Saturday, November 30, 2013


So yesterday we got Dana Milbank's lazy column recommending a renewal of the draft, a day after we got an op-ed, also in The Washington Post, calling for an end to presidential term limits. No surprise, really -- it's a holiday week, there's not much news being made, so pundits are dredging up policy proposals that will never be enacted and therefore can always be relied on to fill up a column.

Milbank generates a fairly energetic level of self-righteousness, but he doesn't seem to be making much of an effort otherwise.
... As I make my rounds each day in the capital, chronicling our leaders' plentiful foibles, failings, screw-ups, inanities, outrages and overall dysfunction, I’m often asked if there’s anything that could clean up the mess.

My usual answer is a shrug and an admission that there's no silver bullet. There are many possibilities -- campaign spending limits, term limits, nonpartisan primaries, nonpartisan redistricting, a third party -- but most aren't politically or legally feasible, might not make much of a difference or, as with Harry Reid's rewriting of Senate rules, have the potential to make things even worse.
(If you want to be taken seriously when you're phoning it in this way, I suppose it helps, before you get to your main point, to throw a punch at a hippie, or at least at someone who qualifies as a hippie by Beltway standards.)
But one change, over time, could reverse the problems that have built up over the past few decades: We should mandate military service for all Americans, men and women alike, when they turn 18. The idea is radical, unlikely and impractical -- but it just might work.

There is no better explanation for what has gone wrong in Washington in recent years than the tabulation done every two years by the American Legion of how many members of Congress served in the military.

A Congressional Quarterly count of the current Congress finds that just 86 of the 435 members of the House are veterans, as are only 17 of 100 senators, which puts the overall rate at 19 percent. This is the lowest percentage of veterans in Congress since World War II, down from a high of 77 percent in 1977-78, according to the American Legion. For the past 21 years, the presidency has been occupied by men who didn't serve or, in the case of George W. Bush, served in a capacity designed to avoid combat.
Was Milbank nodding off in Philosophy 101 when his professor explained what a post hoc fallacy is? The number of people using rotary telephones is also at the lowest point in living memory -- and the condition of Congress is about as likely to be influenced by that societal change as it is to be influenced by the decline in military service among members of Congress.

Does military service really make a person more inclined to comity and cooperation and avoidance of partisan grandstanding? Forgive me if I have my doubts after looking at a list of House members who are veterans: why, there's Darrell Issa, along with Louie Gohmert, and Joe "You lie!" Wilson, and Paul Broun (y'know, the guy who said, "evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell"). In the Senate, well, you've got Lindsey Graham and John McCain. Need I go further?

If the best Congresses are those with the most veterans, then shouldn't 1977-78 have been the recent high-water mark of American self-government? Does anyone who lived through the 1970s seriously want to argue that that was the case? And, um, wasn't that just a few years after a clinical sociopath had to resign the presidency? Wasn't he a veteran?
It's no coincidence that this same period has seen the gradual collapse of our ability to govern ourselves: a loss of control over the nation's debt....
Our deficit is shrinking dramatically, Dana.
... legislative stalemate and a disabling partisanship. It's no coincidence, either, that Americans' approval of Congress has dropped to just 9 percent, the lowest since Gallup began asking the question 39 years ago....
See post hoc fallacy, above.
Because so few serving in politics have worn their country's uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest. They have forgotten a "cause greater than self," and they have lost the knowledge of how to make compromises for the good of the country. Without a history of sacrifice and service, they've turned politics into war.
My problems with this theory are that I don't believe military service confers an aversion to selfishness that's lifelong (see McCain, John) and I don't believe that it confers a sense of exalted purpose in peacetime the way it does in war. In order to get the benefit Milbank expects, we not only have to draft all our young, we have to send large numbers of them to fight horrible, bloody, destructive wars.

And while we're trying to cook up a war that will infuse America with the right amount of national character, we're allegedly going to be drafting everyone from homeless kids to the children of our secular royalty. Anyone seriously believe that the youths of the Koch and Romney and Walton and Trump families will sacrifice the way the children of the ghettoes and hollers do? Anyone seriously believe there won't be escape clauses that allow the former not to serve at all?

And meanwhile, the right-wing media will continue fighting the class war in the usual right-wing way, by arguing that all the cushy spots are going to the children of Alec Baldwin and Rosie O'Donnell, or maybe to Malia and Sasha, while upstanding home-schooled Bible Belt Christians fare the worst. Sorry, the culture war won't simply disappear.

Oh, and, as Milbank notes:
The costs would be huge.
You think, Dana? And, um, how do you imagine we'd pay for this? Not with new taxes -- the wealthy and the GOP simply wouldn't hear of it.And so we'd pay for it with drastic cuts to programs needed by the poor and middle class. In that way, your brilliant scheme would be less leveling, not more.

Which gets to what I think is the real reason we have a terrible government: the fact that heartland whites from outer-ring suburbia and exurbia have been encouraged for decades not to believe that other Americans are really their fellow citizens. They vote for politicians who encourage the belief that we have two nations, ours being at war with theirs, both of us engaged in a zero-sum conflict. These politicians are financed by right-wing billionaires who really don't have any fellow feeling for the Other America.

Deal with that and maybe we'll have a better government.


