Those considered successful in America seem, at least superficially, to cover a fairly broad spectrum: the business entrepreneur, the pop star, the professional athlete, perhaps a surgeon. Yet while their success derives from very different activities, one feature they all share in common is wealth. To be successful in America means to be rich, and much of our culture is monomaniacally focused on getting rich.
There is one major subset of Americans for whom this is not the case, who have not put making money at the center of their lives: service members. And it shows: Many retired service members are not doing well once they enter the private sector. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said at a Brookings Institution event last month, “If you go into the military at age 18—versus an identical person who stays in the private sector and takes a private sector job—10 years later, if you leave the military, your skills and wages are probably not going to be as quite as high on average as the private-sector person.” Living as we do in a climate where to say anything that could be vaguely construed as “anti-troop” is anathema, his remarks were quite controversial.
To give some context, the subject of the Brookings event was “defense spending and its economic impacts,” and Bernanke’s comments were referring to the cost of maintaining a 1.4 million-person military—which he believes could be offset by better training service members to enter the workforce once they leave the military. In making his case, Bernanke specifically referenced the average unemployment rate of 7 percent for vets returning to the private sector, higher than the national average of 5.3 percent. If veterans were better able to contribute to the general economy once they separated from the service, America could more efficiently maintain a large military. The case that Bernanke is making might seem cold and removed, but it’s a characteristically unsentimental argument coming as it does from one of the nation’s top economists.