October 13, 2012

Reagan's hidden historical advantage over Carter: the military enlistment exam misnorming fiasco of 1976-80

Many people who lived through the 1970s recall a pervasive sense of national cruddiness. American cars were lousy, our greatest city, New York, seemed to be falling apart when not being actively torched for the fire insurance money, and perhaps most alarmingly, our military didn't seem up to the job as the Soviets became increasingly bold. Perhaps the nadir was the failure of Jimmy Carter's Iran hostage rescue mission in April 1980. 

And you didn't get much reassurance from scuttlebutt passed along from within the military. Incompetence seemed rife and soldiers were increasingly seen during the later 1970s as oafs.

Then Ronald Reagan was elected and the military's reputation began rising. The superb execution of the 1991 Gulf War sealed the American military's reputation, which remains, to this day, skyhigh compared to the 1970s, despite the frustrations of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Now, there are many plausible theories to explain this turn of events. But one factor is almost utterly unknown to Americans: one reason that military personnel seemed stupider under Carter than under Reagan was because they were. 

A 1993 study reported:
The "Misnorming" of the U.S. Military’s Entrance Examination and Its Effect on Minority Enlistments 
Joshua D. Angrist 
... In 1979, only 64 percent of Army recruits were high school graduates, and 46 percent had Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) test scores between the 10th and 30th percentiles of the national youth AFQT score distribution. 
Beginning in 1980, however, test scores and schooling levels of newly enlisted soldiers improved steadily. This improvement was partly attributable to the correction of incorrect ASVAB scoring procedures in the late 1970s (described more fully below) and to legislative limits on the number of low-scoring enlistments; 

In a classic example of Seventies shoddiness, the Pentagon's enlistment exam was revised in January 1976, but the military botched the scoring system, which allowed in all sorts of dumbos the Pentagon had intended to keep out. This was finally fixed in October 1980, a month before the election. (The biggest chuck of data in The Bell Curve is from the renorming of the ASVAB-AFQT on the National Longitudinal Study of Youth in 1980.)
it was also due to poor civilian labor market conditions and new packages of veterans benefits that made military service relatively attractive for many young people. 
By 1987, 93 percent of all new recruits had a high school diploma, and 95 percent had scores in the top 70 percent of the AFQT score distribution (Categories I–III). At the same time, the fraction of minority enlistments fell from an all time high of 35.5 percent in 1980 to 24.2 percent in 1983, rising again to 28.1 percent in 1987 (Defense Department 1988, p. II-33). 

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the victory in the Gulf War, typically only about 1% of enlistees are from the 30th percentile or below of the AFQT (which is more or less of an IQ test). So, if you want to know why the military seems to function better than the public schools, well the military just doesn't deal with the bottom 100 million people in the country. (This is a little bit of an exaggeration because people who want to enlist in the military study up for the test, while it's normed on the NLSY-97 nationally representative sample who presumably didn't have any reason other than pride and cooperativeness to work hard on the test. But, still ...)

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First: You can send me money via Amazon (not tax-deductible). Click here and then click on the button for the amount you want to pay. It's especially quick if you already have an Amazon account, but any major credit card will work fine. (I want to thank all the generous folks who helped me work out the kinks in this method, using their own real money.)

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AlbionHistorian said...

I took that GCT test in 1975 before I enlisted in the navy. I made a 72 on it. 75 was the top end score.

68 gets you into Mensa.

That is why you keep censoring my comments, steve. That's why you won't post my comments until you have created another post--because I am a lot smarter than you, steve. Smarter than anyone else here. I have read more books than you will ever open.

Chicago said...

OK, I'm going to follow your link to Amazon and click on one of their buttons right now.

newyorker said...

the afqt looks like a good screening tool for job applicants. if the armed forces can use it, why can't employers. (i know it is not allowed, but it seems hypocritical)

Anonymous said...



dearieme said...

"despite the frustrations of Iraq and Afghanistan.": you're not normally given to euphemisms, Steve.

Afghanistan is clearly going to be an unmitigated defeat.

