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Overly generous military pay and benefits

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright John T. Reed 2014

I have criticized military retirement benefits as being way too generous. (Same is generally true of police and fire retirement bennies as well for a similar reason.) So don’t take my word for it. Read the op-ed by a retired lieutenant colonel who says almost exactly what I said about it. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/im-an-army-veteran-and-my-benefits-are-too-generous/2014/06/06/5e8db2ec-eb35-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html?tid=pm_opinions_pop

Here are selected comments to that and my responses:

Derek Wade I don't dispute much of this article, or your own points, Jack, but I am going to say that this experience is NOT typical. He cites a reserve salary of $11,000/year. I WISH I made that. As an E5 with 17.3 years in service, I clear some $266/month for my weekend drills, and typically about $1400 for my two weeks (called ADT).

He also leaves out that advancement for reserves is generally stopped cold for maintenance positions. Why? Well, do YOU want a radar technician coming in on a Saturday to monkey with your equipment, breaking it, and calling you to come in and fix it? Most reservists I've worked with have entirely different civilian jobs. I teach self-defense in my civilian job. I work on electronics once a month. I am lowest priority for schools and training.

As a result, I have a friggin master's degree and I'm working on a second, but I haven't advanced in rank since I was on active duty. That eleven grand a year in supplemental pay is WELL out of my reach.

Military pay and benefits need to be scaled back. However, AFTER Congress trims their own salaries, pensions, benefits and pork spending.

Until then, someone making $174,000 a year to sit in the Capitol voting to tell servicemen to "tighten their belts" needs a swift kick in the ass.

John T. Reed I looked at some of the comments post by Washington Post readers in response to the op-ed. Many of them support my contention that many lifers are shamelessly selfish, greedy, and entitled when it comes to leeching off the American taxpayers.

When I went to a rural high school in the early 1960s, there was student club called Future Farmers of America. U.S. military lifers, notwithstanding they’re grandly and dishonestly in most cases calling themselves “warriors,” are the Early Future Pensioners and Almost Free Health Care Recipients of America. Most, like the author of the op-ed, not only never fired a weapon in anger, they never laid eyes on an enemy and were never shot at by an enemy.

I did a tour in Vietnam where I never fired my weapon or saw anyone else fire a weapon at an enemy whose location they knew. I did see the enemy when I drove through an enemy ambush that was not triggered. I was never shot at individually but like maybe most Vietnam vets was stationed at bases that received occasional enemy rocket attacks. I was only in for four years at West Point, which do not count toward benefits, and four years afterward, which only got me GI Bill money of about $300 a month for 18 months in grad school. I do not expect to ever receive any further bennies from having been in Vietnam or the Army. Bennies are attached to being on active duty, not combat. You get bennies for being a lifer, not for being a combat vet. Most combat vets do NOT get retirement bennies for their military service.

Mark Christoph I certainly think that benefits should not kick in until [normal] retirement age - paying retirement benefits for possibly 50 years is ridiculous. Also, if these people work for the government after, you choose one retirement benefit or the other - no double and triple dipping.

Mike Hicks I drove a taxi cab in NV and TN for a few years and I know cabbies with more confirmed kills via Ford Minivan than most any Marine or Soldier has with a M16. Most people in the service have jobs less dangerous than delivering pizzas.

Mark Christoph I tried to read some of the comments but it is just as you said - a lot of whining and "I earned every dime I get sitting on my ass as a REMF". I was in for 6 years, most of it overseas, and was nearly killed several times. I didn't even get GI Bill, much less anything else. Most of those people in the comments section turn my stomach - I see those same people driving around here every day with their giant "ARMY RETIRED" or "NAVY RETIRED" stickers in the back window of their Range Rovers. You'd think every veteran in town was a combat hero.

Mike Hicks In addition to the bennies being overly generous for most lifers I believe pensions make the military weaker because they siphon off money that needs to be spent on training or readiness. And because many lifers are basically just careerists who would gleefully throw a junior service man under the bus for a promotion. The service would be better off without them. Eliminate as much military chicken shit as possible and give people basic civilian benefits like a 401k. The warriors will stay and everyone else will leave.

