About Those Military Pensions

What Every American Should Know About Military Pensions

The United States military is a popular institution.  The American people are incredibly supportive of their troops.  When surveys are taken asking “what profession do you admire most?” the military typically scores at, or near the very top.

Yet despite its popularity, the military is not a popular career choice.  Only about 1% of Americans serve in the military.  Talk about it a dinner party sometime and you’ll eventually hear people say things like “I could never do it; I could never live that way.”

This disconnect is easy to explain.  The military life, while rewarding, fulfilling, and important, is also very difficult.  The obvious dissuader from joining the military is war, but even beyond that obvious disincentive, the military lifestyle creates unique challenges that most people aren’t interested in.

For example, the military rules and regulations are limitations on personal liberty and most Americans have no interest in living under those restrictions.  The military is an extremely difficult lifestyle for families – and it goes beyond the obvious stress of deployments.  Military members are ordered to move every 3 years, creating huge stresses on their families.  All that movement means you can never put equity in a home, your kids are constantly switching schools (for example my son who is a junior in high school in his seventh different school system), you are constantly packing and unpacking, you have real challenges developing meaningful community ties, and with each move you get the joy of navigating the new DMV rules of the state you are residing in.  Lastly, the military work is tough; rewarding yes, but tough.

Ask a military member, “Do you work a 40 hour week?” He or she will answer, “only if I take leave Thursday through Saturday.”  The average workweek for military members, especially senior officers and senior non-commissioned officers, is 60 – 70 hours a week.  They are usually working 6am to 6pm and then sneaking in on the weekend to catch up on something.

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I happen to be a fan of free market economics.  If the free market were presented with recruiting people to work in the military with its challenging workload, that involves fighting in wars, long hours, family separation, limits on individual freedom – the free market would respond by creating incentives.  The number one incentive would be salary – a huge salary to get people to do this difficult military job.

Congress, however, is not a free market.  They created a different plan.  The military pay plan that has been in place for decades is this:

Pay military members as low a salary as we can get away with and incentivize military service with earned benefits (like pensions).

Why?  Because Washington D.C. knows that only 17% of military members will serve 20 years in the military and earn a pension.  The other 83% get nothing when they separate from the military.  Think about that for a minute.  Do you know of any industry where you can work for 15 years and earn zero retirement benefits?  Only the military system has that kind of all or nothing retirement plan.  I worked with an officer who was told by the military that he was no longer needed after 16 years – he wasn’t a bad guy; not in trouble – he just got cut during personnel reductions.  He left with nothing; no retirement plan; at age 38 after 16 years and multiple deployments to the Middle East.

It is critical to understand, this system was designed to keep people in the military.  The military uses the all or nothing retirement system to keep experienced, talented people in the ranks.  If the military had a portable retirement system where members could leave after 5 years and take retirement benefits with them, the military would lose a huge retention tool.  By dangling a 20 year pension, the military is able to pay low salaries and retain talent because for example, after 8 years military members think “well if I serve 12 more years and reach 20, I can get that pension.”  Remember, the government avoids paying retirement benefits of ANY kind to the vast majority of service members who will not serve 20 years on active duty.

Simply put, the military pension system is really deferred salary.  The congress is saying to the troops, “sure, we won’t pay you a salary commensurate with your skills, duties, and work-associated dangers now – but after 20 years of service we will pay you a pension.”  It limits the upfront salary costs for the Department of Defense.  The truly ingenious part of the system is the knowledge that 83% of military members getting paid low salaries today will never earn a pension tomorrow.

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This week, in a bipartisan deal, congress decided to cut the pensions of retired military members.  What do you think congress would do if GM unilaterally reduced pensions on the United Auto Workers?  I think we all know there would be lots of grandstanding, hearings, and calls for fairness.

Leaving that aside, here’s a handy guide on military pensions for decision-makers – since I know everyone loves “talking points”:

1.  Military Pensions are an earned benefit not an “entitlement program.”  Pensions are not a hand-out.  This is not charity or welfare.  Every penny of a pension is an earned benefit.  It was designed by congress to recruit and retain people into the military.  Only 17% of military personnel are able to earn this benefit by serving for 20 years.  Any congressman comparing an earned benefit to welfare or charity probably hasn’t done his homework.  It is an incredible insult to boot.

2. Military pensions are deferred salary:   The military salaries are intentionally low.  The pension system is a recruiting and retention tool to get qualified talented Americans to serve in the military.  If congress cuts this deferred salary plan, we will have only bad choices:  A. Significantly raise real salaries to off-set the lower pension.  B. Draft citizens into the military and treat them like indentured servants.  C.  Watch talented people leave the military.

In other words, the pension system is the most palatable and cost-effective recruiting tool we have. (Instead, this week congress cut pensions while offering no pay raise at all for the troops).

3.  Military Pensions are an all or nothing system:  There will be lots of chatter about military members who join at age 18, serve 20 years, and retire at age 38.  What you won’t hear about is the guy who joins at 18, serves 10 years and separates with absolutely zero retirement benefits at age 28.  You won’t hear about the officer who serves 12 years after college and separates from the military at age 35 with nothing in terms of retirement planning.

