- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 13, 2005

Stryker brigades fit for duty

I would like to respond to the opinions Col. Douglas A. MacGregor voiced in his letter to the editor (“Army transformation,” Friday).

First, as a commander of a reconnaissance troop in the Stryker brigade, I do not view myself as the leader of a “SWAT” team, as Col. MacGregor describes Stryker brigades. No offense to the members of those great organizations, but the mission I am trained to handle is far more complex. I am charged with conducting “full-spectrum operations,” meaning everything from peacekeeping to high-intensity conflicts. Stryker brigades demonstrated the capability to accomplish these missions on multiple occasions in Iraq. True, there were days spent doing presence patrols of Mosul or handing out school supplies to needy children. But many days were spent conducting successful, productive raids on the homes and businesses of insurgents, as well as other direct-action operations.

Col. MacGregor asserts that the “Army’s generals have kept the Stryker land-combat vehicle out of urban fighting in places such as Fallujah and Najaf, where they would have sustained serious losses.” To my knowledge, Col. MacGregor is correct that there were no Stryker units in those operations, but he’s wrong on the reason why. When U.S. forces launched the offensives to retake those towns from insurgents, the battle-hardened, more experienced Stryker unit — the first Stryker brigade — had just been sent home after a year in Iraq. The replacement unit — the second Stryker brigade — had only been on the ground for less than a month. It was still in the process of becoming familiar with the situation and the conduct of missions there.

As far as the belief that the Stryker would have sustained serious losses if placed in urban combat, I look to personal experience to refute this statement. While conducting escort operations in Baghdad, my convoy came under a well-coordinated combined-arms ambush: small arms, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortars. Intense fighting was sustained for some eight to 10 minutes — a very long time by close-combat standards — without the loss of any U.S. or coalition forces or vehicles. The insurgents lost multiple fighters that day. It was the last serious attack on a Stryker-escorted logistics convoy that I know of until we left Baghdad in early August 2004.

A second and more telling ambush took place in Mosul on Sept. 5, 2004. This ambush include between 50 and 65 insurgents attacking one of my reconnaissance platoons — which consists of four Strykers — with no less than 100 rocket-propelled grenades, small arms and improvised explosive devices. Several of the Strykers took multiple RPG shots and continued to roll. Two RPGs hit the gunshield of a Stryker vehicle, causing superficial wounds to the trooper behind it. Remarkably, the trooper continued to fight and earned an Army Commendation Medal with a “V” for valor for his actions in heavy urban combat.

In my opinion — and, I’m sure, in that of many others — the Stryker is a keeper.


Commander, C Troop 1-14 Cavalry

Ft. Lewis, Wash.

On Social Security, no free lunch

My colleague Timothy J. Penny writes that opponents of President Bush’s Social Security proposals are setting up and knocking down straw men (” ‘Straw men’ delay debate,” Commentary, Thursday). Unfortunately, Mr. Penny’s arguments trivialize disagreements about these proposals in a way that is not likely to lead to constructive debate over their merits.

First, and most important, he misreads the debate over “privatizing.” The word has long been used to describe Social Security proposals just like the president’s. (Indeed, the Bush administration itself used the word until recently.) However, the relevant debate is not about whether the program becomes legally private under Mr. Bush’s proposal. Those who take discussion about Social Security systems seriously recognize that the word signals, for better or worse, a fundamental difference in the nature of the system.

That fundamental difference is in the balance between risk and return. The current Social Security system offers Americans a low-risk baseline retirement income. That is the insurance aspect of social insurance. Proposals to partially or fully privatize the system offer the possibility of higher retirement income on average, but with the risk that it will turn out to be lower than under the existing system. History suggests that retirees probably could have higher income if some of their Social Security dollars were invested in, say, Standard & Poor’s 500, but their income might turn out to be lower. Mr. Penny argues that the risk would be low. Perhaps it would be acceptably low, but it without a doubt, it would be higher than it is now.

As Milton Friedman famously quipped, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Anybody who weighs in on Social Security should recognize this basic fact of economics. The debate should not be over the meaning of “privatize,” but whether the trade-off of return for risk is worthwhile for most future Social Security recipients. How much insurance do we want in our social insurance?

Second, one could wish for more common sense and less posturing from all parties about the word “crisis” and the reality of the system’s problems. There is a long-term imbalance between contributions and benefits, which will be more painful to fix if we wait until 2007 and still more painful if we wait until 2012. Realistic proposals such as the one offered by Peter Diamond and Peter Orzag make this perfectly clear, while retaining Social Security as Americans’ low-risk baseline retirement income. In other words, there is no free lunch for the opponents of the president’s proposals, either.

However, the Social Security system is not going to be bankrupt or insolvent, or “experience a cash-flow crunch” by 2018, as Mr. Penny and others assert. That is when benefits will first exceed contributions, according to the 2004 Social Security Trustees annual report. At that point, the Social Security system will start asking Congress and the president to begin to repay all the money they borrowed from our contributions to finance big government and tax cuts. This turning point probably will be the start of a “cash-flow crunch,” but it won’t be a crunch for Social Security. It will be a crunch for the federal budget.

The real time of reckoning occurs, in Mr. Penny’s words, “a few short decades” from now, in 2042, when, again according to its trustees, the Social Security system will be out of money except for contributions still flowing into the system. These will be enough to fund just 73 percent of benefits. That’s a long time from now. The situation might not be so bad. Or it might be worse.

One thing is sure: The young taxpayers of 2042 will legitimately ask us why we did not do something about it in 2005. Or 2010. Or 2020. Americans would greatly appreciate it if Congress, the president and pundits would stop using scare tactics (or take their heads out of the sand, as appropriate), recognize the problem for what it is, and debate the real merits of different approaches to solve it. And don’t wait until 2040 to do it.


Associate professor

Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs

University of Minnesota


Slavery was uneconomical

Thomas Sowell is right: the first serious and successful abolitionist movement arose in 18th-century Britain (“The essential Lincoln … ending slavery,” Saturday, Commentary). Not coincidentally, it was also there and then that free markets first took deep roots and blossomed into the Industrial Revolution. In just a few generations, that revolution freed the masses, slave and non-slave alike, from the ages-old grip of unfathomable poverty.

It’s also no coincidence that classical economists, who explained and applauded free markets, forthrightly opposed slavery. So outspoken were economists that in 1849, the pro-slavery Thomas Carlyle excoriated them as practicing “the dismal science.” In using that term he was alluding to the dark and foreboding future he feared would result from abolition.

Me, I’m proud to be a dismal scientist.


Chairman, Department of Economics

George Mason University


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