For Iraq a little longer may be required - it might turn into a peaceful, democratic Greater Belgium, in which case it'll very reasonably be viewed as a victory. More likely it'll be viewed as a costly strategic defeat - turning a potential constraint on Iran into a murderous quagmire of instability.

AllanF said...

What no Stripes reference? Not even a photo?

agnostic said...

"Where is your drill sergeant, men?"

"Blown up, sir!"

"What kind of training?"

"Arrrrrrmy training, sir!"

Anonymous said...

On the basis that bureaucracies everywhere stink, I have no reason to believe that the Chinese armed forces bureaucracies are any better, but they have access to more competent raw materials, I think.

josh said...

The fiasco in Iran was not precipitated by dumb soldiers--unless maybe the helicopters were mainatined by lower IQ mechanics and that played a part--but by the idiots at the top. The plan was way too complex and depended upon everything going right;of course NOTHING went right. The passing of the busload of Iranians--what were the odds? Imagine you are in the desert dying of thirst,can you say to yourself,"Well there should be a busload of people coming by here any minute." You will be food for the vultures. BTW I was in from 73 to 76,and there were lots of dumb guys. One group was especially dumb--and scarey.

pat said...

This is true. I was there I saw it for myself.

In 1963 I decided to enlist in the Washington D.C. National Guard. In those days all young men had a six year obligation. I went for the National Guard option - six months of active duty and five and a half years of active reserves.

At the DC Armory they gave all of us the current admission test. It wasn't a very good test. I complained bitterly because I only scored in the 95 percentile. I had never scored that low on any general intelligence test before.

We weren't told what was the cutoff score. I complained to another potential enlistee about the test. He had also passed and was admitted. He was in the thirteenth percentile, so I guess I wan't in any real danger of missing the cut.

The army in those days was filled with some really incredibly stupid people. That was one of many shocks I was to suffer. In civilian life really stupid people are institutionalized in the Army they were made sergeants.


snapperhead soup said...

Maybe, but did US fight any major wars in the 80s? I think the dummy 70s forces could have done what the US marines did in Grenada.

forest tentacle said...

Funny how we all seem to go quieter in fund-raising times. Having said that, on my way now to buy 4 $50 anonymous Mexican convenience-store cashier's checks.

Anonymous said...

That's interesting, because I know that the only military testing accepted by Mensa as proof of IQ is that conducted before 10/80.

DirkY said...

I wasn't yet born, but economic statistics point to the 70s as a belle epoque for the middle class. Wages were high, unemployment was low, public debt as a percentage of GDP fell, real economic growth rose except for a few short and mild recessions and economic equality peaked, etc. While inflation has its downsides, the spike in the 70s acted as a sort of debt jubilee, with incumbent fixed rate mortgage holders seeing their incomes and property values increase 5-10% a year while their mortgage payments were fixed.

I think the reason the 80s have a better reputation than the 70s economically was the rich did better in the 80s and they are the ones who write the economic history books. The fact the military easily recruited smart people in the 80s is further evidence. They stuck with the private sector in the 70s. The stock market also did poorly in the 70s in large part because profits gave way to higher wages due to the tight labor market.

E. Rekshun said...

@agnostic: "That's a fact jack!"

"I got no place else to go."

Ex Submarine Officer said...

I joined the USMC in 1976, a year in which I'm pretty sure less than half of the enlistees were at least high school graduates.

There were some achingly stupid people in there. Interestingly, though, there was a sprinkling of fairly bright guys, like me I suppose, off on their youthful, macho, romantic adventure.

Drugs were everywhere, it was absolutely endemic, but that was just like the greater society.

Sometimes, though, I think a lot of the problems really weren't so much as from stupidity as from apathy, which permeated the fabric of American society in the 1970's.

Nobody cared about doing a good job on anything back then, not just the military. The fact that the military cared enough about its performance to raise enlistment standards may be just as, if not more, responsible for the improvement as the the raising of enlistment standards.

