Kerry Trips Over an Economic Truth

By Uwe E. Reinhardt
Saturday, November 4, 2006

There is no question that Sen. John F. Kerry owed our men and women in the military and their families the apology he offered this week. Even in clumsy jest, if that is what his remarks were, they could not have come across as anything but insulting.

Truth be told, however, economics professors routinely instruct their students on the virtue of the all-volunteer army in language that comes dangerously close to Kerry's uncouth remark.

Here, for example, is how University of Rochester economics professor Steven E. Landsburg made the case for the volunteer army in his textbook "Price Theory and Applications." Under a military draft, he writes, "the Selective Service Board will draft young people who are potentially brilliant brain surgeons, inventors and economists -- young people with high opportunity costs of entering the service -- and will leave undrafted some young people with much lower opportunity costs. The social loss is avoided under a voluntary system, in which precisely those with the lowest costs will volunteer."

Only slightly more crudely put, the central idea underlying this theorem of what economists call "social welfare economics" is that if a nation must use human bodies to stop bullets and shrapnel, it ought to use relatively "low-cost" bodies -- that is, predominantly those who would otherwise not have produced much gross domestic product, the main component of what economists call "social opportunity costs." On this rationale, economists certify the all-volunteer army as efficient and thus good.

Small wonder, then, that even college students who ardently supported the invasion of Iraq and just as ardently favor "staying the course" in Iraq argue smugly that, instead of serving their country in uniform, they can serve it so much better in law school or by trading bonds for Goldman Sachs. I personally have heard this argument many times from hawkish undergraduates at Princeton University who would never dream of fighting in uniform for the nation they profess to love.

Small wonder, too, that it became national news when Doris Kearns Goodwin's son, a Harvard undergraduate, decided to join the military and serve in Iraq. After all, how many Ivy League graduates today make that risky choice?

There is ample evidence that the elite now running America has grasped the economists' dictum. To be sure, the officer corps is drawn from the ranks of college graduates, and a tiny minority of college graduates do heed that call. On the other hand, it is well known that to fill the ranks of enlisted soldiers, sailors and Marines, the Pentagon draws heavily on the bottom half of the nation's income distribution, favoring in its hunt for recruits schools in low-income neighborhoods. Certainly few if any of Kerry's elitist critics on the right, all of them self-professed patriots, have served their country in uniform, let alone in battle; nor have many of their offspring.

One must wonder, for example, how many high officials in the administration have sons or daughters in the fray in Iraq or Afghanistan, how many members of Congress and how many of the ever-hawkish talking heads on Fox News. And, as far as I know, no young member of the wider Bush family is serving our country in the military or has done so in recent years.

None of this excuses what Kerry said. But it does point up the hypocrisy rampant among his critics, who have waxed almost hysterical over his remark. I do not recall these same critics, including President Bush, lapsing into similarly righteous hysteria when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld only three years ago flippantly insulted legions of World War II and Vietnam draftees by labeling such soldiers of "no value."

The writer is James Madison professor of political economy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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