Victor said...

One of your very best rants, Steve!


And that's sayin' somethin'!!!

Anything I add, would only ruin it, so I'll leave it alone.

Thank you for writing that.

Steve M. said...


Richard said...

After the Depression and WW II there were two things the American society did to socialize most Americans. The first was public schooling with an Enlightenment focus and the second was the draft of most physically and mentally capable men. It gave America a common core of social life.

We have lost the military part of this socializing.

Your personal examples were each individuals from upper middle class families who saw that having it known that you had the common socializing of the military went out of their way to gain the veneer of veteran. They did it as part of the career move into politics, not as part of the effort to protect and improve the common America that came out of WW II.

Then the generals who were low-ranking officers in WW II "knew" they had the military power to destroy the Viet Cong. They pressured LBJ to send the massive number of troops the Vietnam so that Westmoreland could kill them all. (See the Movie "We were soldiers" - The book is much better. It demonstrates the evidence those generals used to develop the Vietnam Strategy.)

Vietnam totally discredited the draft because it was used to try to maintain America's international domination at a time we were being out produced and brought down in international trade. But it was a misuse of the draft. America was not under threat and those of us in uniform knew that then.

A draft for public service rather then for international military power would have an outstanding unifying effect on this nation. Using it for international military power when our industry is failing was and remains utter stupidity.

But the people need to believe that the period of service will be used to make America a better place, much as the CCC and the WW II draft were sold. It should go along with rebuilding America's education system and assuring every American has easy access to it.

Victor said...

Also too, what Richard said!

aimai said...

The army doesn't want a draft and can't afford one. The military, despite romanticized stories about WWI and WWII, is not some kind of super organization which can create a national culture of nobility of purpose. The military doesn't want a draft because they activities of a modern military are quite specialized and take enormous amounts of training to work. So a large scale draft is unworkable because you can't train that many people on a regular basis to a meaningful degree. If you were drafting people in peacetime this is all the more obvious: locking people up in barracks and training them when they are not accomplishing anything is a recipe for disaster.

But meanwhile, of course, we have two parties in this country. Two parties that Milbanks is critiquing. One of those parties proudly proclaims selfishness, capitalist competition, individualism and greed as the defining qualities it seeks in its representativies and the defining quality it seeks in its policies. Anything else is "socialism." All forms of collective action, from raising taxes to fighting for national health care, are impermissible forms of communitarian thinking.

The other party, for all its failings, has clearly sought to foster a more collectivist, patriotic, shared sensibility. The current head of the party, the actual president, has spoken almost every single week about the necessity for a broader, shared, commitment to the American dream.

So why are both parties excoriated for their failures to work together a la military? Each party is doing what it thinks is right--the party of Issa could be in the military and still be a car thief, liar, and bully. The party of Kerry could be in the military and still be anti-war and pro-soldier. Service in the military doesn't trouble those basic orientations at all.

Milbank is, of course, simply too dishonest to admit that the Republican party has renounced all forms of actual group action, what we used to call patriotic country before party. His "both sides do it" is more than usually toxic because its so patently false.

Ten Bears said...

I'm not proud of it. You would no more find me prancing around in a parade than panhandling a street corner.

No fear.

M. Bouffant said...

Maybe for Xmas D.M. can type up a little something about how everything would be so much better if all members of Congress had played organized sports in their youth.

CCB said...

You sound like a typical Republican here:

It's no coincidence that this same period has seen the gradual collapse of our ability to govern ourselves: a loss of control over the nation's debt....

Our deficit is shrinking dramatically, Dana.

He mentions the national debt, you refer to the deficit; why? A shrinking deficit means the debt is only growing more slowly, but of course you know that.

Steve M. said...

If we can reduce the deficit, then by definition it and the debt are not out of control or "runaway." We have some control. Maybe, if we can ever get to a decent level of employment (as in the late '90s), we can reduce the debt. Milbank implies that it's all in freefall when it clearly isn't.

But of course you know that.

Ten Bears said...

A noticeable theme throughout this holiday weekend has been the whole Calvinistic "if you're not successful you're not one of dog's chosen" mentality. Even we not-religious types, we non-thiest, we A-thiests have been Pavlovianly conditioned to accept success as a measure of piousness. The same applies to how we talk about debt and deficits, for example, or the Affordable Care Act, which though we know it is racist we continue to refer to as Obamacare.

Sad but true CCB, we're as brainwashed as the Kool-Aid guzzling rubes. Most of us, at any rate. You chose.

No fear.

CCB said...

Steve, I agree with your point, but I get uncomfortable when the distinction between the debt and the deficit is blurred; it looks like something is being hidden.
Keep up the good work.

Joey Blau said...

We should mandate military service for all Americans, men and women alike, when they turn 18. Unless, of course they have something better to do.. or their parents don't want them to.. or if they have ever smoked pot.. or are now or ever have been a member of the communist party.. or the green party.. or if..

freemansfarm77 said...

Millbank thinks that millions and millions of young people (but not himself, of course) should have their freedom and autonomy destroyed, and perhaps lose life or limb in the bargain, so that his totally unsupported, utterly speculative hunch that, in the long run, this will improve Congress, can be tested.

What a selfish jerk!