Incentives?

Anyone working on a college campus will tell you that there is a graduate student divide. This is particularly striking in fields with a technical component. That used to mean just engineering and science, but increasingly it means the social sciences as well. I recently proposed we recruit only Indian students to TA our English classes since they seem to be able to write so much better than students educated in the US.

I’ve gotten off track. What I meant to say is that there is a problem. Foreign students are much more likely to be both technologically and mathematically literate, and bilingual. It used to be a Ph.D. in the social sciences required fluency in two languages in addition to English. Recently, language requirements at the graduate level and at the undergraduate level have disappeared or been ignored, at just the moment the ability to communicate globally is more important.

Luckily, the federal government has a plan: draft those students who can speak a second language or work with a computer. What!? I guess market-based solutions are great when they work, but otherwise, we’ll force those who are more able to serve to give up private sector marketing of their skills and show their patriotism by translating the marching orders of foreign armies. Now, I guess in some ways this is better than the drafted troops of the Vietnam era that over-represented the under-educated.

But how about other solutions? First, be more accepting of gays, especially in intelligence. One of the reasons for the shortage of Arabic speakers is waves of purges of gay soldiers and civilian workers. We could extend this to hyperbole by saying that intolerance of gays in the US led to 9/11.

This is really only a corner of the issue, though. The better way to go would be (gasp!) to pay for linguists and computer-savvy folks to join the military. The culture of the military often makes it less attractive to those who are used to free-thinking environs, so they would need also to establish free-thinking enclaves. This sounds bizarre, but military-funded labs often provide spaces for creative thought–it seems like a similar model could be followed in intelligence.

Of course, most of what they are looking for here are not those who will live within the sheltered existence of a lab, but who can settle disputes “on the ground” among those who do not speak English, and who can do tech support when a network crash means that important information isn’t being communicated. Again, I don’t see why a market-oriented approach isn’t made here. If you pay them, they will come. If you offer the average soldier increased pay and free training, the need for a draft diminishes.

Of course, one of the best ways of attracting such recruits would be to reduce the danger of being shot in a foreign land while increasing pay. Is that such a strange idea?

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3 Comments

  1. Luke
    Posted 3/14/2004 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    OK, pet peeve — why is anyone who speaks a foreign language called a “linguist” as soon as they join the military? Or does this word actually refer to people who study linguistics, ie syntax, phonology, semantics, etc?

  2. alex
    Posted 3/14/2004 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Good question. I’m not very in touch with military naming on this issue, but is that really the deal. I got the feeling that soldiers who were bi-lingual and “on the ground” in other positions were not called linguists, but that those in intelligence and others who were in the position of translating and summarizing non-English texts into English were termed “linguists.” I guess somewhere in the corner of my mind, I always identified military linguists with folks in an NSA basement somewhere actually trying to apply computational linguistics to machine translation, but it’s clear from the article that this isn’t what military “linguists” do. I suspect it has a lot to do with entrenched bureaucracy: that’s what they’ve always been called, so…

  3. Alex
    Posted 3/14/2004 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    This just came on my random shuffle, and it seemed apropos:

    “When Ya Get Drafted” (Dead Kennedys)

    Are you believing the morning papers?
    War is coming back in style
    There’s generals here, advisors there
    And Russians nibbling everywhere
    The chessboard’s filling up with red
    We make more profits when we blow off their heads

    Economy is looking bad
    Let’s start another war when ya get drafted
    Fan the fires of racist hatred
    We want total war when ya get drafted

    Drooling fingers
    Panic buttons
    Playing with missiles like they’re toys
    There’s easy money, easy jobs
    Especially when you build the bombs
    That blow big cities off the map
    Just guess who profits when we build ’em back up
    Yeah, what Big Business wants Big Business gets

    It wants a war when ya get drafted
    Trilateral Commission goonies laugh
    and scheme for more when ya get drafted
    Call the Army!
    Call the Navy!
    Stocked with kids from slums when ya get drafted
    If you can’t afford a slick attorney
    We might make you a spy

    Forget your demonstrations
    Kids today sit on their ass when ya get drafted
    Just a six-pack
    And you’re happy
    We’re prepared
    For when ya get drafted

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