By Ryan McMaken*
On the matter of immigration, even many commentators who support ease of migration also oppose the extension of government benefits to immigrants.
The idea, of course, is that free movement of labor is fine, but taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize it. As a matter of policy, many also find it prudent that immigrants ought to be economically self sufficient before being offered citizenship. Switzerland, for instance, makes it harder to pursue citizenship while receiving social benefits.
This discussion often centers around officially recognized “welfare” and social-benefits programs such as TANF and Medicaid. But it is also recognized that taxpayer-funded benefits exist in the form of public schooling, free clinics, and other in-kind benefits.
But there is another taxpayer-supporter program that subsidizes immigration as well: the US military.
Government Employment for Immigrants
Last week, the AP began reporting that “the US Army is quietly discharging Immigrant recruits.”
Translation: the US government has begun laying off immigrants from taxpayer-funded government jobs.
It’s unclear how many of these jobs have been employed, but according to the Department of Homeland security, “[s]ince Oct. 1, 2002, USCIS has naturalized 102,266 members of the military.”
The Military as a Jobs Program
Immigrants, of course, aren’t the only people who benefit from government jobs funded through military programs.
The military has long served as a jobs programs helpful in mopping up excess labor and padding employment numbers. As Robert Reich noted in 2011 , as the US was still coming out of the 2009 recession:
And without our military jobs program personal incomes would be dropping faster. The Commerce Department reported Monday the only major metro areas where both net earnings and personal incomes rose last year were San Antonio, Texas, Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. — because all three have high concentrations of military and federal jobs.
He’s right. While the private sector must cut back and re-arrange labor and capital to deal with the new economic realities post-recession, government jobs rarely go away.
Because of this, Reich concludes “America’s biggest — and only major — jobs program is the U.S. military.”
Reich doesn’t think this is a bad thing. He only highlights the military’s role as a de facto jobs program in order to call for more de jure jobs programs supported by federal funding.
Given the political popularity of the military, however, it’s always easy to protect funding for the military jobs programs than for any other potential jobs programs. All the Pentagon has to do is assure Congress that every single military job is absolutely essential, and Congress will force taxpayers to cough up the funding.
Back during the debate over sequestration, for example, the Pentagon routinely warned Congress that any cutbacks in military funding would lead to major jobs losses, bringing devastation to the economy.
In other words, even the Pentagon treats the military like a jobs program when it’s politically useful.
Benefits for enlisted people go well beyond what can be seen in the raw numbers of total employed. As Kelley Vlahos points out at The American Conservative, military personnel receive extra hazard pay “even though they are far from any fighting or real danger.” And then there is the “Combat Zone Tax Exclusion (CZTE) program which exempts enlisted and officers from paying federal taxes in these 45 designated countries. Again, they get the tax break — which accounted for about $3.6 billion in tax savings for personnel in 2009 (the combat pay cost taxpayers $790 million in 2009)– whether they are really in danger or not.”
There’s also evidence that military personnel receive higher pay in the military than do their private-sector counterparts with similar levels of education and training.
Nor do the benefits of military spending go only to enlisted people. The Pentagon has long pointed to its spending on civilian jobs in many communities, including manufacturing jobs and white-collar technical jobs.
This, of course, has long been politically useful for the Pentagon as well, since as political scientist Rebecca Thorpe has shown in her book The American Warfare State, communities that rely heavily on Pentagon-funded employment are sure to send Congressmen to Washington who will make sure the taxpayer dollars keep flowing to Pentagon programs.
Whether you’re talking to Robert Reich or some Pentagon lobbyist on Capitol Hill, the conclusion is clear: the military is both a jobs program and a stimulus program. Cut military spending at your peril!
Military Spending Destroys Private Sector Jobs
The rub, however, is that military spending doesn’t actually improve the economy. And much the money spent on military employment would be best spent on the private, voluntary economy.
This has long been recognized by political scientist Seymour Melman who has discussed the need for “economic conversion,” or converting military spending into other forms of spending. Melman observes:
Since we know that matter and energy located in Place A cannot be simultaneously located in Place B, we must understand that the resources used up on military account thereby represent a preemption of resources from civilian needs of every conceivable kind.
Here, Melman is simply describing in his own way what Murray Rothbard explained in Man, Economy, and State. Namely, government spending distorts the economy as badly as taxation — driving up prices for the private sector, and withdrawing resources from private sector use.
Ellen Brown further explains:
The military actually destroys jobs in the civilian economy. The higher profits from cost-plus military manufacturing cause manufacturers to abandon more competitive civilian endeavors; and the permanent war economy takes engineers, capital and resources away from civilian production.
But, as a classic case of “the seen” vs. “the unseen,” it’s easy to point to jobs created by military spending. How many jobs were lost as a result of that same spending? That remains unseen, and thus politically irrelevant.
Military fan boys will of course assure us that every single military job and every single dollar spent on the military is absolutely essential. It’s all the service of “fighting for freedom.” For instance, Mitchell Blatt writes, in the context of immigrant recruits, “I’m not worried about the country or origin of those who are fighting to defend us. What matters is that our military is as strong as it can be.” The idea at work here is that the US military is a lean machine, doing only what is necessary to get the job done, and as cost effectively as possible. Thus, hiring the “best” labor, from whatever source is absolutely essential.
This, however, rather strains the bounds of credibility. The US military is more expensive than the next eight largest militaries combined. The US’s navy is ten times larger than the next largest navy. The US’s air force is the largest in the world, and the second largest air force belongs, not to a foreign country, but to the US Navy.
Yet, we’re supposed to believe that any cuts will imperil the “readiness” of the US military.
Cut Spending for Citizens and Non-Citizens Alike
My intent here is not to pick on immigrants specifically. The case of military layoffs for immigrants simply helps to illustrate a couple of important points: government jobs with the military constitute of form of taxpayer-funded subsidy for immigrants. And secondly, the US military acts as a job program, not just for immigrants but for many native-born Americans.
In truth, layoffs in the military sector ought to be far more widespread, and hardly limited to immigrants. The Trump Administration is wrong when it suggests that the positions now held by immigrant recruits ought to be filled by American-born recruits. Those positions should be left unfilled. Permanently.
About the author:
*Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
This article was published by the MISES Institute