Category Archives: Careerism

All About the (Private) Benjamins

Lets get this out of the way upfront: there is no way to objectively calculate what military members “deserve.” Military life can be rough even in peacetime, and the risk and sacrifices expected of military members are even greater during war, or whatever we’re calling this thing now. But it’s misleading to say it’s all sacrifice.

Here is the bottom line on active duty military pay and benefits.  They are much, much, much better than anyone realizes, and by “anyone” I really mean anyone. Pay and benefits are probably the best-kept secret in the military and over the last 12 years they have increased at a substantial rate.  The Tenth Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation from February 2008 states that

…compensation for members of the uniformed services compares favorably to compensation in the civilian sector, and the differential is substantial when the comparison includes not only cash compensation but also elements of a generous benefits package. But this fact is not well understood by service members in general. While service members tend to understand that their cash compensation compares favorably to the cash earnings of comparable civilians, they do not appreciate the full extent to which their total compensation—including benefits—exceeds that of their civilian counterparts.  

This widespread ignorance is problematic for a couple reasons.  First, it contributes to military personnel making career decisions without fully understanding what life is like outside the military.  Second, it feeds into the myth amongst the military, the general population, and Congress that every facet of military existence is perpetual sacrifice and that the least we can do is pay them more. On several occasions this has even led to Congress tagging an additional 0.5%* across the board pay increase beyond what the Pentagon requested (FTR, this happened under both Bush and Obama).  This mentality also discourages us from facing the uncomfortable truth that money put into personnel compensation may be more advantageously spent elsewhere.

Complicating all of that is the convoluted nature of the military compensation system. Pretty much everyone who has studied this issue has stated, in varying degrees, that the compensation system is too complicated to allow for sound policy decisions: the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research ServiceRAND (in at least two reports).  Even the Department of Defense says as much in the most recent QRMC and the Defense Advisory Council on Military Compensation.   (it should be noted that most of these documents explicitly avoid answering the question ‘How much should we pay the military?’)

So let’s try to break it down a bit. Every report on this topic utilizes a slightly different formula to calculate military compensation, but I’m primarily using the graphics from the 10th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation, published in February of 2008. Yes, surprise! This is enough of an issue that there is a statute that every four years the President must establish a committee to study the topic and report back to him (incidentally, I’m also enough of a nerd to know that the 11th QRMC has been delayed – my guess is to assure that its findings align with the new fiscal realities within the department).

So, here is what military compensation currently looks like…

Why is this important? Because any time you hear someone talking about military “pay” (basically the right hand side of the pie chart) they are essentially ignoring over half of the monetary value that military members receive.

The term used to describe this 48% of the pay and benefits pie is RMC, meaning “Regular Military Compensation.”  After controlling for education, the military is consistently higher than the 70th percentile of earned income.  Relatively to this 70th percentile metric, officers have it slightly better than enlisted.

A couple of things to point out in these graphs; First off, for both officer and enlisted there is a steady, predictable increase in take home income.  This, of course, will vary somewhat from individual to individual, but based on the fairly standard promotion timelines for service members (especially officers), the military provides an income that places them in the upper levels of their social cohort for the duration of their career.  Keep in mind, all of this is before you include the Deferred and Noncash benefits.

You should also note that for the “typical” young enlisted member in the top chart (18-yo, without college) the military provides an additional $10,000 a year over what they could anticipate earning as a civilian for the first few years of their career.

All of this paints a picture of a fairly well compensated military force relative to the general population of the country.  However, once you include the monetary value of the additional benefits (the left-hand side of the pie chart above) the picture changes considerably.  The term used for the inclusion of the entire benefits and compensation package is MAC: “Military Annual Compensation.”

The income percentile for the military, both officer and enlisted (blue line), jumps up to between the 80th and 90th percentile for the majority of a 20 year career.  At the start of an enlisted career, the service member is actually exceeding the 90th percentile income bracket for his cohort.  For officers, the movement into the 90th percentile occurs both at the beginning of a career and again beyond the 18-year mark.

So, how well paid is the military? Even if you take out all the Noncash and Deferred benefits listed above and just focus on take-home pay, the military still has it pretty good.  There is a longer discussion to be had over the “deferred benefits” (aka retirement), which I discussed at length here and here).  But there is a natural tendency to focus on the “take-home” salary of military members – and by doing so, we are inadvertently contributing to a continued narrative of the military being underpaid.