They started doing lots of other stuff then too, like drug testing, improving esprit de corps, more actively throwing out non-performers.

The fact that Reagan also had launched a new crusade against the Reds also gave the military a sense of mission.

So still attribute the 70's military to overall American crumminess during it's golden age in the 70's. Letting in lots of dopes was perhaps more of an effect, w/a feedback loop to be sure, of military crumminess then than an underlying cause.

Yes, incomes were relatively high in the 70's, but apart from that, I still haven't figured out why everything was so crummy then.

Sometimes I think it goes back to the postwar philosophy that led to McNamara and his "best and brightest", the notion that mass production and "scientific" bean counting management devoid of underlying expertise, was the wave of the future.

This certainly led to conglomerates, like the ones that ate and nearly destroyed Harley, Gibson, etc, buying up everything in sight regardless of whether it had any sort of connection to its underlying business.

It is still a puzzlement, though.

Anonymous said...

Don't blame Carter for the state of the military in the 1970s. Back then, the military was extremely unpopular, and they had to lower the bar to unprecedented depths simply to have enough troops. That wasn't a problem a decade later - and consider that Volkman's trade of inflation for unemployment sent quite a few young men to the recruiting stations.

Anonymous said...

"... I still haven't figured out why everything was so crummy then.

Sometimes I think it goes back to the postwar philosophy that led to McNamara and his "best and brightest..."

The Moron Corps, aka, the "McMamara 100,000". Looking into the abysmal state of the US military, intelligence of troops, and admissions/IQ tests in the 70s (I also saw it) eventually leads to the "McMamara 100,000". That ol'boy really knew how to... uh... mess up:

"Project 100,000 was initiated by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara ... ended in December 1971. ...

Considered part of Johnson's Great Society by giving training and opportunity to the uneducated and poor, the recruited men were classified as "New Standards Men" (or pejoratively the Moron Corps) and had scored in Category IV of the Armed Forces Qualification Test, which placed them in the 10-30 percentile range. ... reportedly recruited ... 320,000[3] to 354,000, .... insisted ... put into virtually all fields, and this was a disaster. ..."

They didn't go down so well toward the end in Vietnam. Probably one reason we now have a professional, all-volunteer military. Ah, the citizen-farmer yeoman militia-man, we hardly knew ye. Might we have a little humility about what can be accomplished by utopian fantasies such as the Great Society? Ah... Nobody larns nothing. It don't mean a thing.

E. Rekshun said...

"I feel the need for speed." Maverick, USN, 1986.

Anonymous said...

As a platoon leader in 1978 I was constantly chided to focus on re-enlisting any warm body. As a company commander in 1984 I had a 100% re-enlistment rate for 24 months in a row. Even minor infractions could earn someone a "bar".

Anonymous said...

Considered part of Johnson's Great Society by giving training and opportunity to the uneducated and poor, the recruited men were classified as "New Standards Men" (or pejoratively the Moron Corps) and had scored in Category IV of the Armed Forces Qualification Test, which placed them in the 10-30 percentile range. ... reportedly recruited ... 320,000[3] to 354,000, .... insisted ... put into virtually all fields, and this was a disaster. ..."

I can guess ... discipline was also relaxed for the Moron Corps, was it not? That's the same old story of how "progressives" coddle dumbos, especially when it comes to discipline and justice.

Norville Rogers said...

AlbionHistorian, have you heard from RhodesiaFarmer recently? He was supposed to help me unload several dozen cases of '82 Lafite Rothschild for transfer to our NGO buyer in Durban, unfortunately it seems his Internet is on the blink

Anonymous said...

"They started doing lots of other stuff then too, like drug testing,.."

When some computer eventually writes the history of the 20th century, a large role will probably be played by the US military world-wide medical establishment. Kind of like the CDC, but the US military had to worry about world-wide epidemiology. They also could track/study the medical history of their entire "population" and "do things". The drug testing really started working by the mid-to-late 70s. It was getting cheap, accurate, and widely used. A good way to ease the Project 100K types out.