Teresa Jo Well he is an officer, not enlisted so he would get far more benefits whether he was in combat or not. Enlisted pay isn't exactly extravagant. Depending on career choice a college grad in computer science for example could spend 4 yrs in college and wind up with a nice high five figure salary. Meanwhile the kid serving in the military puts that on hold but does earn a living. Nothing even close to the $90k his friend is making but he can also attend college classes and get a degree. Depending on deployments, the job chosen it could take longer than 4 years to complete. So I don't think comparing the officer's situation with an enlisted is the correct way to look at it.

Patrick Howard The John T Reed Method for determining an appropriate benefit level was tried in the 1990s when Congress introduced the Redux system. It hurt retention and had to be repealed. Design your incentives to reward what is important to you, but base it on the facts. The current system is what you must have if you want people to stay for 20 years. Period. Lots of "golly he gets more than I" envy in the comments here.

Mark Vandendyke Don't worry - fiscal realities will bring back the Redux system (or something more drastic) soon enough. As for facts, the entire system is based on attendance and attrition and a "20 years or nothing" mentality which only encourages dead wood to stick around longer than they should.

Patrick Howard That's as may be, but it is a separate argument. Design a system that incentivizes what you think is important. The current one is meant to keep people in for 20 years. Redux will not do that--and I am not sure what exactly Redux WILL incentivize.

John T. Reed. Would someone please tell us what REDUX is.

Patrick Howard The housing bubble was made worse by an incentives system that rewarded bankers who produced more loans. There was no dis-incentive for a banker to make a bad loan that would ultimately end in default, because the default meant a new loan, and thus more bonuses. If you do not wish to incentivize 20 year careers, fine. What would you rather encourage, and how do you propose to do it?

Patrick Howard Whining because somebody will get more from the Federal trough than you will get/did get/would have gotten but for some unfair twist of fate is no substitute for sound policy. It is petty. What should we replace the current military pension system with to maintain a stable active duty and Reserve force?

John T. Reed Who is whining about not getting enough from the federal trough? I don’t think anyone at this wall wants to get anything from the federal trough. We want to end the federal trough. Our only relationship with the federal trough is we are the people who have to put the money into that lifers and others take out in excess of any contribution they made to it. And if they claim they contributed by defending freedom or some such, lets pay them a bounty for each confirmed enemy kill. That will shut them up real fast.

Mark Vandendyke In the early 2000s they actually offered early-out opportunities for anyone with about 15 years in service. I forget the exact details but people with a certain amount of time in certain ranks were allowed to retire early with a partial pension. That's the way most pensions work - there is a vesting period at which point one can separate early with partial benefits, if they desire. The usual military model is to lord over everybody with a pension promise at 20 years, no less. This keeps a lot of people in for no other reason than benefits - not exactly the Google model of retention. Regardless, the math catches up with the unrealistic pension model anyway.

Patrick Howard I was there for it--talent left in droves. The fact that the math doesn't work is a completely different question. Major changes in everything will happen when that catches up with us. Defense pensions are not a drop in the bucket of that problem.

John T. Reed The job of the military is to win our wars—Douglas MacArthur. We won WW II. The sole incentive? “For the duration.” During and since Vietnam, our “warriors” knew whey arrived in country that they were going home alive in a year or dead or maimed sooner. The WW II guys got a parade. They won. The Vietnam guys did not get a parade. They whine about it, but they seem to have no thought that the 1945 parades in question were VICTORY parades.
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All military personnel other than unique to military skills like fighter pilot are draftees. You cannot enlist or reenlist. You get a draft notice, you serve, you go home. If there’s a war, you fight until you win. See my article http://www.johntreed.com/militarydraft.html
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You get pay, period. No medical other than combat care and line of duty injury reimbursement. You want a pension? Contribute to your IRA.
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Certain missions can be put out as contracts with pay for performance, for example, destroy the Iranian Navy: $5 million. Hire your own subordinates. We will swear you in as U.S. military active duty personnel, but the contractor sets his own pay scales, bonuses. No saluting or calling anyone “sir.” In for the duration of the mission. When the mission is over, the contractor in question gets the performance bonus, shares it with his subordinates, and everyone goes their merry way.
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I don’t want a “stable” force. We tried that for the last 60 years and got bupeus. We need a continuous force which a draft would provide.