So aside from demonstrating how much I hate America and setting myself up for a brutal comment section, what am I trying to accomplish here?  I’m not advocating that we reduce the take-home pay of military members, but we do need to take steps to convey to military personnel, the public and Congress exactly how well compensated the military is relative to the rest of the population.  This means taking some basic steps like simplifying the compensation system and updating servicemembers’ LESs so that the monetary costs of benefits is reflected.

In addition, we also need to assure that we are clear-eyed about the impact compensation packages have on the overall budget.  Military compensation, like all government spending, should be limited to the minimum amount necessary to achieve goals; in this case the maintenance of a certain quality of life for the All Volunteer Force.  The problem is that this has to simultaneously be balanced with the need to maintain adequate personnel numbers and sustain retirement benefits.  Unfortunately, no one seems to really want to delve into what that actually means.

For example, in 1999 there was a push to address a “13% pay gap” between the military and their civilian counterparts. The problem is that this number seems to have been largely arbitrary and not the result of a serious analysis (if someone has a study reference for this, please point me to it).  On the contrary, the 13% pay gap was actually refuted fairly convincingly at the time by the CBO.  Regardless, this lead to a new law that authorized Congress to increase that annual military pay raises by an additional 0.05% beyond the Employment Cost Index every year for the next 6 years in an effort to close this (questionable) gap. [The Employment Cost Index is set by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is the baseline for annual raises for all federal employees including military]

However, when the six years was over, Congress continued to fund this additional 0.5%* for several more years, even though there was no longer any legal requirement for it and the Pentagon was no longer even requesting it. [In the interest of full disclosure, I personally benefited from several of these pay raises and never once complained]

There are a few indications that the attitude towards pay and benefits is starting to change.  The Pentagon has made long overdue changes to the costs of Tricare for both Active Duty and working age retirees.  They have also begun prorating ‘Imminent Danger Pay,’ which may have been the single most abused benefit in the history of the DoD.  Basically, if you spent a single day out of the month in a hostile area, you were paid an additional $225/month.  This meant that the entire military rushed to make it into theater before the end of the month and drug their feet in order to stay in theater until the 1st day of the next month.  A finance officer relayed the story of one senior USAF official who made 6 trips into theater in one year, each trip approximately 60 days apart, but conveniently straddling the monthly transition. That means he made an extra $2700 ($225 x 12) that year for a spending a just few weeks in theater (also all tax free if I recall the rules correctly)

I sincerely don’t want to oversimplify this issue.  There are myriad reasons why people join the military along with a largely different set of reasons for why they stay. An aspect of that decision is certainly financial.  However, to act as if the only way to maintain the status of the all-volunteer force is by perpetually increasing the compensation and benefits for military service members is an indictment of our policy makers’ ability to make sound fiscal judgments and an insult to uniformed personnel.  The compensation policies we have pursued over the last decade imply that we think service members are solely motivated by personal financial gains.  Let me assure you, this is not true, but the question remains; how much is too much?  Where do we draw the line?  How much do you pay people when it’s impossible to objectively determine what they deserve?

Also, if you are one of those people who breathlessly criticize slowing active duty military compensation growth and reductions in retiree benefits and the drawdown of personnel, you need to come to grips with the fact that all of these items come from the same ‘pot’ of money.  Since it’s now becoming clear that the DoD is going to face a truly flat budget over the next few years that means that this ‘pot’ can no longer grow at the unchecked rates it has over the last decade.  That means that from here on out, every dollar that goes into active duty compensation or retiree benefits is a dollar that doesn’t go into maintaining the size of the active duty force.  Secretary Panetta has announced the planned drawdown of 80,000 from the Army and 20,000 from the USMC.  Ostensibly, this is because we no longer need to sustain forces at these levels, but you have to ask if it is possible that we might “need” these personnel a little more if we could afford to keep them.


* Thanks to Justin T. Johnson (@justinjdc) for pointing out that my pay raise number should have been 0.5%, not 0.05%.

Posted in Big Money, Careerism, Military, War | 42 Comments

Women on Top

A week ago, Micah Zenko asked me to contribute to a blog post that would address the question “Women are significantly underrepresented in foreign policy and national security positions in government, academia, and think tanks. Why do you think this is the case?”

