulterated bullshit. As I said though, I think tenure at the high school and below level is stupid.
    Crank, you didn’t get a great education because you went to private school, and you didn’t because they could fire bad teachers. You got one because your parents wanted you to have one. Because I went to public NYC schools until college, and I truly doubt your schooling was better than mine. My kids also go to public schools (and no question, great suburban schools with lots of money and facilities are a big help), and their education has been first rate. My oldest just graduated college, and he starts grad school in the fall.
    Remember those great NYC schools? You know what they had? University level professors who got so spooked by the Depression they stayed where it was safe. We had women who could only be nurses and teachers. Now they are doctors and politicians, and heads of companies. We need to have parents understand that schools are to educate, not to babysit . We need to pay teachers a professional salary and honor them more than we do Wall Street financial folks or lawyers, or few others. That is where it starts.

  11. “It is so easy to blame teacher unions for the ills of education, but it’s pure unadulterated bullshit. As I said though, I think tenure at the high school and below level is stupid.”
    The reason the unions are blamed is because they are the ones pushing for the tenure mentioned in the 2nd sentence. The unions also won’t allow a means to determine a good teacher from a bad one and then fire the bad ones. They also suck $s that they then use to support the politicians that then go along with the unions demands.
    So it is not pure unadulterated bullshit; rather it is one of the root causes. QED

  12. Lee,
    You haven’t explained why unions are one of the root causes when plenty of school districts do extremely well with unions. You can eliminate unions entirely, and you will still have the same problems.
    This is what makes the voucher system such a poor solution. You aren’t moving students to better performing schools; you are moving them to places where there are stronger families and smarter kids – thereby making the schools in those neighborhoods perform worse. Vouchers don’t make anything better; they just shift the problem.

  13. Vouchers allow the parents to move their kids to the better schools instead of having to put up with the crappy school in their district. If this would force the crappy schools to fix their issues, then kids would stay there. Kids and families should not be held hostage because their local school distrct stinks and won’t fix their problems.
    “You haven’t explained why unions are one of the root causes when plenty of school districts do extremely well with unions. You can eliminate unions entirely, and you will still have the same problems.” Both this comment and mine beg for facts to prove/disprove. We would have to first define a criteria for determing which schools are good vs. bad, then identify the factors (unionized, wealth of school district, population of family, etc) to see which factors most correlate to providing better/worse an education.
    Sounds like we both need to search the net to see if there is some data we can use!

  14. Ok, I’ll give you a few examples from Connecticut. Here are the elementary school & HS state mastery test scores (proficiency in math and reading) for the towns of Avon, Bristol, and Bridgeport for 2010.
    Avon is a wealthy suburb populated by doctors, lawyers, engineers and businessmen. Bristol is a blue collar city, some manufacturing, mostly service jobs, with some pockets of bad neighborhoods. Bridgeport is a big city riddled by crime, drugs and unemployment.
    Percentage of Students Proficient in Math & Reading across all grade levels 3-8 & 10, given as a range:
    Avon – Math – 95.4 – 99%
    Avon – Rdg – 93.9 – 99.3%
    Brist – Math – 77.9 – 91.8%
    Brist – Rdg – 60.0 – 89.4%
    Bpt – Math – 33.7 – 73%
    Bpt – Rdg – 38.9 – 64.4%
    All these places have teachers’ unions. Avon is consistently in the high. Do you really think that reforming the union system, or these school’s curriculum, are going to significantly change these results? School results are largely a reflection of the communities they live in. The schools themselves are not failing; the families and cities are.

  15. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell made a point of showing how test scores in both rich and poor districts came pretty close by June, but the poor kids retained less over the summer. Makes sense because richer parents always make things “educational” or make sure the kids do the summer reading or all sorts of things, because they aren’t as concerned with getting through the week to pay the rent and buy food. His idea was to extend the school year for another month or so, which many countries now do.
    To get back to the original idea, and I won’t bother to look it up, but Tim Pawlenty apparently made comments that FEMA should be privatized. How accurate is that? Don’t know, but the idea that government is bad to this extent is very alive with conservatives. Just what we need: Dick Cheney and Haliburton selling $8 bottles of water in Joplin after the tornadoes.