Should there be a military draft? by John T. Reed

Patrick Howard That is at least comprehensive and provides focused incentives. What are the odds of getting it effected?

Patrick Howard If the plan has a less that 5% chance of ever being put into effect, perhaps we can leave the UDF (Utopian Defense Force) to fend for themselves, and instead try to fix some of the real problems your articles elsewhere identify.

Patrick Howard Your experience is nearly a half century removed from today's realities, yet much of what you write is clearer and more on point than anything else out there. You do the problems a disservice when you let your solutions be driven by pettiness, decades old anger at long dead officers, and fantasy.

Patrick Howard If we set aside envy and hurt feelings, what real world changes can we make to help our armed forces become more effective?

John T. Reed Howard’s “envy and hurt feelings” comments are a straw man argument. No one at this wall is operating from any such persepctive.

John T. Reed I do NOT want people to stay for 20 years. There is much similarity between the infantry and the NFL. And the military people like to think that. They also push physical fitness big time in both.
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There are not a lot of 20-year players in the NFL. Running backs are lucky to get three years. If U.S. military were really warriors and dedicated to peak physical fitness, they would have to leave after a few years, like draftees.
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Back to World War II. Before it started, on, say, January 1, 1941, there were 458,000 U.S. active-duty military personnel. 14.6% are officers now. That would be about 14.6% x 458,000 = 67,000 officers. I could not find a % of NCOs. I’ll guess 200,000. Not all officers and NCOs are lifers. Lieutenants and captains tend to get out in large numbers after two to five years. Ditto buck sergeants and maybe staff sergeants. So let’s say the U.S. military—all branches had about 125,000 lifers in 1940.
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We then added about 13 million men, almost all draftees or guys who enlisted figuring they would get drafted anyway and maybe enlisting would enable them to avoid the infantry.
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My Uncle Jack dropped out of high school a week before graduation in 1940—pissed off at a teacher. He enlisted, went to OCS and became the youngest non-pilot captain in in Europe at one point during World War II. He always said we won the war in spite of the lifers, not because of them. He said the draftees came from civilian life where they had to get things done. They just sidestepped the lifers because they were in the habit of getting things done, not filling out forms and talking a good game, and they wanted to go home.
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Even if the lifers were brilliant managers, it is impossible to argue that they won the war—initially about 125,000 then fewer as the war went on—in a military of 13 million.
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I just ordered a book called Freedom’s Forge about how industrialists were arguably the main source of that victory: Henry J. Kaiser (Liberty Ships), Higgins (landing craft), Knudsen (Ford Motor Co.,). I have often said World War II was not won by Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur but by General Electric (aircraft engines) and General Motors (tanks, planes).
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The lifers are a perennial embarrassment, more so in wars. They are so many General Halftracks of Beetle Bailey fame.
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And if anyone wants to argue that the lifers have the military experience needed: Ha! Neither the weapons nor the tactics of World War II were used in WW I or between the wars when the lifers of 1940 got their “experience.” You could say that even the tactics and weapons of WW II were “draftees.” See my article “Is there any such thing as military expertise?” at http://www.johntreed.com/militaryexpertise.html