Turns out, that’s not an easy question to answer – the scope is broad, and the problem isn’t confined to this field. Women are underrepresented at the top in a lot of fields – economics, journalism, medicine, business, etc – which suggests there’s a cultural component to this. And indeed, a friend of mine is working on a psych PhD on why women aren’t seen as effective leaders. I’ve been after her to write about this for G&L, but it boils down to  the traits that Americans associate with being an effective leader are, broadly speaking, not the traits that we associate with women. If we don’t see women as effective leaders, why would we promote them to leadership roles?

But I think the problem for women starts much earlier, long before biases about women’s leadership potential kick in. I think the problem starts when women first enter the workforce (actually, it probably starts earlier than that, but I can’t solve the education system):

There’s a gap in the types of tasks women and men are assigned early in their careers. Intentionally or not, women tend to given more administrative or support work rather than policy or research work; path dependence takes over from there. I recall a prominent scholar regularly asking his female research assistant (RA) to pick up his dry cleaning and take his car to the shop—things he didn’t ask of male RAs.

So women writ large aren’t doing the right work to gain the knowledge, experiences, and networks necessary to move up. How to fix that? Employers, pay attention to what assignments you give your staff, both female and male. Your male interns need to learn to greet guests at events just as your female interns needs to learn to take meeting notes. Sure, the work needs to get done, but make sure you’re assigning work fairly. It should not be up to your female staff to decline assignments that aren’t appropriate.

Also at issue is mentorship and sponsorship:

Young women have trouble finding men willing to act in that capacity because there are few mechanisms to develop the rapport that underlies a good, productive mentoring relationship.  Conversely, men may be concerned about how a mentoring relationship will be perceived and shy away as a result. But mentors are vital for opening doors and offering suggestions and feedback about career choices—efforts that are particularly valuable in the foreign policy world.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to find some fantastic men to act as mentors, among them my co-bloggers Daveed, Jon, and Sky. They help me navigate the terror of writing publicly, they offer suggestions for managing my career and educational choices, and they tell me when I’m being too hard on myself or when I’m not trying hard enough. Their honest feedback and support has been invaluable.  Which is not to say we don’t also need female mentors – I don’t know where I’d be without Eve Sandberg, Stephanie Carvin, Erin Simpson, or Laura Seay – but in a field where the old boys’ network is still real, we need men too.

But where do young women find male mentors? That’s a problem I’m not sure how to solve, and I’d love to hear suggestions for how to overcome it, because I think this is a huge, huge deal. I found mine organically, through a year’s worth of inconsequential chatter and afternoons spent at happy hours that built into the rapport necessary for honest feedback. But I also initiated a lot of that contact, asking for help and insisting they pay attention to me, which is not something women generally feel comfortable doing, and which has the potential to aggravate wives and girlfriends (Amy, Bethany, and Julia – thank you for being awesome). So… let’s hear it. How do we bridge this gap?

All this is not to deny that women may also have some difficulty moving from the middle to the top of the national security and foreign policy world. There are real challenges to managing that transition as well, as Jolynn Shoemaker, Director of Women in International Security, highlights:

Work-Life Concerns: Inflexible schedules, unrelenting travel, and constant pressure to be in the office are common features of these jobs.  Many women are looking for opportunities to contribute meaningfully but also have more control over their personal lives.  They perceive that the foreign policy field is unaccommodating to flexible arrangements or detours from the traditional advancement track, and they feel pushed out.

Career Burn-Out:  Mid-level women point out that the 24-7 schedules and constant pressures are leading to more women opting out of leadership opportunities.  Whether they have families or not, younger women are re-examining the established definitions of success, and in some cases, concluding that the personal sacrifices are too high.

Lack of Sponsorship:  Women recognize that they need “sponsors” –powerful advocates who will open doors for them – but that male colleagues are benefiting much more from this support.  Women also point to an underlying sense of competition, ineffectual mentoring approaches, generational divides, and different views on work-life balance as obstacles to building these relationships with senior-level women.

So yeah. I highly recommend you read the entire post, then spend 10 minutes thinking about what you can do to help your female staff or friends or Twitterbuddies to advance in their careers. Then go do it. Invite somebody to lunch, or ask them to help with a research project, or whatever. Or stay home with your kids and let your wife go to her office happy hour. This is partly a numbers game, and the more women with the experience, knowledge , and networks necessary to get to the top, the better off we’ll all be.