  16. Wow, so privatizing FEMA means that the FEMA contractor would charge the people in the disaster zone? How come privatized road pavers don’t make each driver pay to go on a newly-blacktopped road? Sounds like another strawman – like the Republicans-don’t-support-the-military-because-it-is-part-of-the-government strawman from Dary’s first post. Republicans recognize that national defense is a legitimate and enumerated federal function under the Constitution.
    Also, I can’t recall when I’ve ever heard someone say that they put up with inefficiencies by the military because it is an effective “company/family/community” – typically it is because they ‘put their lives on the line to protect us and our freedoms’, or because ‘their willingness to sacrifice their lives provides the ultimate accountability for their use of our resources’. Not once has it been ‘we should increase their budget because look, they all have doctors’ or because ‘they have a PX to they can all go to for their shopping’ – what drivel.
    Too often, when the Left embraces the military it is to try to promote one of their constituent issues to the level of national defense so that it can free-ride on the military’s goodwill. They simply want to dictate to the entire population the way the military can dictate to those who serve – they will try to sell it as ‘the moral equivalent of war’.

  17. Vouchers for Defense!
    Give each man, woman, and child a $100K+ voucher (which the government currently spends annually on Defense) and let them choose the best way to defend themselves.
    It makes as much sense as vouchers for healthcare or schools.

  18. “…it is because they ‘put their lives on the line to protect us and our freedoms'”
    Now THAT’S funny.

  19. tanstaaf, there ARE private roads with tolls charged. And a developer is looking into a private tunnel under Long Island Sound. You see there actually are functions of government, and these are, believe it or not, supposed to work whether there is a profit or not. The military of course (hey! Maybe we could work it on the booty system. The more they loot, the less we have to pay); the Post Office is really necessary, but not to Conservatives who I guess don’t believe in a paper trail; AMTRAK is a good candidate. Out west, or south, they don’t understand how needed a train corridor from Boston to DC is. Education. Medical disasters. Natural disasters. Do you really think it should be the role of Haliburton to handle Katrina? Not that FEMA did a good job; but then, you put a horse riding crony in charge you get what you pay for (lots of blame for all the morons in Louisiana running things too. And Ray Nagin worst of all).
    Government is supposed to provide for common defense and promote the general welfare of all of us. Pawlenty wants to evicerate something that promotes a general welfare; Rick Perry wanted to secede; Gingrich wants to discriminate in cabinet posts. Yeah, great party you guys got.

  20. So what percentage of private road pavers put a toll on the road they pave? Yet you conclude that privatizing FEMA means that the FEMA contractor would charge residents for assistance . . . nice logical fallacy your entire thought process is based on.

  21. The point tanstaaf, is that there are certain jobs that we make, or should, the job of government. And there is a large difference between paying a company to pave a road and one to take care of large portions of people during a national crisis. I happen to think the job of government is to govern. Unless and until the Constitution says it’s not their job.

  22. No, I think the point is that you first accuse Republicans of being anti-military simply because the military is part of the government. You then accuse (‘for the most part’) Sarah Palin of treason because she brought cookies to a school fundraiser – since the military has to wash-out some recruits for lacking physical fitness. But you would not hold the school systems accountable (let alone accuse them of treason) even though you say the military has to wash out even more recruits for lacking the educational background to run modern weapon systems.
    You then conflate the regulations of the military procurement system – which focuses on giving the government systems which meet the government’s own specifications -with regulations of the financial industry whose final output is not dictated as a stated government objective. You also assume that government regulation is benign without acknowledging that government regulations have also been the root cause of economic downturns. E.g, why would a lender underwrite a mortgage for someone who has little chance of paying it off (remember – they were called ‘sub-prime’ loans)? Because government oversight/regulation/interference incentivized them to do so. Just because the federal govenrment is capable of doing some things well, in no way suggests that the federal government will do other things equally as well or that it is right that they do those other things at all.
    But when called on this, you retreat to a slogan “. . . the job of government is to govern. Unless and until the Constitution says it’ not their job” that doesn’t’ state what it is to ‘govern’. In fact, this slogan betrays a profound lack of understanding of the concept of ‘limited government’. The Constitution is designed to tell the federal government what it can do – from this the Bill of Rights then got into specifics of what it cannot do. But you start from the position that the federal government can do anything, except for those things that they specifically are not allowed to do. Here we see the liberal heritage to facism – and the liberal swoon for having military-like authority over the people.

