When I worked in the defense industry a few decades ago (gulp), stories about $400 hammers and $800 toilet seats abounded in contracting. People thought we were all getting rich off of the military, but as I would patiently explain, the cost came from the fact that all of those stories left off a lot of context, such as the fact that those tools and parts had to be custom built to military specs, and in small quantities — which drove the unit costs out of sight. That was plainly inefficient and a good opportunity to reform some Pentagon practices, but no one was getting rich or building slush funds out of the process.
This one might be a little tougher to explain. CBS has received a Pentagon review of spending for top military leaders that shows a lavish amount of money being spent on their living quarters, but part of that — part, anyway — springs from their official duties:
Only late in the piece does CBS acknowledge that the housing for top military brass isn’t just housing. For many, the facilities are a pseudo-diplomatic facility as well as a place to bunk up. Military leaders at this level not only deal with troop readiness, but also considerable diplomatic and political duties, including meetings, entertaining, and so on. For that reason, and for others less noble, military leaders are usually provided with digs approximating consulate status while abroad, and even domestically, especially with security issues always in mind.
The framing of this story by CBS is less than intellectually honest — or even mathematically honest. Even with the rather significant spending noted in this story, it’s a drop in the bucket in comparison to the sequester that has perhaps forced pay cuts and furloughs in the Department of Defense. Even if we wiped out all of the 32 top brass living quarters mentioned in this story and assumed that Gen. John Kelly’s costs of $3.2 million over 25 years is average, that would save us $102.4 million over 25 years, or about $4.1 million a year. The sequester is $43 billion this year, and $85 billion the next nine years. We are talking about less than 1% of the sequester amount for this year, and that assumes we’d give each of these men a blanket roll and a Coleman stove and tell them to find some good camping ground on their own.
Does that mean we can’t save some money and scale back a bit? Of course. Just as with any kind of government spending, it’s easy to go overboard, but it’s usually not an issue of greed as much as it is tunnel vision and an insular environment creating requirements that don’t necessarily reflect reality. These men didn’t volunteer to serve the country to become wealthy, and deserve our respect as we peruse those costs more closely. These living quarters serve more than one purpose, though, and the costs are hardly a driver of our national debt.