John T. Reed I do NOT want people to stay for 20 years. There is much similarity between the infantry and the NFL. And the military people like to think that. They also push physical fitness big time in both.
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There are not a lot of 20-year players in the NFL. Running backs are lucky to get three years. If U.S. military were really warriors and dedicated to peak physical fitness, they would have to leave after a few years, like draftees.
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Back to World War II. Before it started, on, say, January 1, 1941, there were 458,000 U.S. active-duty military personnel. 14.6% are officers now. That would be about 14.6% x 458,000 = 67,000 officers. I could not find a % of NCOs. I’ll guess 200,000. Not all officers and NCOs are lifers. Lieutenants and captains tend to get out in large numbers after two to five years. Ditto buck sergeants and maybe staff sergeants. So let’s say the U.S. military—all branches had about 125,000 lifers in 1940.
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We then added about 13 million men, almost all draftees or guys who enlisted figuring they would get drafted anyway and maybe enlisting would enable them to avoid the infantry.
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My Uncle Jack dropped out of high school a week before graduation in 1940—pissed off at a teacher. He enlisted, went to OCS and became the youngest non-pilot captain in in Europe at one point during World War II. He always said we won the war in spite of the lifers, not because of them. He said the draftees came from civilian life where they had to get things done. They just sidestepped the lifers because they were in the habit of getting things done, not filling out forms and talking a good game, and they wanted to go home.
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Even if the lifers were brilliant managers, it is impossible to argue that they won the war—initially about 125,000 then fewer as the war went on—in a military of 13 million.
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I just ordered a book called Freedom’s Forge about how industrialists were arguably the main source of that victory: Henry J. Kaiser (Liberty Ships), Higgins (landing craft), Knudsen (Ford Motor Co.,). I have often said World War II was not won by Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur but by General Electric (aircraft engines) and General Motors (tanks, planes).
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The lifers are a perennial embarrassment, more so in wars. They are so many General Halftracks of Beetle Bailey fame.
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And if anyone wants to argue that the lifers have the military experience needed: Ha! Neither the weapons nor the tactics of World War II were used in WW I or between the wars when the lifers of 1940 got their “experience.” You could say that even the tactics and weapons of WW II were “draftees.” See my article “Is there any such thing as military expertise?” at http://www.johntreed.com/militaryexpertise.html

Mark Christoph Patrick: You make some good points but you lessen the impact of your ideas a great deal by labeling everyone's ideas or comments as "envy", "petty", or "whining". State your points, rebut everyone's points with facts and reason - but dismissive comments only lessen your credibility.

Patrick Howard @Mark, I am reacting to the tone of the comments as much as to the arguments themselves. If you'll re-read them, you will see what I mean. It is much more emotional, resentful, than the comments on John's other pet topics, where the spirited debate takes a higher tone. @ John. All true, but I am trying to figure out what it would look like. Every army in every war has started out as a shambles. It takes good leaders to turn it around. If you have no good leaders, you lose. Where should we get our generals and senior field grades from? Who will be able to lead this army you propose? General Motors and General Electric aren't exactly hotbeds of innovation and creativity today. Like the Army, they are very different from their 1940s forebears.

Patrick Howard And who will be the sergeants major? Who will teach and enforce the silly disciplinary details that keep units from melting under pressure? A Millennial draftee?

John T. Reed No one. Lose the chickenshit and do realistc rehearsals like football teams praticing against the scout teams. The top NCOs will probably be 40-something draftees who have been coaches or foreman, etc. in civil life. Much like the World War II SeaBees.

Mark Christoph I work on an Army post. I see large posters all the time where the Army talks about leadership - and each poster invariably has a picture of some tall, bald, scowling man. In the area where I work, every time they select a new leader or representative of either the contract or government, it's always a tall man. Apparently the only requisite to be a leader is to be tall; scowling is a plus. The Army wouldn't know a leader if it came up and kicked them in the ass; the last real leaders they had, like Patton, they derided. They also had large posters recently celebrating the latest LGBTQXYZ (or whatever letters they're using now) groups - with a quote from Chuck Hagel of "Diversity is American's greatest strength". Umm - no it's not. That is what ripping this nation, and any nation, apart. The Army encourages cronyism, it encourages dead wood and rewards them for sticking through the BS knowing these sorts of people wouldn't survive in a true meritocracy. I'd be curious to see how other armies find their leaders, how they retain talent, or if they even try.

Mike Hicks The Israeli Defence Force skims off the top percentile of draftees and sends them directly to OCS. The next top percentile goes to SNCO school. The next third percentile goes to NCO school. Everyone else spends the time as a private. I do agree with Patrick Howard on 1 point though and that is you do need SOME degree of institutional memory and experience.