  23. tanstaaf, when you RightWingNuts (RWNs) get on Michele Obama, actually calling is socialism because she wants our kids to eat well, you lose credibility. When the Army says they are having problems with 20 per cent of 18 year olds not only not being physically fit and it’s not feasible to get 18 year olds into shape, you lose more credibility. When you then have Sarah Palin actually coming in by helicopter to serve cookies to kids to fatten them up even more, you have no credibilty. Having now spent some time from the middle of Pennsylvania (also called Tennessee in some circles), to the midwest, I am still awestruck at how fat this country is. And by fat, I mean grotesquely obese and unhealthy. When you couple that with a military that has issues with getting recruits healthy, and a WingNut populace that then doesn’t want to deal with real medical insurance issues you have gone into the realm of negincredibility.
    You mentioned the failures in schools. You are right. They are at fault. So how are you RWNs to blame in this? Well, too damn many of you are campaigning on teaching bogus non-science, which you have the gall and base stupidity to name creation-science, you help create a culture against learning, and against science, which, from a military viewpoint is needed for modern weapon systems. When you have Sarah Palin giving some truths about Paul Revere (I will give her some due here), but inaccuracies in other parts, her supporters, you TeaBaggers and RWNs go into Wikipedia to try to change the facts to match her claims. That is a culture of Orwellianism that is not only bogus, but dangerous.
    And do you really think that it’s a good idea to have no regulation or oversight over a forty trillion dollar or so hedge fund market? You think government regulations are the cause of the Great Recession? It was caused in simple ways: Greed and LACK of those regulations. You all wax poetic of the days of American dominance, also known as the Eisenhower years, when the maximum tax rate was 90%. And no, I am not arguing for that. Simply for the intelligent repeal of the Bush tax cuts, and maybe a point or two more. Are the billionaires really going to move out because of that? I doubt it.

  24. I’m still waiting for any evidence whatsoever the schools, curriculums and teacher’s unions are responsible for poor education performance. Conservatives have a huge causation problem here. But hey, every problem needs a scapegoat, and it’s politically incorrect for politicians to say that maybe Johnny can’t read because his parents don’t make sure he’s doing his homework or because he can’t even focus on education because his family life is in shambles. Naturally, that’s the school’s fault.
    I have little doubt that you could take a state with no teacher’s unions, somwhere in the deep south, and find three towns equivalent to the ones I mentioned for Connecticut, and get similar results.

  25. Daryl, you are obviously a worldly observer of the human condition, having traveled all the way from central Pennsylvania to the mid-West (what, like Indiana? – did you make it as far as Chicago?). So Sarah Palin brought in cookies for the express purpose of fattening up those kids? She must have needed a second helicopter just for the cookies – good thing she didn’t arrive in tractor-trailer or a train (although with your repeated emphasis on how she ‘helicoptered in’, I have to ask, would you have been okay with it if she had arrived in a Prius?).
    I’m surprised that you had to travel that far to find obese, uneducated people – for example, in just the past month I’ve been to NYC, through NJ, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, and I encountered a lot of overweight people in all of those places (I wonder which area produces more of the military’s recruits?). In fact, I’ve been reading that each of those places also has a real problem in education – some even call it a crisis – despite spending vast sums on their worst performing schools. Who would have thought that the entrenched republican establishments in those places would have such an influence on the school systems and their science curriculum? I, for one, had no idea that NYC Board of Ed is spending so much of its resources fighting-off the teaching of creationism (my own NYS public school was able to address it in about two minutes – less time than the students had for a cigarette break!). It’s a shame that those resources can’t be more properly spent teaching global cooling . . . I mean global warming . . . I mean climate change (this way the science will cover any eventual outcome); that is, since we have now apparently left the global norm of climate stasis (to the detriment of the North African bread basket that the Roman empire took for granted – blame the internal combustion engine!). I just hope that there is still enough left over for high schoolers to read Orwell.
    And I’m no world traveler like you, and I mourn my loss of credibility in your eyes, but I lay the Great Recession more on the Community Reinvestment Act and the evolution (or growing corruption) of Fannie Mae (I bet you would find a lot of greed behind all that). The federal government should not have been guaranteeing those mortgages. Their interference with the market took the brakes off and their defenders ginned up the outrage machine when it was suggested to rein them in. Your longing for the days of 90% tax rates ignores all of the tax shelters that went with it – nobody paid it.
    But I digress. You state that you start from a position of the federal government having unfettered power, except for what the Constitution says that it cannot do. You illustrate the point of Crank’s original post in highlighting the Kristoff piece and the Left’s desire for military-style control over the population.

  26. “but I lay the Great Recession more on the Community Reinvestment Act and the evolution (or growing corruption) of Fannie Mae”
    Of course you do. The great altruistic benefactors of the citizenry on Wall Street, who have been shown to traffic in massive fraud–which caused the Great Recession—are off-limits for you.
    The fact that not one of them has been indicted, tried, or jailed show it isn’t just the GOP, but also the Democratic Party you hate that will continue to screw the citizenry. Ahhhh, bi-partisanship.
    Well at least you know the only way to clean-up the mess caused by Corporate America is to continue to fuck over the working classes.
    Now could you just get them to tell the rest of us to “eat cake” so we can FINALLY get to the juicy parts of class warfare? Please?

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