Walter Oi, An Appreciation
By David Henderson
Walter thought the draft was wrong because he thought that people should be able to make such an important choice–whether to join the military or not–for themselves.
His passion for free labor markets was what motivated his work on the draft. His contribution was to point out–and estimate–two costs. First, there was the hidden cost imposed on draftees and “draft-induced” or “reluctant” volunteers. The fact that this cost didn’t show up in the U.S. government budget was irrelevant. Walter pointed out that the correct way to measure the cost to the draftees and the reluctant volunteers was to take the difference between the low wages they were paid and the minimum amount they would need to be paid to get them to volunteer. He estimated this cost at between $826 million and $1.134 billion. While this number might seem low today, Oi was working with mid-1960s dollars. Inflation-adjusted to 2013, the losses would range from $6.1 billion to $8.4 billion. The second cost Oi estimated was the increased annual budget outlay needed to eliminate the draft.
This is from David R. Henderson, “The Legacy of Walter Oi (1929-2013).” The Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas web journal published it today.
The second story begins with a phone call I received from Walter when I was a senior economist with President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers in the early 1980s. A government commission looking into the World War II imprisonment of all Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast had just come out with a report, and its recommendation was that each person imprisoned be compensated with a check for $20,000. Walter wanted me to get him a copy of the report.
When I had first met Walter, while interviewing at Rochester, I had followed my curiosity. I have learned that, contrary to what almost all my elders told me when I was growing up, people generally love to talk about themselves, even about sensitive issues, if you ask them with some sensitivity. I had asked Walter if he had been imprisoned as a child during the war. He had been. He reminisced talked about being taken prisoner by the U.S. government when he was 13 years old and, before being shipped inland, living with his family for the first few days in a horse stall at the Santa Anita race track in Los Angeles. He had some pretty strong feelings about his imprisonment. I told Walter I would get him the report and then asked, “So what do you think of the commission’s recommendation?”
“I’m against it,” he snapped. He then went on to tell me that yes, the Japanese Americans were treated unjustly, but that the best thing to do for Japanese Americans was to move on and not create a new government program.
I am posting, with his permission, a note sent by Owen Hughes:
This is a wonderful piece. Walter Oi touched my life (I was in college 1969-73) and I never knew it. The stories show a man who, though blind, saw deeply into things; and who, though once unjustly a prisoner of his own country, set himself free of that experience.
How ironic that his nature, and the nature of his argument, made it inevitable that so many of us would never know him as a benefactor. Because he argued not for the Walter Oi Permanent and Ever-Growing Program of Draft Optimization, but simply for freedom. I am reminded of the epitaph on the tomb of Christopher Wren, the great architect of London. “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”. If you require a monument, look around you.