by Edward Humes (Hardcover, 2006)|
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
The GI Bill following World War II was one of the
largest, and most expensive, pieces of social legislation in US history. Was
that good or bad? Don't answer that question until you have read
have become accustomed to using the words "failure" and "government"
together, and it seems the federal government goes to great lengths to
ensure we keep doing that. We are all familiar with federal agencies, bureaus, and
programs that epitomize incompetence, stupidity, corruption, and waste.
not everything the federal government does is a failure. Talk to any
veteran who is receiving healthcare from the Veterans
Administration today, and you'll realize that, yes, the federal government can
actually do some things right. But you would be hard-pressed to find a
better example of something done right than the original GI Bill.
Humes interviewed WWII veterans
who received various benefits from the GI Bill. Those veterans provided
fascinating accounts of something the government actually got right. Humes wove these accounts into a larger narrative,
so we can see what brought the GI Bill about. We can also understand and
appreciate the profound changes it brought to America.
Humes' adroit authoring resulted in an informative book that is a
pleasure to read.
Though well-written, this book contains some errors.
The errors involve economics and
mathematics, which aren't normally the bailiwick of someone with Humes'
background as a journalist. Since he chose to write in these areas
(errantly) anyhow, I have summarized the errors here:
- Humes mistakenly
defines the taxes of Americans in terms of the published federal income
tax rates. This narrow view grossly understates the typical
American tax burden. It ignores the dozens of other taxing mechanisms.
For example, there are 127 different taxes in the price of a single loaf of
bread. Did you know that the tax on an airline ticket can be a third
or more of its price? Taxes appear to be more abundant than
Looking at only one form of taxation as being
the form of taxation is intellectually disabling.
This "blinders on" approach leads to false comparisons of the tax
burdens among nations, allowing bad public policy to escape
scrutiny. Citizens of the United States, a debtor nation, pay
higher taxes than do citizens of other industrialized nations. You can
calculate the extent of the damage by looking at how much the US government spends.
You just need to understand
that money to pay for this spending comes out of taxpayers' hides (the pockets were emptied
long ago) one way or another. Despite wishful thinking, money does
not grow on trees.
- Humes talks of the "massive tax cuts" that
allegedly took place over the past few years. It's unfortunate that
Humes parroted this political rhetoric. Those "tax cuts" are
just another example of giving a little with the one hand and taking
much with the
In reality, we have suffered an enormous
increase in our tax burden over the past decade. The bulk of this
increase occurred in recent years. Government
spending is been at record levels, and the money thus burned has to come from
somewhere--that "somewhere" is, via one route or another, the citizen. When the citizen has to
surrender money to the
government, that is called "taxes." Ergo, taxes have gone up. Way
- One way the government
"taxes without taxing" is it borrows. But the borrowing is huge and
it has a dramatic and negative effect on the capital markets. Due to
the law of supply and demand (Economics 101), it hugely raises the cost of capital, which you pay for
(dearly) in the
prices of the products and services you buy. Look again at the one-third
direct tax on the typical airline ticket and add in this indirect
tax, and you start to get the picture of just how massive the tax
load is for an American citizen. But it's only a start.
- Another way the government
"taxes without taxing" is it expands the money supply. This lowers
the value of every dollar you have (if ever so briefly), but allows the government
to pay its bills in dollars that have less value to the recipient.
We call this form of taxation "inflation." How big is this
tax? The $20 bill you put in your pocket in 1980 is worth less than
Imagine going to the store and being told that all prices are
quadrupled just for you. Or imagine what it's like to have someone
come into your home and steal 3 out of every 4 items you own. That's
what the government does to you by putting more money in
circulation. If not for inflation, that last airline ticket you
bought would have cost less than one-fourth as much as it did. And
that includes the huge portion of it that is simply a direct tax.
Take all the taxes out, and that $400 airline ticket would
run you about 36 bucks. In short, the actual price you pay is pretty
much a rounding error compared to the tax component.
- Humes says that President Bush inherited a budget surplus, but
that is a meaningless and misleading bit of information. A budget
surplus is easy to
achieve--just do what President Clinton did and move expenditures off
budget until you get the "budget surplus" you want. You
can increase spending and produce a budget surplus simultaneously--the two
actions do not share a dependency. As an example, consider people
who have a gambling addition. They put the gambling "off budget" but
wind up deep in debt anyhow. The federal government has a similar
addiction to frivolous spending, with similar results.