Apropos of nothing except that this is a pink-but-not-sickly-sweet drink, here’s my new favorite cocktail (courtesy of Drinksnob). Happy International Women’s Day, everybody!

Blood and Sand

1 oz Scotch (I used Tomatin 12 – no call to go too high-end here)

1 oz blood orange juice

3/4 oz cherry brandy (I used bourbon that had had cherries soaking in it for a few months, but Cherry Heering is fine)

3/4 oz sweet vermouth

Turn off Twitter. Shake everything over ice. Strain into glass. Be happy.

Posted in Careerism, Cocktails, Gender | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Vast Right Wing Conspiracy

Adam Weinstein has a new piece up at Mother Jones entitled, “Inside the Corporate Plan to Occupy the Pentagon.” In it he makes the case that the Defense Business Board is basically a secretive Rumsfeldian cabal made up of evil Wall Street hedge-fund managers who are quietly twisting the Department of Defense into an employee abusing, pension-stealing corporation that operates with merciless efficiency and an eye towards the bottom line.  Here is how Adam describes the DBB…

They are investment bank CEOs and CFOs, outsourcing experts, and layoff specialists who promote a corporate agenda of “behavior change” and “business solutions” in the military bureaucracy. The board proposes not only to slash and privatize military pensions, but also to have the Pentagon invest in oil futures, boost pay for its executives and political appointees, and make it easier for them to fire rank-and-file employees while scaling back those workers’ collective-bargaining rights.

Initial caveats: I know Adam (via twitter) and have read enough of his work to understand that this story is going to slant left.  As a routinely left-of-center guy myself, I understand the desire to approach it from that perspective.  However, in this case I think Adam’s desire to tell a good partisan story overwhelmed his responsibility to be intellectually honest.  This article completely overstates the influence of the DBB, wrongly frames them as lacking empathy for military members and misrepresents their recommendations on a number of issues such as Fuel Hedging, the National Security Personnel System, and probably most importantly Military Retirement Reform.


First off, I kind of resent being in the position of having to defend the DBB.  The reason you’ve never heard of the DBB isn’t that they are overly secretive, its just that they aren’t really that important.  Strangely, Adam even admits it in his piece:

“While the board’s ideas have enjoyed support on Capitol Hill over the years, it has made only a modest impact on policy.”

Adam doesn’t cite the “support on Capitol Hill” they have received, so I can’t address that directly, but the only large-scale DBB recommendations that were ever adopted were the National Security Personnel System (NSPS), which has since been entirely dismantled (I’ll discuss that in more detail later) and the creation of the DoD Chief Management Officer (which as Adam points out has only been staffed to the deputy-level).  Apart from the very limited succeses listed here, the DBB has also had some notable failures.  They have recommended the outsourcing of military mail (not adopted) and endorsed the creation of a Combatant Command dedicated to medical issues (also not adopted).The majority of their recommendations and formal reports are completely boring, buzzword laced Powerpoint presentations built from interviews with various senior leaders within the department and the proverbial “best practices” from industry.  Their reports have titles like, Innovation and Cultural Change [.pdf-2006] and Financial Indicators, Ratios and Indexes [.pdf-2002].  These reports center around the consistent themes of metrics and tracking, human capital (especially senior leadership) and logistics.    They mostly rehash the myriad ways that the DoD is inefficient and poorly organized and how it would benefit from adopting business practices from industry [I should note that DoD inefficiency and organizational sprawl is hardly a minority view.  The DBB just states this in MBA jargon instead of MilSpeak].

In order to further frame the scope and magnitude of influence that the Defense Business Board actually wields, here are some additional facts.  The DBB averages around 8 reports a year that are delivered to the Deputy Secretary of Defense (and in theory on to the Secretary).  These reports normally consist of about 6 pages of text with an accompanying Powerpoint slideshow of around 20 pages.  If the track record of the DBB discussed above isn’t convincing enough, you should also note that the DBB has absolutely no authority to implement any of its recommendations.  These decisions are left to the senior military and civillian leadership and therefore they are the ones that are actually responsible for any changes adopted.  According to their Jan 2010 charter, the overall budget for the DBB is $750,000  plus 6 full-time equivalents (4 active duty officers and 2 support personnel).  Not to downplay this amount, but the budget for the various department bands is $320 million and the overall DoD annual budget is $530 billion.

