It's good to be king.
Or in this case, general. The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend about the hundreds of costly and posh homes--replete with chefs, gardeners and security teams--where the military's top brass are billeted. Details about the homes, which reportedly include a 15,000 square-foot chateau in Belgium and an elegant home in Coral Gables, Fla. that costs taxpayers $160,000 a year, were part of a new Pentagon study prepared for Congress last month that was not publicly released.
The Pentagon study, the L.A. Times reports, examined 32 homes, finding 10 of them to be advantageous alternatives to other housing (the large houses and their amenities are needed to host visiting dignitaries, the military says, and owning them makes more financial sense than finding new rentals every time a senior officer gets a new post). But the study also found three homes in Naples, Italy that exceeded the allowed expenses for the job and it listed 14 others as "reasonable" choices where cost-cutting options would be examined. According to the L.A. Times, the study concludes that the Pentagon is "making progress toward reducing" the housing costs.
Details about the study arrived at a particularly inopportune time for the Pentagon, coming just as furloughs set in for some 650,000 Department of Defense civilians, who are seeing their pay cut by 20 percent. It also comes amid Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's warning that the furloughs will probably continue next year and could get worse. “Those are the facts of life,” he told a crowd of mostly civilian workers at a Charleston military base last week.
Hagel has not left the top of the military untouched, and seems to get the importance symbolism plays when it comes to budget cuts. He took a voluntary 20-percent cut in his own pay. It was a show of solidarity with furloughed workers, though it only saved the Pentagon about $10,000, making it a lot more about perception than the bottom line. Similarly, Hagel said last week that he has ordered a 20-percent cut in the number of jobs among the top brass and senior Pentagon civilians by 2019. While the 3,000 to 5,000 jobs that would be lost is a small fraction of the military's overall workforce, reports last week called the move "a symbolically important trimming of the upper branches of the bureaucracy."
If optics indeed matter to Hagel, he should also make a show of cutting at least 20 percent of these perks for senior officers. For those lower down the organization who are being asked to sacrifice, it's not just their bosses' jobs or pay that get under people's skin. It's the idea that while the rank-and-file are missing mortgage payments, the military's leaders are living in massive chateaus and villas with their own chefs. Sure, a few of the homes may serve to entertain or host foreign VIPs, but, as the report appears to have made clear, there's plenty of room to sharply cut down on the opulence.
What would be even better than Hagel dropping the axe would be if a few of the brass who are offered such digs took initiative themselves and volunteered to live on base or in other secure but modest housing. That would show not only that the Pentagon is serious about cutting costs, but that a "new normal" is taking hold among the leaders who help to shape the military's culture.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.