The fact is, military members continue to work when they leave the service.  The pension system, while an attractive payment of deferred salary, does not allow the vast majority of military retirees a life of leisure.  It is a supplement to a second career.

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There is a tendency by elected leaders and others to try to compare military service to any other job.  I’ve heard a congressman say, “if someone is 42 years old, they can still work,” as an argument in favor of cutting military pensions.  True, a 42-year-old can still work.  But you will have precious few 42-year-old military members on active duty congressman, because they will not commit to a military career if they are not compensated for their service.

As a military we desperately need the 28 – 40 year old service members.  This is the heart and soul of the organization, and they are underpaid.  The pension system, while not perfect, represents an acknowledgement that 20 years of military service at a low salary is not an attractive option for young Americans.  It isn’t an entitlement; it isn’t a handout.

Military pensions are simply deferred payment of salary for a job well-done.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

 

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But I Like the Paper Ones

But I like the paper ones…

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Christmas is a time of unbridled nostalgia.  It seems no matter where I go or what I do, something – a smell, a song, a show, a store – is triggering yuletide memories.  If I’m not careful I can drift off to the North Pole for an extended stay.

Last night, we were decorating our Christmas tree – yes, late for us this year.  Between sports, events, and travel it was next to impossible to get our family of 5 in the same room for the requisite amount of time to trim up the tannenbaum.  And as most of you probably already know, there is no greater “nostalgia-trigger” known to man than a Christmas tree.

As we unboxed and unwrapped our ornaments I was transported back to my childhood and a tiny living room on 24 Plain Street.

My dad took some pride in our Christmas trees – always fresh cut, always (relatively) symmetrical.  When it came time to hang the ornaments on the tree, we children (I was the youngest of 4) would line up dutifully and wait to be handed an ornament by Mom or Dad.  Our parents would affix a hook and offer a suggestion to us.

“Christian, that’s a pretty one – make sure you hang it near a light so it sparkles”

“Now this one is heavy, so find a thick branch for it.”

We would dutifully comply.

Invariably, at the bottom of our ornament box my mother would find the crafts her children had made over the years.  It was really shabby art-work, misshapen Christmas Trees, poorly painted Santas, crazed-angels with incongruent wings, and reindeer that looked like poodles.   We are not a family of artistic talent.  Over the years, we children would groan as our mother would announce who created each piece of “art.”

“Oh look at this reindeer (you mean rein-dog, don’t you Mom?) that Robbie did in 4th grade!”  My oldest brother Rob would sheepishly claim ownership and responsibility for hanging Rudolph the Red-Nosed Greyhound.

We all took our turns claiming ownership for these creative atrocities:  a construction paper Christmas Tree that looked like a rhombus (note to kids:  a rhombus does not occur in nature – work on that); some kind of walnut shell with ribbons; a paper chain in gray and purple.  Then she would produce the pièce de résistance:  someone at some point in my family’s history had taken a paper cup and wrapped it with aluminum foil and called it a “Silver Bell.”  To this day the argument rages as to who created this abysmal piece of holiday décor (judging by the age of the piece it certainly wasn’t the youngest kid; so I’m off the hook).

My mother would beam as she handed us these homemade trinkets; and of course, my dad would offer advice before we hung them on the tree:

“Around the back” (meaning – don’t put this hideous artwork where people can actually see it).

“Robbie, this one goes around the back”

“Michael, put this green rhombus…”

–          “It’s a Christmas tree, Dad”

“..yah, yah – Christmas tree.  Why don’t you put that around the back?  The back needs some ornaments.”

And that’s how it went.  We would giggle because even as youngsters, we knew – our paper ornaments were not good; and yes they probably should be around the back.  Our Dad would laugh good-naturedly as we played along.

But Mom didn’t like Dad’s plan.  She would say to my father, “Don’t say that – kids, hang those where I can see them!”  Then she would glare at my father.

“I am only kidding,” he would protest as we kids drew straws on who would hang the Reynolds Wrap Silver Bell.

Then Mom would say, smiling brightly with moist eyes, “but I like the paper ones.”

***

Last night, we were finishing up hanging all the beautiful ornaments that we have bought over the years.  We have some great ornaments that we have acquired on vacations or at special times and in special places.   Then, we got to the final box of ornaments, still sealed.

My wife said cheerily, “that’s the box with the paper ornaments.”

My kids groaned.

As we sorted through the box we came across Santas with purple faces, a mutant red star that looked like a diseased crab, some green felt in the shape of something, and other hand-crafted treasures from our children’s young lives.  There was even a rhombus (it must be genetic).

Our teenagers laughed and teased each other as they tried to deny accountability for certain pieces.  Then they took these ornaments and tried to find places on that tree where they could hide the paper baby Jesus or the sparkly star, where no one would see.

My wife and I smiled as we watched them.  But we treasured every mutant we pulled out of that ornament box. I think we probably had the exact same look on our faces that my Mom had on her face so many years ago – joy, sadness, a longing for the past and a love of the present all rolled up in one.