You could argue that the real power behind the DBB isn’t their quantity of work or their budget, but their routine access to the halls of power; the ability to consistently pull the strings of the Pentagon senior leadership.  Well, there’s a problem there too: The DBB only meets four times a year.  The last one of these meetings was held in October 2011 and was scheduled to be 30 uninterrupted minutes of greed and undue corporate influence on the DoD.  That means that over the course of the year, the DBB will produce a few hundred pages of [mostly boring] reports and have a few hours of meetings.  Did I mention that these meetings are open to the public and the meeting minutes are published on the internet? Neither did Adam.

This doesn’t exactly seem like the way you would run a secretive Wall Street takeover of the Department of Defense.


This blackhearted organization has also recommended increasing the accessibility of benefits for severely wounded military members [Addressing Benefit Disparities to Wounded Warriors .pdf 2010] and recommended ways to improve the public school systems surrounding military installations [Public School Improvement To Enhance Quality of Life Around Military Bases .pdf 2002].  Their proposal on military retirement reform would actually expand benefits to a much wider group of veterans (but more on that later).

Adam also attempts to paint the DBB as completely divorced from military understanding:

Its 21 members know little about military affairs, but they are rich in Wall Street experience, including with some of the biggest companies implicated in the 2008 financial meltdown. [emphasis mine]

However, several of the DBB members named in the article are cited by Adam as having clear military experience.

The head of the Defense Business Board’s pensions task force, Richard Spencer, served as a Marine aviator in the 1970s.
The leader of the board’s supply chain task force was Gus Pagonis, a senior VP for Sears who, as an Army general had managed supply and logistics for the Gulf War, [emphasis mine]
A 3rd DBB member named by Adam is Denis A. Bovin (who also appears to have some experience…)
Mr. Bovin has been awarded the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the highest honor that can be conferred on a civilian, for his “dedication and commitment to the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces” and for his “vital and lasting contributions to the Department of Defense.”  — From his profile page hosted at the Center for a New American Security


Adam also makes claims that are either factual oversights or outright deception on the topic of fuel hedging.
Its members have consistently advocated for the Pentagon to engage in fuel hedging—investing in oil futures to lock in a supposedly low cost for their long-term fuel needs. The board’s fuel-hedging push was led by member Denis Bovin, who was a top investment banker for Bear Stearns until the firm went bust in late 2008. After consulting with energy giants BP and Shell, among others, Bovin’s team concluded that the Department of Defense should invest based on rising oil prices, even while he conceded that “as a whole, DoD is not highly exposed to fuel price volatility.” Such deals, he noted, would incur investment transaction costs of “$10 to $250 million per year.” Even though no federal agency currently engages in fuel hedging, the board tasked Bovin with another study on oil futures last January.
But here is the text from the board’s initial fuel hedging study, conducted in 2004 actually indicates that their preferred recommendation was *not* to hedge fuel purchases.

The Board’s Task Group [led by the aforementioned Denis Bovin]concluded that DoD could feasibly hedge its fuel purchases. In particular, the Department could design an effective hedging program that does not disrupt commercial markets. Though DoD is a large consumer of fuels, its consumption does not exceed that of a major airline by a significant amount. While the commercial market for fuel and fuel contracts could handle a DoD fuel hedging program, the question remained: Should DoD hedge?After an examination of the viability of a fuel hedging program for DoD, two recommendation options were developed by the Task Group:

OPTION 1: Don’t Hedge

OPTION 2: Implement a Low-Risk Pilot Program

Under this option [Option 1], the Department of Defense would not engage in fuel hedging in the commercial markets or elsewhere and would not pursue this approach any further. The option is based on the decision that both the political risks and the legislative effort required to establish such a program are not justified by the potential benefits. [emphasis mine]
Another fact that is conveniently glossed over is that the fuel hedging concept wasn’t even the idea of the Defense Business Board

TASK: At the direction of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) (USD(C)), the Defense Business Board (formerly known as the Defense Business Practice Implementation Board) was tasked with examining potential ways to reduce the Department’s exposure to fuel price volatility by hedging in commercial markets. This request was initiated by the USD(C) after the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directed that the Department of Defense (DoD) consider fuel hedging.  [emphasis mine]


Adam also takes issue with the implementation of the National Security Personnel System, which was a system designed to replace the General Schedule (GS) pay scale for DoD civilians.  He was in no way alone on this one.  There were a litany of people that opposed this change for a wide variety of reasons.