Mark Christoph Mike Hicks: Unfortunately much of that institutional memory is just remembering how to game the system. Re: John's articles on falsifying reports.

John T. Reed In one of Howard’s comments, he used the phrase “it hurt retention…‚ That word jumped out at me.
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I have said that the job of management is to recruit, train and retain god people and to evaluate, counsel, and fire bad people. But note that it’s not just retention, but only retention of good people. Same thing in pro sports. They do not see retention as a goal, only retention of good people. indeed, if an owner started pushing retention, period, his good coaches and players would quit and he would have trouble recruiting new good players.
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Military lifers would probably claim they, too, only want the good retained. Bull! I was there. They want everyone retained, although perhaps wish some would be in another unit.
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Some might say they showed they only want good people to stay by firing me. Nope. I gave 7 years notice that I would quit as soon as my 5-year commitment was up. They had no hope of retaining me. They just fired me early to try to discourage other officers from also refusing to sign false documents and attend “command performance” parties, etc. As a West Point grad, airborne ranger Vietnam vet I was well into the top half of all officers my rank with regard to the objectively-graded six Army schools I graduated from and volunteering for Vietnam. The notion that any West Point grad was not in the top half or 3/4 of the Army officer corps during Vietnam when there were 2 million men in the army alone is absurd on its face.
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Some might point to the occasional RIF (reduction in force) that accompanies the ends of wars or the election of Democrats. In fact, the Army officer corps hates the RIFs. Sure, they might tell you RIFs get rid of the “dead wood,” but that’s a relative term in that organization. A rather strong argument can be made that the dead wood is who stays in the army after their initial enlistment or initial officer commitment. Whenever a RIF is announced, almost the entire Army officer corps lives in dread they will be designated dead wood and forced out.
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A number of my West Point classmates were RIFfed, which was illegal when we graduated, but later changed. Were the guys who got RIFfed West Point dead wood? Not that I know of. I can’t name them and never saw a complete list but some very top guys were RIFfed. I assume it is because they were resistant to BS or simply not the office-politics type. I know one who got RIFfed followed my example of not wearing any awards or decorations (ranger tab, ariborne wings, medals, Vietnam service unit patch). That probably pissed them off and helped get him RIFfed. So did his sending a letter to the Pentagon volunteering to be RIFfed. He wanted the $15,000 severance, which he got.
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Like locust plagues, the Army officer corps is beset by “too many captains getting out of the Army” periodically. This is one of their “retention” problems. They wring their hands and make speeches and write articles about it and appoint a commission to study it and make recommendations. The commissions always find from anonymous surveys that the young officers getting out don’t like signing false documents and “command performance” parties and being separated from their wives, etc. A couple of superficial changes are made and by the time they go through all this, they probably have another recession and the “retention” problem goes way on its own—by retaining guys who lack the self-confidence to get out of the Army during a recession.
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“Retention” is not the mission of the Army. Winning wars is. They have not won a war in 69 years. Not only do I not care about “retention,” I want it outlawed. As I said, everyone in the military other than unique military skill holders like fighter pilots should be drafted in then forced out after a couple of years. The draft would bring in people age 18 to about 45 and NCO and officer positions would be assigned based on the resume of the draftee. They sort of did this in World War II and prior wars.
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“Retention” implies allowing people to make a career out of the military, which is an extremely bad idea. Military service—killing enemy soldiers—is a dirty job and someone has to do it. But wanting to spend your whole life killing people is creepy. In fact, the typical lifer never killed anyone. Rather, they see the Army as a sinecure which mainly consists of living in peaceful military Mayberries in the U.S., Germany, and Korea and attending hale and farewells and and attending “gentlemen’s courses” and grad school and making friends and not having to worry about getting fired or medical or retirement. To be sure, it is a sinecure that is punctuated by occasional deployments and discomfort and danger during those deployments. But when the % of time being deployed goes up, “retention” goes down. Contrast that with WW II where military personnel were deployed their entire time in the service after initial training and the “retention” after VJ Day was awful—something like 80% immediately got out.
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Once again, we WON WW II. Howard calls my approach the “John T. Reed Method.” I call it the WW II method. Citizen soldiers who are drafted to fight for the duration of the war then go back to being citizens. “Retention” also implies use of the U.S. military’s “only promote from within” policy. Our best, most productive citizens are not in the military. They are delivering packages or designing computers or flying airliners or doing your dry cleaning. They wage daily “war” against competitors, suppliers, and customers to make a profit. They are results oriented and know how to get things done. Put those guys in charge of our wars and make them stay until they win and they will win, as they did in our past wars that ended in victory. Lifers in the military are sort of playacting—pretending to be competent, get-the-job-done managers like Steve Jobs of Apple or Fred Smith of FedEx. But the fact is they shunned that world by staying in the military. They fear that world, which they only know from afar. And they fear a U.S. commander in chief who would demand victories.
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I sort of saw this when I coached high school football. The teachers at high schools have theories about how to teach. And the coaches have theories about how to coach. But there is one huge difference between the two groups. The coaches’ theories are tested weekly when they play a game against an opponent. When they lose, they go back to the drawing board and try new theories. The competent ones get better. The incompetent ones get fired. Not so the teachers. They adopt a wrong theory at age 22 and teach according to it for 35 years, then retire self-satisfied about what a great teacher they were. They never play a game to test their theories. The military lifers are like the teachers. The civilian, for-profit businessmen are like the coaches whose approaches are tested brutally on a daily or weekly basis.
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Results, not retention.

