Astonishingly Liberal

Well, that’s done. Your humble correspondent is the newest certified walking tour docent at the Pima Air & Space Museum. My certification tour yesterday went pretty well, except for the part where I blanked on who won the toss for first flight, Orville or Wilbur, but I  finessed it by simply saying “they took turns” and trying to look like I knew what I was talking about.

I am now duly blessed … cleared solo as we say in the biz … and for the rest of the summer, Wednesday mornings are mine, all mine!  Er, why do I suddenly feel like one of the kids Tom Sawyer talked into whitewashing that fence?

Of course all my colleagues at the museum are knowledgeable and entertaining, but if you’re in Tucson and planning to visit the museum, I hope you do it on a Wednesday.  I’d love to show you around.  I love what I’m doing … and god knows I need the practice!

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What else is new?  I mentioned our ongoing recliner hunt on Facebook and said that we want one that looks like a chair, not some blobby trailer-park fat man beanbag.  Advice ensued.  We should buy a Barcalounger.  A La-Z-Boy.  It should be leather.  No, fabric.  All good give and take, until one of my beloved siblings suggested that what I really need is an Easy-Lift chair.  Jesus, am I that decrepit?  That’s it, sister … you’re out of my will!

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I’ve mentioned before how the military, from the outside a formidably conservative institution, is on the inside not only liberal but downright socialist.  I was glad to see a Nicholas Kristof editorial about this in yesterday’s New York Times.  I’ll summarize some main points in case you can’t follow the link:

  • The military leads the way in racial and gender integration (not quite there yet on gays, but working on it)
  • It provides housing and child care for military families and single members with children
  • It provides graduate and postgraduate-level professional training
  • It provides off-duty civilian educational opportunities for all, including dependent family members
  • It eliminates the gross income disparities of civilian and corporate life, with top generals and admirals earning no more than ten times what lower-ranking members earn
  • In spite of comparatively low pay, the military attracts and retains some of the nation’s best and brightest
  • In-house military medical care, the military Tricare medical insurance program for retirees, and Veterans’ Administration hospitals and clinics are arguably the best and most efficient medical institutions and programs in the country today

Kristof only touched on a few aspects of the military’s European-style socialist lifestyle.  Here are a few more, from my own experience:

  • The military provides its members a living wage, paid vacations, housing, food, clothing, legal and medical care
  • It provides promotion opportunities at regular intervals
  • It pays moving expenses and offers housing and pay allowances in high cost of living areas
  • It provides generous retirement pensions and lifelong medical care for career members
  • It takes care of its wounded and disabled, career members or not, for life

I’ll go on to say that of all American public institutions, the only one that’s universally respected today is the military.  Teachers, fire fighters, and the police are under attack everywhere, facing pay cuts, layoffs, and privatization efforts.  No one will give a civil servant the time of day.  But soldiers, sailors, and airmen are cheered in airports across the country.  No one is suggesting pay cuts; no one is suggesting that General Electric or Wal-Mart take over our national defense.

Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, earns less than $228,000 a year; Gregory Maffei, CEO of Liberty Media Corporation, earns more than $87 million a year … yet no one suggests the military will lose its top leaders to the corporate world if we don’t increase executive compensation.  Military physicians earn 20-40% less than their civilian counterparts … yet military medical programs are acknowledged as the best in the country, and a model for policymakers seeking to improve civilian medical care.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop with a story.

In the 1980s, when I was on the joint staff  of the US Special Operations Command at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida, Donna and I became friends with a civilian couple our age.  He was an entrepreneur of some sort, a real hustler and go-getter, earning tons of money … enough to set his wife up with her own nail salon in a ritzy part of Tampa.  I, of course, was a lowly USAF major, earning probably less than $50,000 a year including flight pay, and Donna was a housewife.  Nevertheless the four of us were close and held one another in high regard.  We admired their willingness to work hard and make better lives for themselves; they admired our old-fashioned lifestyle and our ethic of serving our country.

As our friends edged closer to their goal of earning a dollar a year … their slang for a million bucks … their values changed.  I knew our friendship was over the day the husband asked me if I was done fooling around with the military and ready to go earn some real money.  Everything he’d valued in me before … my service to our country, my mastery of highly technical skills, my desire to lead and command men in combat, my dedication to non-monetary goals … was suddenly just the stuff of “fooling around.”  The only measure of manhood had become making a dollar a year.

So I’m not naively assuming the military will always be respected, or that the institution I proudly served is invulnerable to the general disrespect and harrying assault tearing down other public institutions and the lives and careers of public employees.  Republicans, and a goodly number of Democrats, have bought into the idea that there’s nothing the government can do that private enterprise can’t do better, and that good pay, stable careers, defined pensions, education, and medical care are unaffordable luxuries.  One of these days fiscal conservatives, deficit hawks, and culture warriors are going to cotton to the fact that the military, in Kristof’s words, lives and operates with an “astonishingly liberal ethos,” and the spotlight will swing in our direction.  I hope the military leadership is prepared and ready to defend itself.

© 2011, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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One thought on “Astonishingly Liberal

  • BRAVO! Excellent essay that I absolutely love. I still think military service should be renamed “National Service” (as in UK) and that it should be universal and compulsory (but I repeat myself). It should also encompass the Peace Corps and Vista programs, providing non-combatant services for those who object to war. A minimal stint would be two years, ideally those two oft-lost years after high school. If you really want a career, after your two-year stint, you can sign up for real. Personally, I’d love to have gone the Prince William (now Duke of Cambridge) route and become a chopper pilot for the Coast Guard.

    Re: recliners. I only suggested you LOOK at La-z-Boy. Whenever I need a big ticket (non-computer) item, I always check Consumer Reports. Membership is only about $30 a year, and it’s saved me at least that much for every year of membership, and I’m confident I’m buying the best product for the amount I’m willing to spend. I generally shy away from leather ever since the day a friend’s leather couch I was sleeping on in New York dumped me unceremoniously onto the floor. Also, I have kitties with very sharp claws. When I go into a furniture store, I usually end up saying things like, “Oh, look! Here’s a kitty scratching post shaped like a $3000 leather sofa.” Besides, leather is always more expensive and oddly sweaty.

    For computer items, I always check PC Magazine’s Editors’ Choice site. I’ve been using that service for at least twenty years, and it was how I convinced the Dept. of Education to buy various products, back when I was a Mac guru and general IT drudge while also being an Education Research and Evaluation Consultant (way above the IT drudge pay level). The consultant part of me had to wear nice clothes (it coincided with my thin, clothes-horse period), stockings and heels. Unfortunately, the IT durdge had to wear the same outfits while climbing around under desks looking for faults like flaws in a Mac printer network. On the day I tracked down a printer network problem to one tiny RJ11 plug which had one even tinier piece of brass connector that was just an eensy-weensy bit out of alighnment with the others, I very politely put the plug (which I had, of course, repaired, as I always had a network repair kit with me) on my boss’s desk and said, “Get yourself an IT drudge. I quit.”

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