2008 investigation by Federal Times found that the first round of bonus pay under the new policy had been riddled with iniquities. And a May 2009 investigation by the Pentagon itself found that employees previously making below $60,000 ended up making less under the policy—while workers with salaries above $80,000 ended up making more.

However, it is important to note that NSPS was a pay-for-performance system; inequality was a feature not a bug.  NSPS gave managers much more discretion with regards to how employees received bonuses and promotions.  It also simplified the hiring and firing processes for federal employees on the theory that if government employment policies more closely reflected the commercial sector government would be more efficient.  Whether or not you support those changes largely depends on your perspective towards organized labor and pay-for-performance compensation.  However, the implication that NSPS was discriminatory is unfounded.  The Federal Times analysis that Adam cites stating that NSPS is unfair was only based on one year of data, and it would only go as far as to say this:

Most experts interviewed by Federal Times say it’s too early to judge whether NSPS is discriminatory or otherwise faulty. But many agree the apparent inequalities cause concern, and they say Defense needs to closely watch these trends in coming years. If the inequalities continue, experts say, NSPS must be revised to correct them.

However, as Adam correctly points out, eventually there was enough pushback against this system that it was defunded by Congress has since been phased out.


So, with all of that out of the way we finally get down to what I think was the real motivation behind writing this story: Adam doesn’t like the DBB’s recent recommendation to shift the military retirement system over to a 401(k) style system.  Again, he isn’t alone.  There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the mere suggestion that military retirement could be adjusted in any way, other than up of course.  Robert Goldich and Andrew Bacevich both make impassioned defenses of the current system, while completely ignoring the fact that it is entirely unsustainable.  So, back to Weinstein…
The board’s proposal would set aside 16.5 percent of a troop’s base salary [misleading, since this would not be removed from troops salary] in a savings account to be invested in the markets. Assuming a modest annual return—hardly a safe assumption these days—the plan would still provide retired soldiers with far less money than what they are entitled to now. Critics say the proposal would also make it harder for the military to retain its most senior, most knowledgeable members. –[bracketed portion is mine]
Despite the fact that I disagree with his framing of the 16.5% quantity and the assertions that retention would be dramatically effected, this characterization of the DBB proposal is technically true, however, by omitting key facts about how the current military retirement system works,  the reader is left with an amazingly skewed perspective.  Since I’ve already written fairly extensively on the unfairness inherent in the current military retirement system [Silent Majority, September 2011] I’m going to quote myself:

For those less familiar with the subject, military retirement works like this: After 20 years of service, you can retire and receive 50% of your base pay for the rest of your life.  Keep in mind most military members retire around 40 years old and receive benefits for the next ~40 years, roughly twice the length of  their service.

The salient fact here is that 83% of veterans do not receive any retirement benefits and this percentage is almost entirely drawn from the junior ranks - the demographic that has done the vast majority of the fighting and dying over the last decade.

Now, ‘base pay’ varies widely across ranks and time in service, but a completely typical O-5 who retires after 20 years of service and lives another 40 years will make $1,920,000.00 in 2011 dollars over his lifespan.  If that same LtCol separates at 19 years, 364 days (for some unimaginable reason) he would receive nothing.  The DBB proposal for retirement would reduce the huge payouts to the 17% of veterans that currently receive, but it would greatly expand the number of military members that receive some form of post-service benefits by creating a 401(k) style plan for all members that they would become vested in at 3-5 years.  While a goal of the DBB proposal was clearly to rein in retirement expenses, the fact that the benefits of military service would be more equally distributed amongst a wider pool of  veterans seems to be the kind of proposal that would be embraced by liberals, not rejected.

Even if you do support the ‘pot of gold’ retirement system that currently only benefits 17% of veterans, the system is fiscally unsustainable.  It is growing at a rate well beyond that of normal inflation and assuming a flat defense budget over the next decade, that means a smaller and smaller percentage of the defense budget is going to be used to support those that are currently in the military.

So, unless you are willing to accept an ever growing DoD budget, or you want to continuously cut more and more defense programs to offset the additional costs, you have to recognize that the retirement system must be altered. Personally, I’m not convinced that the 401(k) style plan is the correct way to go, but there are a lot of advantages to the proposal and it doesn’t represent some kind of Wall Street takeover or undue corporate influence.  Its a serious, albeit drastic proposal from a set of adults on a way to confront the hard choices the DoD is currently facing.

