Nothing says thank you for your sacrifices and service like making service members spend more money, especially if they’re overseas. That’s right, as a reward to service members, within weeks of Memorial Day remembrance of our fallen, the Senate Armed Services Committee has decided to propose every service member spend more money for less return, in the name of “savings” that are minimal at best, at the behest of the Executive branch.
If you’re unfamiliar with the commissary and exchange systems, the US military maintains a series of stores on virtually every base, both in the continental United States and at bases overseas. These stores ensure that service members can get food at a rational price, which is handled by base commissaries. You can think of the base or post exchange, commonly called the BX or PX, as the base Walmart selling consumer goods. There’s a running joke that the only savings you can get in an AAFES, the Army/Air Force BX, is not going…which should give you some indication of what increasing removal of subsidies for shipping and further press for profit margin in the exchange system has already been doing. The sole benefit to the exchange is now the fact that it is tax free; it is almost invariably cheaper, even with overseas shipping, to order goods from Amazon, Home Depot, or Lowes.
What has Congress done? Well, the basic exchange and commissary system used to work like this: the government purchased, shipped and then sold goods at just above their net price to service members. Over the last fifty years or so, due to complaints from domestic and foreign businesses surrounding bases about being undercut and not getting “their fair share” of money from military members, the individuals on this same commission decided to get things changed so that there was a significant profit margin in these systems. This raised costs for service members, which in turn required increasing pay to make up for the deficit. The only benefit that remained at that point was not having to pay taxes, which quite often does not balance out. That’s important to remember, because every time we’ve adjusted this system, we’ve hosed service members for a few years and then wound up paying them more to compensate, because no one is going to willingly do 4 years, much less 20, while having their family live off of ramen noodles like starving college students.
What is Congress doing? There’s been a consistent and increasing push to privatize the commissary and exchange systems. Since they haven’t been able to pull this off, they’ve effectively aimed towards removing the primary stumbling blocks to the objective of privatization: the subsidies that pay for shipping goods. The effect of this is that service members outside the United States, Hawaii and Alaska included, will see prices for anything from fresh produce to dog food skyrocket. Fresh produce, sensitive electronics and other products requiring temperature control will quite likely simply stop being available.
This means that service members overseas could quite likely be looking forward to being dependent on local stores for access to goods, as they will be able to undercut base prices. Furthermore, this becomes an operational hazard if natural disaster or conventional conflict breaks out. For example, Guam, Okinawa and Japan see regular typhoons through most of the year and service members would be largely reliant on local markets to secure goods at a reasonable rate. The Senate committee would cut $322M/year from the budget by removing these subsidies, but will economically see more cost in having to adjust COLA and even basic pay to make up for the impacts to service members. In other words, the country will save nothing, destabilize its overseas operations reliability and effectively make the lives of service members hell for at least a few years. This also doesn’t simply affect active duty members, but also family members of the fallen, retirees and medical retirees that have earned their benefits through service.
Keep in mind, this is the same government that approves of spending $50,000/yr on investigating if sea monkeys’ churning water changes how the ocean flows. Happy Memorial Day.