Fortunately, economics and mathematics are not
core issues of the book. Humes shines when he presents what the GI Bill did,
what it was, and what it accomplished. I especially appreciate
the way he brings out the historical context. Too often, authors leave
out the context and thus diminish the value of their work.
It's better to understand and apply history than to repeat it. Humes'
attention to context helps the reader truly understand.
Providing the historical context accurately is a
formidable task. Doing so when covering the GI Bill is no small feat.
Remember the periods over which this took place--the Great Depression, World War II, the
Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam, and on up to the present. These have been
periods of great upheaval, socially and institutionally. As various
factions have fought for dominance, they have generated propaganda and misinformation
that nearly drown out the facts.
Humes did a great job of exposing the racial issues
that influenced how the GI Bill was drafted, enacted, and executed. It may be hard
for the younger reader to grasp just how obsessed people were with skin color
during World War II and in the first three decades after it (or the
centuries before it). Humes brought this out without being condescending on the one had, and
without minimizing the ugliness on the other hand.
haggled fanatically over the GI Bill as the end of WWII approached,
purportedly to better serve the national interests. But none
of this haggling was due to concern over the federal budget or any other
national concern, despite the rhetoric
people were spewing at the time. The driving force was racial
resulting mistreatment was often extreme.
Despite the way they had been mistreated at home, those
people whose skin had the "wrong" color performed remarkably well in the
war. But many people today still are not aware of, for example, the respect the German pilots had for the black
aviators, whose planes had special markings. Humes' account of this is
nicely told. The subject, of course, goes much deeper (in this book, as well as in other sources).
In preparation for this review, I interviewed people
who lived in Germany during the war and who encountered American troops
at its conclusion. One German family had lived in their basement while German
soldiers lived upstairs, then later lived in their basement while
American soldiers lived upstairs. A woman now in her 90s told me, "The
black American soldiers distinguished themselves with excellent conduct.
They were very polite and respectful. They were gentlemen, and they
made me feel safe for the first time in a long time." All of the
interviewees held similarly high opinions of the black GIs they had met.
But these "wrong color" Americans returned home to find themselves still
disenfranchised and mistreated by their fellow citizens. They
also found, as Humes revealed, their rights under the GI Bill greatly
reduced or denied to them altogether. Humes ferreted out the facts to present the
non-revisionist picture of exactly what went on, and who was behind it.
Humes peeled back the layers of this particular onion so we could see the
complex and often invisible machinations of people obsessed with abusing
other people based on skin color.
And that's just touching on the racial issues. The
astute reader can pick up at least a dozen other contextual "fibers" in
the book. All of these form a framework that allows the story of the GI
Bill to take shape and make sense. Humes did his homework, and it shows.
I could mention Humes' coverage of another
victim class: women. But I will leave that for the reader of this review
to explore in the book itself. The parallels to, and the differences from, the racial misdeeds are
A college education
was available only to the elite class before World War II. But the GI
millions of the Depression-era poor to obtain a college education after
the war. Most of the children of these GIs grew up in single-family,
homes (the GI Bill is why we have suburbs, today) and also obtained college educations.
Humes delves into many areas to show us how the GI Bill changed the very
culture and fabric of society. For example, most of the people who directly benefited from
this government largesse in the 1940s and 1950s would later hold
worldview that less government is better government. Is that hypocrisy?
To answer that question, Humes discusses it in context.
The teens who went to
war in World War II had grown up with nothing. Then the government put them
in the military, where they were constantly being told to what do and
then sent off to miserable and dangerous war. After the war, they went to college or
trade school at night, working long hours to have something to call
their own. Then along
came the government with taxes that ate away at earnings and regulations
that ate away at freedom. So, it's logical that this demographic, in
general, would not be disposed toward liking big government, big
brother, or a nanny state. But this is also a generation very conscious
of money, because they came through the Great Depression. Go back to the
basic math we looked at earlier, and it makes sense that this generation
objects to having their pockets picked so voraciously.
To see another example of the effect of the GI Bill, just look at the long lead the USA had in science and
technology for the decades following the war. Humes explains how this
came about, and what factors contributed to it (in addition to the GI
If you've visited Japan (or any of several other nations)
recently, you've noticed the USA no longer leads the world in technology.
In fact, it has fallen behind in many areas. A November 2006 article on
cell phones, for example, revealed that the top nine models aren't even
available in the USA. Many other areas of technology follow a similar
"loss of lead" pattern.
