Are people in the military underpaid? That’s a topic talking heads and politicians score easy points with. As with most hot-button issues, the answer isn’t nearly as simple as most would have you believe.

It’s not enough for many service members to say they could earn more doing similar jobs on the outside: “A jet mechanic/computer technician/air traffic controller/private military contractor earns a ton of money!”

That might be true in some cases, though not as much as many claim. The reality is that most service members did not join the military with the training and expertise necessary to get jobs in those high-earning fields. The military gave that training to them. The real test is whether military personnel earn more or less than civilians with the same amount of education, and in most cases according to a 2011 Department of Defense compensation review report, the answer is that they earn more than their civilian peers.

But what about the sacrifice, long hours, and overseas deployments? You weren’t drafted. The fact that military personnel have been overseas lately isn’t exactly a national secret. Pay charts are publicly available. If deployments and combat are really dealbreakers, then we should see the majority leaving the military at the end of their contracts. But, we’re not — the military actually has to shed people involuntarily. This is what economists call “revealed preferences”: what people do (join and stay in) versus what they say (complaining about the job they just re-enlisted for).

The fair market price for a normal person to risk death, for example, is a ridiculous amount of money. So let’s be honest about something. Most of the people who join the military aren’t normal. For many service members, especially those in some of the more dangerous jobs, danger is a part of the compensation package. Infantrymen like shooting guns. Pilots like flying low. Combat engineers and explosive ordnance disposal technicians like watching things explode. Those sentiments, or similar ones, are what keep a lot of people in the military despite the hardships, or maybe because of the hardships. We need to stop whining that we want to get paid extra for the very things that drove us to join in the first place.

It comes down to the free market, one of the building blocks of American society. All a wage has to be is enough money to get qualified people to take the job. It’s not about morality, it’s about economics. It’s not moral that a professional athlete makes millions to battle on a playing field while troops get a relative pittance to battle on a battlefield, but morality has nothing to do with it. That athlete has a skill that people pay to watch. Troops don’t. It’s not fair, but as Michael Corleone said, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

The military can’t and shouldn’t pay any more than it needs to in order to keep the number and quality of people it needs. We are probably paying about the right amount in the aggregate. It’s just that the money is poorly spent. The military is not incentivizing the right things or the right people. An outstanding soldier who goes above and beyond the call of duty earns the same paycheck as one who is on the “retired on active duty” program.

With that in mind, the military pay system does need serious reform. Not for humanitarian reasons, but for practical ones. Military pay is based on a system of equality that that makes the Soviet Union look like a meritocracy.

Today, save for housing allowances based on location and a limited number of special pays, our compensation system is based on rank and time in service. The rank part at least makes some sense. Generally speaking, more rank means more responsibility and correlates to the pay scheme most commonly found in the private sector. The longevity part, however, is just stupid: Why do we give pay raises just because someone has successfully breathed for two more years? It’s paying more money just for being around, not for better performance or more work. The key people the military most needs to motivate monetarily are not the new joins or senior personnel, but the mid-grade non-commissioned and officers who are on the fence about long-term careers and are at the top of their games as military professionals.

Congress needs to authorize the military to flatten out the differences in pay by longevity and give the freedom to use the savings as performance and incentive pay. As with any competitive venture, the services need the ability to experiment with incentive structures and compete for the best people.

Perhaps the Army wants to ensure that it keeps quality small-unit leaders, so it gives the extra money to non-commissioned officers in leadership billets. If the Air Force wants a more highly educated service, it can pay incentives for earning advanced degrees and certifications. Maybe the Navy wants to give bonuses to those getting top-ranked fitness reports. If the Marine Corps cares as much about physical conditioning and military appearance as it says, let it blow its money rewarding 300 scores on Physical Fitness Tests and perfect uniform inspections. Make services put their money where their mouths are and incentivize what they believe is most important.

As the services get used to having monetary incentives available, they could decentralize that authority and allow commanders and manpower managers to use them in achieving organizational goals. That formerly hard-to-fill collateral duty just got a bunch of volunteers, as did that billet in Diego Garcia.

If the military really wants to make things interesting, it could standardize the interservice transfer process and let the services compete directly against each other for people. In certain fields, the military could even take civilian experts, and give them warrant or specialist ranks, but with appropriate incentive pay. Cyberwarfare is an important emerging field, but do you think the top cybersecurity experts in the United States are joining the military and not Google? We might not be able to match the private-sector salary dollar for dollar, but offer a little patriotism and adventure plus a wage that isn’t horrible and some truly gifted people might sign up.

Is that making us mercenaries? No more than before. We already try to use some market systems, such as re-enlistment bonuses; however, they’re so inefficient and clumsy it’s like doing eye surgery with a machete.

The present-day military is no longer an industrial-age conscript force. We’re an information-age, volunteer force and need a pay system suited for the 21st century, not the 19th. Allow the market to work and watch both individuals and the services start to truly perform.

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