John T. Reed Howard also says a lot of “politics is the arm of the possible” stuff, like we can only discuss solutions that are likely to be allowed by the monstrous forces in Congress and in the military. My Unelected President has a button he pushes at news conferences. It plays his voice saying “I am not a politician” because he keeps getting questions along the lines of Howard’s let’s-only-talk-about-what’s-possible stuff. He doesn’t give a damn about what’s possible. He says what ought to be and vetoes what ain’t it. That the Constitution requires majorities in both houses and a presidential signature or 2/3 in both houses is not a bad rule that allows obstruction. It is a good rule that says don’t be passing a lot of laws in this new country called the United States. Also, there is something to be said for discussing solutions in ways that move the split-the-difference middle in the right direction. It’s called changing the terms of the debate.

John T. Reed Howard said, “It would be nifty if we were to inject some of the same realism into the military discussions.” He is referring to my approach to hyperinflation where I briefly discuss the correct policies regarding deficit spending then switch to, “They are not going to adopt the correct policies so here is how to save your own life savings.”
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No problemo, Mr. Howard:
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“Don’t join the U.S. military. If you already did, get out.”
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http://www.johntreed.com/hyperinflationdepression.html
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Unfortunately, we do have to defend the country and if I do not say many of the things I say no one will. Whether anyone adopts any of my policies is for others to decide. I have a duty to advocate them.
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At West Point, we had to have two dress hats—one on display and one on our head. By senior year, the one we wore was disreputable (falling apart). So I threw it away and starting wearing the other one leaving none in my room. I got demerits for not having one on display. I wrote a letter explaining why the policy was causing seniors to look bad when they were outdoors, the opposite of the intended effect, and said they should change the rule to say seniors only needed to have one dress hat. I suggested they confirm what I said by looking at the hats on the hooks outside the senior classrooms in the academic building. They denied my appeal of the demerits, then instantly put a regulation change in the daily bulletin saying henceforth seniors only needed to have one dress hat and none on display when they were out.
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When I pointed out on the Internet that intercollegiate athletes at West Point never march in parades, not even in the off-season, West Point promptly instituted a policy which said there would be a parade every Monday after lunch in good weather and ALL cadets would march in it.
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My book Football Clock Management has changed the way football is played in this country on TV. My in-progress novel could possibly have an effect. Others like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Silent Spring have. I note that the words “U.S. Army Command and General Staff College” appear next to Mr. Howard’s name in his comments. Perhaps he has been in the belly of the beast so long that his ideas of the art of the possible are too limited. It is hard to make things change, but possible. I think Mr. Howard might try to be a Republican leader in Congress. His art of the possible approach would fit right in.

John T. Reed


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