Then I said “Right up front!”  I hung the red-construction-paper-Christmas-star-crab-thingy dead center and high; right where everyone can see it.

My son tried to protest, “No Dad, that can’t go there.”

“But Eli, I like the paper ones.”

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

 

This Work of Destruction is Not as Simple as You Think

In the days before 9/11, when Afghanistan seemed a world away, I remember watching a disturbing news story out of that nation.  Those were the days of Taliban rule in that troubled land.  In early 2001, the Taliban Government announced to a slumbering world, that they intended to destroy ancient Buddhist statues in the Hazarajat province of Afghanistan.

Despite the protests of historians, archeologists, governments of the West, and the United Nations, the Taliban took action to destroy the Buddha’s of Bamiyan.  These statues had been carved into high cliff walls during the 6th century.  However, the Taliban, as the new legal authority in Afghanistan, had decided the Buddha’s must be destroyed because their very presence in the land represented a gross affront to the rigid Islamism that the Taliban professed.   More than 400 Islamic clerics agreed, classifying the statues as “against Islam” and thereby lending their support to the proposed destruction.

Initially, the Taliban attempted to destroy the ancient artwork by firing artillery.  However, the statues looked back mockingly, and while damaged, the Buddha’s stood proudly.  The Taliban information minister eventually stated, oblivious to his crassness, “this work of destruction is not as simple as you think.”

Finally in March 2001, the Taliban resorted to dynamite.  Rigging the cliff walls with massive amounts of TNT, the Taliban blew up the Buddha’s of Bamiyan while shouting Allahu Akbar.

I remember watching the footage of the destruction on the evening news.  One moment the Buddha’s stood, testifying to the faith of an ancient land and the next moment there was nothing but a pile of debris and cheering Taliban.  I seethed.  My wife asked me, “What kind of people would do this?”

Indeed, what kind of people live to destroy?

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This past May, I attended a conference in Alabama.  Every day, when I pulled into the parking lot of the hotel I was staying at there was a Volkswagen Golf parked in the same spot.  Affixed to the back of the VW was a fish with feet and the word “DARWIN” printed on the fish’s side.  Perhaps you’ve seen one driving around your town?

The Darwin Fish was created by people intentionally trying to make fun of Christians.

The fish symbol, called the Ichthys, is an ancient symbol of Christianity, tracing its roots to the first century when the early church lived under the severe and savage rule of Rome.  Christians of the first century adopted a simple symbol, the Ichthys.   To hide from the persecution of Rome, Christians would mark their tombs and meeting places with a simple fish.

Modern Christians affix that same fish symbol to their automobiles, stationary, businesses, etc.  For Christians, this ancient symbol is part of their heritage.  It is also a tribute to those Christians of the early church, who suffered and persevered against a government that despised them; a government that would do anything to destroy Christianity.

Just a symbol?  Yes, but an important one to people of the Christian faith.

But take a drive around your town and you will see routine desecration of that symbol.  There’s the aforementioned Darwin Fish, the Gefilte Fish, a fish with the SATAN printed on its side, a fish rocket ship, etc.

On that trip to Alabama, as I pulled into the same parking spot at my hotel, my colleague, a Christian like me, took note of that VW with the Darwin Fish affixed to it, and asked me a simple question.  “What kind of people do that?  What kind of people mock someone else’s faith?”

Indeed, what kind of people live to destroy?

***

This week, I’ve been making merry with my family as we prepare to celebrate the Christmas holiday.  While decorating my living room the other night, I took note of the evening news which  had a report about a group of atheists who were suing to include a Festivus Pole, made out of beer cans, next to a nativity scene in some American town.

Festivus, for those of you who aren’t fans of the television program Seinfeld, is a fictitious parody “holiday” created by the writers of that popular series.   It was a funny episode.  However, the Festivus Pole has since been adopted by American Atheists to mock the faith of Christians; using the first amendment as their legal authority to attack and degrade nativity scenes.

The Nativity Scene is an ancient tradition of the Christian faith.  It is reported to date to the year 1223, when Saint Francis of Assisi displayed the first Nativity in honor of his faith.  As a reminder to those who shared his faith, that Christmas was something to be cherished and revered.

Does that mean that everyone must celebrate Christmas?  Of course not – many across the globe ignore Christmas every year.  It was simply a reminder to those of a like mind, that they shared something special; a faith in a loving God.

Am I saying that confused people can’t have a Festivus Pole?  No.  But when you take a sitcom parody and turn it into your opportunity to attack the faith of your neighbors, I am left asking myself:  What kind of people do this?

Indeed what kind of people live to destroy?

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“If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

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I suppose there will be many lawyers, and lawyerly types, who will want to have a protracted argument about the rights of people to display Darwin Fish and Festivus poles.  Yes, that is all well and good; just as there were many (some 400 plus!) clerics who would explain in explicit detail why the Buddhas of Bamiyan must be destroyed.

But decent people know better than that.  And decent people everywhere are left pondering, “what kind of people do this?”

Indeed, what kind of people live to destroy?

-CJ Cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham