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Friday, May 23, 2008

Battling Over A GI Bill

Barack Obama and John McCain are taking shots at each other over McCain's opposition to an increase in GI Bill benefits, and Obama's lack of military service.

The gist of the new GI Bill, as envisioned by James Webb (D-Va) is that instead of $1,100 a month for school, as the current Montgomery GI Bill pays, you'd get the average cost of tuition at a State University ($1,450/mo) plus a $1,000 living stipend to help with other expenses. Instead of the service member paying $1,200 at the beginning of their enlistment as an enrollment fee, that would go away, and those who've paid it would get a refund.

Obama can't understand why McCain would be against such a bill, and McCain say's Obama's support without question shows his lack of understanding of the military.

"I take a backseat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans," McCain said. "And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did."

The source of the dust up is, in basic terms, the difference between liberalism and conservatism. Liberals believe that fairness should drive everything, and everyone should get the same thing, conservatives believe you should be able to earn more of those things.

McCain's belief isn't that you shouldn't increase GI Bill benefits, but that they should be increased based on time served. The longer you are in the military, the more benefits you get.

Very simply, Obama, and a bunch of other folks have it wrong on this program, and it's been proven in the past. The approach of "throw the bone to all the dogs" doesn't work well for military readiness, retention, or to attract the best you can to the military in the first place.

In the early 1990's, when "force reduction" due to the end of the Cold War was driving the military a lot of programs were developed to get folks to leave, including the Montgomery GI Bill.

The effects of the programs, though predicted by the military, were ignored by Congress. For example, Voluntary Separation Incentive (VSI) and Special Separation Bonus programs were enacted to give a monetary incentive for mid-grade people to leave the service.

The idea of the program was good, the problem came about with who took it. As my boss at the time (who was in charge of retention programs for Surface Forces, Pacific Fleet) pointed out the only people taking the program were "the best and brightest". In other words, the people the military needed to keep were the one's leaving. Bottom feeders, as a rule, didn't take the money and run.

There's a good master's thesis from Navy Post Grad School (pdf format) in that time frame that showed that economic incentive by the service alone wasn't enough to get someone to take the program. They also needed to know that they'd make enough money outside the service (pay and benefits) for it to be worthwhile.

Top performers knew they would succeed outside the military, and jumped at the programs. Lower rated performers stayed in, knowing that unless they committed a crime, the military would find a way to keep them, or give them even better compensation if they were forced out.

How does this equate to a more generous GI Bill? Simply put, those who join the military because they know that they probably wouldn't be successful in college will probably stick around, regardless of the GI Bill benefit. Those who join, as today, with an eye towards money to help with school will probably leave, as they do today.

The third group, the "on the fence" folks, are the biggest, and the group the military likes to move up from within. Many of them, given the bigger incentive immediately, won't look at the idea of a career in the military. Retaining them is always a chore, and given a bigger incentive to leave makes it a harder chore. Currently many of them are kept through tuition assistance programs, and commissioning degree programs. Why take those, and the strings attached, when you can just get out and get a huge freebee?

McCain understands that to retain them; and facilitate success for them later in life; a new program needs to balance the needs of the military with the individual. To that end, he wants to increase the benefits later in a career. A one term Soldier or Sailor might get the current GI Bill benefit. Do a second tour, get a bigger benefit, and so on.

As a taxpayer I like that idea better than the Webb plan, as it will obviously cost less. As a career military guy, I like it because I know how hard it would be to keep that guy or gal who's on the fence about what to do.


Here is a link to the full text of McCain's response to Obama, and the Webb version of the GI Bill.
Wow is all I can say. Barack, you been schooled.

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