I don’t necessarily believe that the DoD would be best served by blindly accepting every proposal put forth by the Defense Business Board, but at some point, we need to stop waving the flag long enough to balance our checkbook.  Even though we aren’t driven by a profit motive, with 3.2 million employees and 312 million shareholders, its pretty hard to make the case that we shouldn’t adopt sound business practices.  While individual Marines, Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors may be motivated by patriotism, the Department of Defense runs on cash and our bill is about to come due.

Posted in Careerism, Military | 1 Comment

How to Take It Offline

This morning on Twitter, Marc Lynch was soliciting advice for students on blogging/tweeting. Some great responses, which I’m compiling here for future reference. Also, don’t overuse #hashtags. That’s probably the number one reason I unfollow people.

My contribution was to have a personality (easier said than done, I realize); reach out to people who you think are out of your league; and invite people out for drinks. Marc pushed back on that last, suggesting it’s perhaps problematic for young women (or men) to meet internet strangers for drinks.

In some ways, he’s absolutely right; there are crazy people on the internet (hi) and it’s dangerous and foolish to hold a Pollyanna-ish belief that nobody will do you harm. There is a real risk and there are consequences to ignoring that risk.

That said, life is risky, and meeting people from the internet is no more risky than meeting people in bars, which young women and men do all the time. In fact, I’d argue that bar people are bigger risks than internet people. You really know nothing about people you meet in bars, and you have no easy way of verifying if anything they say is true. Young people should always follow basic personal safety rules – don’t leave your drink unattended, let somebody know where you are, charge your cell phone, have cab fare, meet in public places, etc. – and by the time they’re in college, these rules should be ingrained in their behavior.

The purpose of social media for young people trying to establish themselves is to make connections and talk to people who can contribute to their intellectual and professional development. This requires reaching outside your established social circle, which naturally entails risk. Who knows if that guy you met at that networking happy hour is who he says he is? You have to rely on best available information and your gut read of the situation. I’ve attended a number of happy hours full of shady men, and while I’ve had offers of 1:1 drinks to talk shop afterwards, I’ll only go if Googling that particular individual turns up a corporate bio at a recognized company.

Meanwhile, I feel comfortable trusting people I engage with online, because there’s so much available data on that person (and if there isn’t, it’s a big red flag). For example, on Twitter, everybody has a history – you know what they’ve tweeted, you know who else they talk to, and there are a number of things to look out for. Somebody who only talks to me is suspect. Anonymous accounts are suspect. Generic names are suspect. If I can’t find somebody on Facebook or, God forbid, Google, they’re suspect. It’s actually pretty hard (though not impossible) to maintain a façade on Twitter, and most genuinely interesting people do not.

And if you’re really that suspicious, don’t discount the value of meeting in groups. Not that Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a particularly suspicious character, but when he suggested meeting for drinks after he missed a previous tweet-up, it was natural to bring several friends who had also been interacting with him online. Had I stayed home out of fear that Daveed was actually a Shabaab leader, I would have missed out on what has arguably been one of the most personally and professionally valuable friendships I’ve made this year.

Or go to tweet-ups – the national security ones that @Laurenist and I organize are open to everybody and full of fascinating, awesome people who work in think tanks, at the Pentagon, in international development, on the Hill, in journalism, etc. I love that current students have the opportunity to talk to practitioners – I think it benefits both parties, and I wish I’d had that option when I was in undergrad. We don’t bill them as networking happy hour, because they’re not about meeting people strictly for the sake of professional development, but I’ve also had some cool professional opportunities result from the friendships I’ve made over drinks at Science Club.

I choose to be an optimist about people. In my experience, most people you meet from the internet are more likely to be awkward rather than scary. As a caveat, I’ve been talking to people online for at least 15 years, and I believe my instincts, my bullshit detector, and my Google stalking skills are pretty well honed. I’m sure I’ve talked to unsavory characters online, but I’m very careful never to meet anybody face to face whose identity cannot be verified through some quick Googling. I do not put myself in situations where I don’t have an exit route, and if I feel remotely uncomfortable, I have no problem standing somebody up or making a lame excuse and hightailing it. As long as you have a Plan B if things go south, the risk is absolutely worth the reward.

[edit: now with hyperlinks!]

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