Pay, Patriots, Romans and Americans: Does History Offer Any Value?

Federal military and civilian pay is going up and has been for a number of years. Next year’s pay raise is probably safe as well. The philosophy underlying the rapid rise in military and civilian pay has historical precedent. It may not be relevant to America–or perhaps we just don’t learn from history.

Who wants to fight on behalf of America?

Prior to 1973, any American male could find himself wearing a military uniform as a result of the draft. Pay was low, basic training was long and seemed brutal to many middle class Americans who found themselves wading through mud and muck in a simulated Vietnamese village shortly after getting off a bus from the secure environs of friends and family.

The idea was that everyone had an obligation to serve their country. And, if the country called via a notice from the local draft board, there were no good options outside of reporting for duty. The pay was so low most new military members didn’t have much left over after a few trips to the PX to pick up extra candy bars, some extra clothing, and a few bottles of Brasso to keep the military insignia looking good. But there was a bed at night, three meals a day, and the realization that the other men sleeping in the barracks at night on surrounding cots were from all levels of society and were all in the same situation. Just as important, many if not most men serving in the military were doing it as part of their patriotic duty as an American male fortunate enough to be a citizen of the United States.

Since 1973, we have had an all-volunteer military fighting force. Some comments by military leaders indicate this creates a more effective mlitary, probably because those that don’t like the military and what it stands for aren’t out marching with the troops and everyone who is standing in a formation during basic training is there because they agreed to become an American service member. From all indications, it also means that those in the American upper classes won’t be serving and the children of Congressmen and college professors will not be visiting the sands in Iraq as a service member during their lifetime.

Not surprisingly, it is easier to get volunteers when there isn’t someone trying to kill you. And, with some national papers trumpeting headlines and lead stories daily about deaths and accidents in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, it gets harder to entice people to sign up.

To keep the volunteers coming, Congress has gradually increased the pay and benefits for those in the military. It authorized that basic pay for service members would rise 0.5 percentage points faster than wages in the civilian sector through 2006. But it didn’t stop there. Housing allowances and other compensation were also increased. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that regular military compensation adjusted for inflation – basic pay, allowances for food and housing, and the tax advantage that arises because those allowances are not subject to federal income tax – grew by 21 percent for the active-duty enlisted force as a whole between 2000 and 2006.

This logic has worked well for federal civilian employees as well. While most federal employes do not fear someone shooting at them, or being transferred into a war zone or sleeping in a tent somewhere in a desert or jungle in a country most people could not find on a map, the logic that has worked to keep federal employees’ salaries going up is the concept of "pay parity." In other words, if the military members get an average raise of 3.5% or so, civilians should get the same pay raise.

The result has been a much higher raise for both groups than most Americans receive. In a 2004 analysis, CBO estimated total compensation per service member at $107,600. That estimate included cash and noncash benefits paid for by DoD and other government departments, but it did not include the travel or training costs of military personnel.

The CBO estimates that in 2006 average basic pay for enlisted personnel closely matched the 50th percentile of estimated earnings for civilians with some college education. With cash allowances and federal tax advantages included, regular military compensation for the average enlisted member exceeded the 75th percentile of civilian earnings.

Stated differently, the mililtary pay is not bad compared with most civilian jobs because it actually pays more than someone is likely to make working in a job in the private sector. That is the intent of the law which required higher pay for military members and the law has worked.

As you can see from the charts at the end of this article, the compensation for federal civilian employees has also increased dramatically when compared to most Americans.

No doubt there are a variety of reasons for this including the contracting of more jobs that often pay less to private companies. But the yearly comparison of civilian pay with military pay has worked well for federal employees as well. Congress usually buys into the argument that pay parity is a good idea. And, with the law that guaranteed the military a pay raise higher than what most Americans were getting, federal employees went along for the ride also.

Will the recent report by the Congressional Budget Office derail next year’s pay raise for civilian employees? It’s not likely. Despite the political jockeying for power in the halls of Congress as we prepare for elections next year, every politician wants to be able to tell the folks back home that he supported the troops even if that same politican has been arguing long and hard against spending more money or trying to derail the role of the military in the war against terror. No doubt, that is a delicate position to explain to the local yokels who may vote in the next election but it will probably work because most Congressmen have little chance of being thrown out of office.

America is not unique in its approach to getting new solidiers and sailors. The legions of the Roman Empire were initially made up of Roman citizens. When the empire grew, and it became obvious that serving in the Roman army could lead to death, disease, hardship and danger, the Roman Senate decided that paying people enough money to entice them to go marching off to war made more sense than trying to get people to enlist or accept the draft as the patriotic duty of a Roman citizen.

The new practice of paying more money and giving greater benefits to professional soldiers ensured that the sons of the Senators would not be required to engage the Huns or other enemies of the empire in military conflict and, as long as the Senate kept raising the pay, the soldiers fought hard. Unfortunately, someone else was ultimately willing to pay the soldiers in the Roman legions even more than the Senate was willing to fork over and some of the eventual military victors against the Romans were former Roman soldiers who had learned their trade on behalf of the greatest empire and the most effective militlary the world had ever seen.

Removing the concept of civic duty and patriotism and substituting the motivation of higher pay and benefits to obtain the services of an effective military may prove to be beneficial in the long run. Perhaps human nature has changed since the Roman legions protected the Roman citizens and there is no lesson to be learned through historical precedent.

But, in the short term, it probably does mean that next year’s pay raise for federal military and civilian personnel is a safe bet from the budget-cutters.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47