This month every member of the U.S. military is getting a 4.8 percent pay raise, the biggest inflation boost the military has seen in 18 years. The ink on the paychecks is not yet dry, but already some politicians and lobbyists are clamoring for bigger raises in future years. Just this week the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reported that most military people feel they are not paid fairly.
Proponents of additional hefty raises argue that even after this month's raise, the military suffers a 13 percent "pay gap" relative to the private sector. But in fact there is no pay gap worthy of the name; our armed forces are already paid very well compared with the rest of America. It makes no sense to pour money into outsized pay raises. The 25 percent pay hike that some proponents are backing would cost taxpayers more than $12 billion a year.
The "gap" of 13 percent does not measure the relative levels of military and civilian pay. Rather, it is supposed to reflect the differences between military and private sector raises since 1982. The calculation is set up to make the differences seem as large as possible. For example, it includes the growth in what the military calls "basic pay" but not the growth in allowances for food and housing. And it compares the military and civilian raises over separate time periods. Just correcting for those two problems cuts the result in half.
Comparing raises and calling it a pay gap makes no sense anyway. If you get a 5 percent raise this year and your neighbor gets 10 percent, it hardly means your pay has fallen behind your neighbor's: If you earned twice as much as your neighbor to start with, you still earn more than he does. Wage data show that our troops typically earn more money than 75 percent of civilians with similar levels of education and experience.
For example, after four months in the Army, an 18-year-old private earns about $21,000 a year in pay and allowances. In addition, he or she gets a tax advantage worth about $800, because some of the allowances are not taxed. That's not bad for a person entering the work force with a high school diploma. By way of comparison, an automotive mechanic starting out with a diploma from a strong vocational high school might earn $14,000 a year. A broadcast technician or communications equipment mechanic might earn $20,000 to start but typically needs a year or two of technical college.
At the higher end of enlisted service, a master sergeant with 20 years in the Marine Corps typically earns more than $50,000 a year--better than a senior municipal firefighter or a police officer in a supervisory position, and comparable to a chief engineer in a medium-sized broadcast market. Among the officers, a 22-year-old fresh out of college earns about $34,000 a year as an ensign in the Navy--about the same as the average starting pay of an accountant, mathematician or a geologist with a bachelor's degree. A colonel with 26 years makes more than $108,000.
In addition to these basic salaries, there are cash bonuses for officers and enlisted personnel with special skills. There are also fringe benefits: four weeks of paid vacation, comprehensive health care, discount groceries, tuition assistance during military service and as much as $50,000 for college afterward. Enlistment and reenlistment bonuses can run to $20,000 and more.
Advocates of additional big raises maintain that military people should be paid more because they are more highly qualified--they exceed national averages in verbal and math skills and percentage of high school graduations. But while these facts may help explain why the majority of our soldiers already earn more money than 75 percent of Americans, they don't explain why their future raises should exceed civilian wage growth by a large amount.
Some advocates contend that we need a large boost in military pay because the services are finding it difficult to attract and keep the people they need. But recruiting can be improved much less expensively by pumping up advertising, adding recruiters and better focusing their efforts and expanding enlistment bonuses and college programs. Pay is not necessarily the most important factor in a person's decision to stay in or leave the military. We might get better results by reducing the frequency of deployments, relaxing antiquated rules and improving working conditions.
Proponents of higher pay also note that military people put up with hardships such as long hours and family separations. Yet many civilian occupations make similar demands, and firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel, like many in the military, risk their lives on the job.
The report that CSIS released this week points to problems of morale and dissatisfaction across the military. But those problems are not all about pay. According to CSIS, they reflect concerns about training and leadership, the demands of frequent overseas deployments and unmet expectations for a challenging and satisfying military lifestyle. Higher pay will not fix these problems.
The writer, a senior research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was assistant director for national security in the Congressional Budget Office from 1994 to 1997.