Put Surplus Military Abilities to Work

GARLAND L.THOMPSON

March 28, 1992|By GARLAND L.THOMPSON

The national argument over a ''peace dividend'' just boiled over with the Senate's rejection of a plan to shift military funds to social programs. The issue won't go away, though, even if President Bush seems to wish it would. His position, (a) that there is no peace dividend, or (b) even if there is one, it should go to deficit reduction, ignores the bitterness of the recession that opened the 1990s.

Taking it from the top, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's plan is to chop away at National Guard and Reserve strength. The secretary said he'd paid no attention to whether the affected Reserve units were in Democratic or Republican strongholds, but in an election year that's difficult to believe.

Setting that aside, however, Mr. Cheney's own logic requires a new look at social needs. For example, deactivation of the Army's VII Corps in Europe, as he says, ends the need for reservists to support it back home. But major disruptions accompany closing down major units and shipping them home. Whacking away another 140,000 reserve and guard personnel and the payrolls, supply contracts and other benefits they bring to affected communities spreads pain far beyond the offices of the congressional leaders Mr. Cheney has targeted. Serious planning for the future employment, housing and services to be provided all those unneeded military people must include major social spending.

Here's a thought on that: Put those surplus military abilities to work fixing problems at home.

Much of the money sunk in the grab bag of military procurements cannot be extricated, even if congressional leaders are right about the peace dividend and George Bush is wrong. Contracts already let for supplies, tools, heavy equipment, office gear and what-have-you will be performed, as any bureaucrat knows, irrespective of any real need for their completion.

Why not redirect some of the funded activities? Military officers are by definition highly skilled project leaders. People who know how to build and manage air bases, Army facilities and Navy bases could put those skills to good use rebuilding water works, sewer lines, parks, recreational facilities, medical centers, schools, mass-transit lines, roads and bridges, in rural areas as well as urbanized ones.

It would take some rethinking in the Pentagon, but officials in outfits such as the Army Corps of Engineers are already leaning in this direction. Rather than just drop unneeded personnel off the rolls, special transition programs could send them to work on civilian projects, with the officers in charge mustered out as part of the process. At the end of such a rebuilding program, those officers would be civilian managers, running companies or agencies that do the work. Training could be provided as part of the program, both to help military people shift back to civilian roles and to help civilians upgrade their job skills. The resources are mostly in place anyway, for military needs that no longer exist.

That way, some of the money that's already been spent could be put to uses which benefit the citizens on whose ultimate behalf it was allocated.

Without such flexibility and maneuverability, there is little hope the problems decried by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities can be corrected in time to help the estimate 31.5 million Americans crowded together below the poverty line. With state and local governments strapped with their own deficits, writ ever larger as federal revenue sharing dries up, the poor and unemployed find ever less succor in unemployment offices, job-training programs and Medicaid plans. Generating new jobs for them, and boosting their earning ability by retooling their job skills, is the only long-term answer.

During the 1930s, that was done through the training programs associated with a massive rebuilding job on the nation's infrastructure. That infrastructure is falling down again, since so many roads, major and minor bridges, public buildings, parks and recreation areas were built that long ago. The business environment economists are so concerned about will not be able to function well without those infrastructure repairs, anyway. And without a clear transition plan, the influx of hundreds of thousands of demobilized military personnel and their dependants into an already depressed labor market will wreak havoc.

Putting them and the displaced workers crowding our unemployment rolls to work rebuilding America would thus mitigate the dislocations the Cold War's end mandates in our economy.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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