If we seek a model of efficiency, writes Nicholas D. Kristof, 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 U.S. military.
As we search for paths out of America’s economic crisis, many suggest business as a paradigm for cutting costs. According to my back-of-the-envelope math, top CEOs earn as much as $1 a second around the clock, partly by cutting medical benefits for employees. So they must be paragons of efficiency, right?
Actually, I’m not so sure. The business sector is dazzlingly productive, but it also periodically blows up our financial system. Yet if 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 U.S. military.
You see, when our armed forces are not firing missiles, they live by an astonishingly liberal ethos — and it works. The military helped lead the way in racial desegregation, and even today it does more to provide equal opportunity to working-class families — especially to blacks — than just about any social program. It has been an escalator of social mobility in U.S. society because it invests in soldiers and gives them skills and opportunities.
The U.S. armed forces knit together whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics from diverse backgrounds, invests in their education and training, provides them with excellent health care and child care. And it does all this with minimal income gaps: A senior general earns about 10 times what a private makes, while, by my calculation, CEOs at major companies earn about 300 times as much as those cleaning their offices. That’s right: The military ethos can sound pretty lefty.
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“It’s the purest application of socialism there is,” Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general and former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, told me. And he was only partly joking.
“It’s a really fair system, and a lot of thought has been put into it, and people respond to it really well,” he added. The country can learn from that sense of mission, he said, from that emphasis on long-term strategic thinking.
The military is innately hierarchical, yet it nurtures a camaraderie in part because the military looks after its employees. This is a rare enclave of single-payer universal health care, and it continues with a veterans’ health-care system that has much lower costs than the U.S. system as a whole.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the U.S. military isn’t its aircraft carriers, stunning as they are. Rather, it’s the military day-care system for working parents.
While one of America’s greatest failings is underinvestment in early childhood education (which seems to be one of the best ways to break cycles of poverty from replicating), the military manages to provide superb child care. The cost depends on family income and starts at $44 per week.
“I absolutely think it’s a model,” said Linda K. Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, which advocates for better child care in America. Smith, who used to oversee the military day-care system before she retired from the Defense Department, said that the military sees child care as a strategic necessity to maintain military readiness and to retain highly trained officers.
One of the things I admire most about the military is the way it invests in educating and training its people. Its universities — the military academies — are excellent, and it has ROTC programs at other campuses around the country. Many soldiers get medical training, law degrees, or Ph.D.’s while in service, sometimes at the country’s finest universities.
Then there are the Army War College, the Naval War College and the Air War College, giving top officers a mid-career intellectual and leadership boost before resuming their careers. It’s common to hear bromides about investing in human capital, but the military actually shows that it believes that.
Partly as a result, it manages to retain first-rate officers who could earn far higher salaries in the private sector. And while the ethic of business is often “Gimme,” the military inculcates an ideal of public service that runs deep. In Afghanistan, for example, soldiers sometimes dig into their own pockets to help provide supplies for local schools.
Granted, it may seem odd to seek a model of compassion in an organization whose mission involves killing people. It’s also true that the military remains often unwelcoming to gays and lesbians and is conflicted about women as well. And, of course, the opportunities for working-class Americans are mingled with danger.
But as we as a country grope for new directions in a difficult economic environment, the tendency has been to move toward a corporatist model that sees investments in people as woolly-minded sentimentalism or as unaffordable luxuries. That’s not the only model out there.
So as the U.S. armed forces try to pull Iraqi and Afghan societies into the 21st century, maybe they could do the same for America’s.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.