For a clue as to where the
USA fits overall (not just technology), consider one statistic: life expectancy.
Americans are ranked somewhere between 40th place and 50th place among
nations (the statistic varies by source and methodology). My opinion is this
decline is due to such factors as the
"normal" obsession with overeating (which has resulted in a obesity
epidemic) and the stress of all the hours we work just to pay our
outrageously high taxes. The latter may be the cause of the former.
GI Bill 2
Because the GI Bill was so transformational at the middle of the previous
century, there's been speculation that something similar is needed now.
It's unlikely this great experiment in socialism would be accepted today.
Americans generally are suffering from statism fatigue, so yet
another huge dose of it could be the straw that breaks the camel's
back--no matter how beneficial it might be.
Even so, Humes puts forth some ideas on how GI Bill 2 might work. We'd
have to suspend his contextual way of looking at things to find these
ideas applicable to today's world.
Indeed, if we apply Hume's contextual observations of the post-war era to
today, we can see that the kind of solution we need lies in the other
direction. That is, it lies in rolling back our massive government
rather than expanding it further. Yes, the GI Bill was a massive
investment, rather than a welfare program or pork barrel "re-elect me"
burning of tax dollars. But that was in a very different era, and the
federal government of the time was far smaller than the unaffordable
monstrosity that is dragging us down today.
We can clearly trace the cause of our decline to massive federal overspending
on waste). Repeat after me, "Money does not grow on trees...." To
afford GI Bill 2, we would need to drastically cut current federal
overspending. We must do the same, if we are going to restore our crumbling
infrastructure. We would need to fund the costs of those essentials
before considering GI Bill 2.
From a political point of view, bringing federal spending down to a
sensible or affordable level is impossible. That's because pork
barrel spending is the means by which politicians earn their keep from
those who put them in office. The more they waste, the more secure their
jobs are. Imagine if you could keep your job, with an automatic pay
raise each year, by robbing the homes of your company's shareholders. That's
what members of Congress do to keep their
jobs--they rob your home via higher taxes, direct or indirect.
There are only a few small groups begging legislators for some
mercy toward the people who are fleeced to pay for the massive
overspending. But there are hundreds of powerful lobbyists pressuring
legislators to misallocate your money--and rewarding them for doing so.
From a practical point of view, reducing spending to a sensible and
affordable level is easy because most of the spending isn't needed. The
idea of "making tough choices" doesn't apply, because there are so many
easy ones to make first.
Some sources say 99% of federal spending isn't needed, and other sources
provide lower estimates. In any case, the amount of unneeded spending
dwarfs the amount of spending that serves any legitimate purpose or does
the average citizen any good.
The federal government is 185 times larger than it was a century ago, and
the debt it has saddled us with is astronomical. Yet, our so-called
representatives ignore such
"low-hanging fruit" solutions as eliminating costly agencies that serve no
legitimate purpose. Let's consider an example, next.
The United States spends more on its military than the next five nations
combined, while the IRS has more employees than all of our military has
soldiers and sailors combined. Yet, the IRS is just another, extremely
expensive, layer of taxing
that is redundant to other taxing bodies. This massive army that strikes
terror into the heart of innocent citizens while consuming vast
quantities of tax dollars to do so could be replaced by a
single harmless employee who simply coordinates and tracks payments from the 50
states. We could do this easily, if we went back to apportionment.
Having an IRS is like turning on all of your stovetop burners to heat one
small pan--just a senseless waste of resources (with the added catch you
also pour boiling water on your foot). Nobody
with any common sense would turn on all four burners just to heat
one small pan. Similarly, common sense mandates to Congress and the Senate that they put an end to
the IRS with all due haste. They could then put the billions of dollars
saved to a worthwhile use.
The fact we still have an IRS shows how
irresponsible the Congress and the Senate are. Trusting them with a GI
Bill 2 is dicey, at best. But the issue is moot because the
profligate spending has made any new spending unaffordable.
Senseless waste is institutionalized in dozens of federal agencies
and programs, most of which we would not miss if they were simply
eliminated. Cleaning up that mess would free up enormous financial capital that
could be used in something worthwhile like a second GI Bill. The thought
If you can disregard Humes' tax analysis and pseudo-economics, and if you
can put his GI Bill 2 proposals
in the proper context, you will enjoy this book and benefit from
reading it. Understanding one of the major forces that shaped modern
life can provide many lessons for us. Thanks to Humes, those lessons come with
fascinating stories and some plain old good reading.