by Brian Domitrovic, Forbes.com
Special to InMilitaryEducation.com
Veterans benefits have been around for ages, and their track record is none too edifying. Everyone cites the post-World War II GI Bill as proof positive that veterans benefits are great—look at all those guys who got educations and fed into the postwar economic boom—but the relevant history goes further back and is tainted.
For decades after the Civil War, veterans benefits were the largest element in the federal budget. Well into the twentieth century, young women married old Civil War pensioners and got on the gravy train. The last Civil War widow’s pension check went out in the 1990s.
The unseemly push for civil service jobs in the 1870s and 1880s often came at the hands of vets demanding favors in the form of federal employment. It must have made quite a sight. Here in the thickest part of the industrial revolution, when the private economy was tossing off jobs and opportunity like never before, were scads of former military looking to be lifers behind a government desk.
When you take a good stare at the figure veterans benefits have cut over the ages, much is unappealing.
Just now here in Texas, the booming state where I live and work, the legislature, convened in its rare biennial session, is considering adaptations to one of the most remarkable veterans-benefit giveaways of modern times. This was a statute enacted a few sessions ago permitting children of Texas veterans to go to public college in the state tuition-free.
The kids are jumping in. At my institution, which is representative of a good handful of public Texas universities on this score, tuition waivers under the veterans benefit have doubled over the last five years. The cost state-wide is now well over $100 million a year. The arc is an exponential curve. Students who are coming on line now are scions of Gulf War vets. When the sons and daughters of the well-manned post-2001 wars come of age, the current trend will become a flood.
Here’s the kicker: this is an unfunded mandate. The legislature orders Texas universities on the public dime to charge no tuition to those qualified. In practice this means overcrowded classes and adjunct teachers instead of tenure-track professors.
The money flow is basically this. Non-vet children take out loans amping up to $50,000 over four years, pay tuition, and find themselves on the margins of overstuffed classrooms headed by a part-timer.
It’s not just Texas. State governments across the nation have been taking this easy way out, ordering their colleges to take vets, their kids, and even on some proposals grandchildren of vets, without funding it.
Government, like anyone else, by rights can do anything it wants with its money. If you’ve got a buck, you can blow it however you like. Clearly, if the states would like to show love to veterans, they can pony up the money and do so. Requiring the benefit and then welching on it is just pathetic.
The sad thing is to see Republicans conned into all this. As James Bowman has been warning for years, the left is bent on emasculating our veterans, demonstrating that they need “help.” They were losers to begin with (see John Kerry’s pointed remarks on this score), they’re psychologically scarred, they have to be wards of the state after their years of service.
In the presidential campaign, the Obama team treated us to the “Life of Julia,” where the everyday American draws on federal programs at each major transition in life. That’s how you build a Democratic constituency: get people hooked on government programs.
Veterans and military people trend Republican, however. What better way to start to turn them than by getting them dependent on state largesse. Free college tuition for the whole family is an ingenious way to gin up a voting interest toward big government in this right-leaning group. A further way is affirmative-action in government jobs for vets. You’re already starting to see veterans groups acting in a pitiful way for fear the gravy train might slow.
What a far cry from the message of military marketing. “Be all that you can be,” blared the army ads on television in the 1980s. Then there were all the spots showing incredible electronics training for navy personnel. Ever since Vietnam, the all-volunteer military’s public relations has focused on how job-ready you’ll be when out of the service. President George W. Bush said time and again that the young men and women in the military were the finest in the nation.
If all this is true, and maybe it is, the last thing you want to do is put extraneous enticements in front of these people. You want the talented tenth to follow its own star—these, after all, are the sliver of people who know what they’re doing, according to the PR. Don’t shunt them off to college and prevent them from starting some great business. And if they really are so intrepid, they can figure out how to pay for college themselves.
Then again, if the government thinks that college tuition is apt compensation for its military charges, pay for it. Businesses send shrewd employees, even their children, to school on their own account all the time. Nobody but government mandates this as a freebie.
Republicans who are enabling these tuition waivers have to realize that they’re playing along with the Life-of-Julia agenda. Step one is to create a national consensus that veterans are owed thanks and need help. One the one hand, it sounds sort of patriotic, but as you think about it it’s condescending. Thanks and help—how soft.
Step two is to create a post-military dependency on government. College tuition and government jobs via affirmative action makes for a very nice life cycle. You’re a G-man in the military, a G-man in college, and a G-man when you get a job. Then you get Medicare if not Social Security. Soon these people will be voting for the party of government.
Step three is to watch the basis of the opposition, the private sector, get rolled for good.
Now if we had some legitimate economic growth in this country, many vets, and their children, would be declining the umpteenth benefit in view of better options in the real economy. That after all was the secret to the GI Bill’s success. The ample opportunities that flowed from government’s shrinking after World War II made the GI Bill look like a beauty.
Economic sluggishness and a big military personnel establishment, however, is our lot today. It’s also becoming the basis for a vast entitlement class and a permanent Democratic majority.
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