Directly out of high school, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps; I will not mention the year, no need to date myself. Let us suffice to say it was a while ago. With the invention of Facebook came the opportunity to see what my fellow Marines have been up to, from the amazing to the mundane. Did I really know need to know that my friend was eating a burrito, probably not. Circulating around Facebook in this group of Marines has been an image of a soldier grieving his lost brother (where in brother I refer to another soldier) contrasted by an image of a particularly corpulent section of politicians in Congress, one looking half asleep. Below these dichotomous images is the statement, “Please, tell us how your job is more deserving of a paycheck than theirs?” The reaction that this image invokes from viewers is invariably peppered with slanderous statements reflecting deep loathing and anger at this misallocation of worth. As is the penchant of Facebook users, the image was shared and more outrage was expressed to a wider audience. Does the higher salary reflect the moral worth of each respective use? Alternatively, is there something more fundamental at play?
The first thing that came to my mind upon viewing the image? Well, I thought about the marginal value of each group; the marginal value of a soldier being considerably less than the marginal value of a Congressmen or Congresswoman. Let me explain, before my patriotism is questioned and I am slandered as a flaming liberal, (which for the record I am a Classical Liberal, but I refer to liberal using the common parlance of our times). There are plenty of people willing and qualified to sign up to fight and die for our country, especially in this current economic climate. This can be seen by the relative ease for which service recruiters find their applicants of late. There are fewer opportunities for this cohort of young, high school educated men and women outside of military service. Let us now consider the pool of willing and qualified candidates available to run for office for a Congressional seat. This pool of wiling and qualified individuals shrinks considerably. There are of course the enumerated legal requirements, but what about the tacit qualifications that the U.S. public expects? At a minimum we expect an older, college educated, experienced person who has proved himself or herself capable as a leader. Beyond these tacit requirements, we need to think about their opportunities outside of the “market” for Congressmen and soldiers. The Congressmen have shown themselves experienced outside the political arena, or perhaps in different facets within the political arena. The young, high school educated soldier? That cohort of individuals has far fewer opportunities that pay as well as an enlisted soldier with such generous tertiary benefits; the pride, healthcare, dental care, life insurance, and culture that the life of a service member provides. The marginal value of a soldier is comparatively low compared to the marginal value of a member of Congress. This sounds quite harsh and calculating, but it is a mere reflection of the facts in each case, each pool’s skill set, experience, and available opportunities outside the market for their respective jobs. As any introductory student of economics can tell you, it is at the margin where decisions are made. It is not a reflection of the moral superiority of one groups’ service compared to others’, but their “value” at the margin. Wisely, I did not reply with such an unpalatable discussion on Facebook. Not many enjoy the harsh truths that the study of economics sometimes revels.