Bleeding Talent is a Really Important Book

by Reihan Salam

I’ve been really delighted to see Tim Kane’s Bleeding Talent, a detailed look at personnel policy in the U.S. armed forces and how we might make it both more cost-effective and less coercive, get well-deserved attention. Fred Andrews praised it in the New York Times and Susan Adams gave a detailed account of its central arguments in Forbes:

The root of the problem, he says, is a 1980 law called the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA, which lays out exactly how leaders in all the services should be promoted. The law includes a progression track with strict rules and timetables. Compensation has nothing to do with merit, assignments have little to do with officers’ abilities and evaluations fail to give useful feedback or skills assessments. He describes officers always being promoted from second to first lieutenant and from lieutenant to captain, and often to major, no questions asked. “One would have to commit a felony or two to hinder his or her chances for promotion,” he writes.

There are also strict seniority rules for promotion to higher office like colonel or general, which require 20 years and 22 years, respectively. Then after just two years at the rank of general, an officer can retire with a full pension. The military never allows “lateral entry” from outside its forces, even among former officers who have taken time away from the service. If enlistees show extraordinary leadership potential, they must still abide by the lockstep timetable.

Kane believes this system stifles and ultimately chases away the most talented.

And so he proposes a radical alternative that I briefly described in a column published in November of last year:

Kane calls for transitioning from the Pentagon’s extremely rigid, seniority-based system of allocating jobs and promotions to what he calls a Total Volunteer Force (TVF) in which service members are given far more flexibility to shape their military careers. Among other things, Kane calls for greater specialization, an expansion of early promotion opportunities, allowing former officers to rejoin the active-duty military and giving commanders more freedom to hire as they see fit and officers the freedom to apply for jobs that suit them best. Kane argues that TVF will help the military retain talented personnel while also making them more effective. Ideally, TVF would allow the U.S. military to deliver substantially more bang for the buck. To have any hope of remaining a low-tax country with a social safety net, that is exactly what we need.

Kane’s Bleeding Talent is extremely because it allows policymakers to square a difficult circle. The case for “deep engagement” is as strong as ever. But fiscal constraints mean that it will be extremely difficult to increase military expenditures even as the cost of attracting and retaining high-quality personnel and countering the “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) warfare capabilities of potential rises. Reforming human capital policy affords the greatest opportunity to maintain and even expand the ability of the U.S. military to meet emerging threats while ensuring that its cost proves sustainable.

I was very pleased to see Veronique de Rugy draw attention to Kane’s book at The Corner. It is essential reading, and of particular relevance to right-of-center policy thinkers.