The Real War on Youth: <i>Esquire</i>'s Dubious Achievements

The magazine is at it again with an economically illiterate and deceptive piece about "generational conflict" called "The War on Youth." Meanwhile the real war on youth is an assault on their employment prospects, education costs, and, yes, their future Social Security benefits.
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In 2010 the men's magazine Esquire enlisted Lawrence O'Donnell, along with a panel of Republicans and economically centrist Democrats, to duplicate the anti-Social Security efforts of the Simpson/Bowles Deficit Commission. Now the magazine is at it again, with an economically illiterate and deceptive piece about "generational conflict" called "The War on Youth." Meanwhile the real war on youth is an assault on their employment prospects, education costs, and, yes, their future Social Security benefits. On two of those three fronts, Esquire is distracting its presumably youthful male readers from the real threats to their economic security. And on the third front, it's fighting for the wrong army.

Women, Clothes, Music, Drinks... Austerity

The Esquire website advertises itself as follows: "Beautiful Women, Men's Fashion, Best Music, Drink Recipes." Once you read about the mag's most recent move, you may want to skip the other options and just make yourself that drink.

I can see why the deep-pocket resources hellbent on cutting Social Security (think right-wing billionaire Pete Peterson, former cabinet secretary under Nixon) might want to trade on Esquire and its fading hipster cred. Sure, its "Women We Love" and "Sexiest Woman of the Year" features may speak more to a bygone Mad Men era (or invite a Mad Magazine sendup), but Esquire has focused on top-quality writing for generations by publishing writers like Ernest Hemingway, Terry Southern, Andrew Vachss, Gay Talese, and Gary Wills.

But the magazine that once challenged authority (for example, by publishing the first accounts of American atrocities in Vietnam) now seems more like a conduit for its economic interests, at least where government spending is concerned.

Three Days of the Stupor

The magazine bragged that its "O'Donnell Commission" balanced the federal budget in only three days -- and it is impressive that they managed to gather and repeat so many stuporific centrist clichés and "bipartisan" non-solutions in so short a period of time.

Why bring it up again now? Because there's a pattern here. It began with Esquire's initial assignment for O'Donnell and company: why would any magazine dedicated to quality journalism -- and Esquire has earned that description -- promote the right-wing framing that says that our most urgent economic issue is reducing the government's deficit spending? That's never been more misguided than over the last several years, when borrowing rates have been historically low and unemployment at staggering highs (especially for minorities, the long-term unemployed, and, yes, young people).

In return, Esquire's commission ignored the key facts about the nation's deficits: that today's deficits are caused by military spending and tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, and that tomorrow's deficits will be caused by runaway health care spending.

The magazine gave its "Commission" the wrong errand -- and picked a group that was sure to follow it through. The unpredictable Lawrence O'Donnell does some terrific work. But in many ways he's still an '80s and '90s-style "centrist" Democrat, with all the attendant forms of blindness that conveys. The two Republican Senators on his "Commission" were, like fellow centrist Democrat Bill Bradley, known to sympathize with the cuts-over-crisis school of government economics. (Gary Hart, the remaining member, was the sole disappointment of the group.)

Why Are These Men Laughing?

This all-male contingent quickly issued its, er, briefs. Their first recommendation was to raise the retirement age to 70 -- because, it said, "Americans today are living and working longer than in previous generations."

Wrong. The difference in longevity between current and past generations is negligible for people who survive infancy. A further increase in the retirement age (it's already scheduled to rise) accomplishes two things, both of them disastrous: it slashes Social Security benefits for seniors, and it exposes millions of additional aging Americans to the vagaries, inadequacies, and devastating economic and medical consequences of our inadequate private-sector health insurance system.

The Commission compounded its Social Security cuts by adopting a new, benefit-slashing formula that lowers the already-inadequate way that increases in the cost of living are calculated. Who would suffer most under this lame-brain right-wing idea? The groups that would be unfairly penalized include African Americans and lower-income people of all races, whose life expectancy is appreciably less than that of whiter and richer people.

Who would benefit? The aforementioned whiter and richer people.


Another catastrophic "Commission" idea was to repeal employer health-care tax exclusion and offer a refundable health care tax credit instead. This is a longstanding Newt Gingrich proposal that would effectively bring our employer-sponsored health insurance system to an end.

What would replace it? Nothing. The "refundable" credit would force people to buy health insurance in the private-sector health insurance market, which has never succeeded in providing adequate coverage. Medical inflation would quickly render health coverage completely unaffordable.

The losers? Everybody but the rich, who would be thrilled by the additional tax cuts this could encourage. They'll benefit plenty by everyone else's loss of benefits.

The "commission" also wanted to raise the gasoline tax by a dollar -- another measure that would particularly hurt the middle class and the poor.

Missing Pieces

What didn't the Commission propose? Raising taxes on the wealthy. Why, the "Commission" even bragged that it met the unintended goal of "keep[ing] individual tax rates at or near their current levels for all Americans."

In other words, this "bipartisan" group does what "bipartisan" groups always do inside the Beltway: it protected the interests of the rich and powerful at everyone else's expense.

Nor did they propose a Medicare for All plan, which would bring down both government's expenses and that of families. Their idea of medical cost-cutting is "malpractice reform," an idea that's been debunked over and over.


Who would be hurt most of all by this "Commission" if its ideas ever became reality? Young people. Recommendations that lower the increase in cost of living adjustments result in benefits which are lower and lower with every passing year. The younger you are, the more you'll lose.

Esquire added this footnote to its report: "With thanks to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and its president, Maya MacGuineas, for their invaluable assistance in providing the commission with accurate data and budget options."

The "Committee for a Responsible Budget" and its president receive heavy subsidies from -- you guessed it -- Pete Peterson. Although the Esquire write-up of this exercise described O'Donnell as "a realpolitik liberal who has a finely honed intolerance for bullshit from either side," a little more honing would have been in order.

War Babies

Anybody who thought Esquire couldn't top that misguided effort was wrong. Their latest attack on young people is a piece called "The War on Youth," and it begins as follows: "Twenty-five years ago young Americans had a chance."

The piece then quickly moves on to repeat one falsehood after another, beginning with the often-quoted and entirely misleading comment that "in 1984, American breadwinners who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under thirty-five. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost forty-seven times as much ..."

Actually, author Stephen Marche even misstates the misleading figure: The assets of Americans in these age groups, not their income, differed by that much in 1984. Dean Baker points out that virtually all of the difference can be accounted for by home values.

What's more, these figures were compiled in 2009. Home values have continued to decline sharply since then -- and older couples who sell their homes for cash would then have to pay rent, provided they can find a buyer. What's more, the figures aren't broken out by over-65 age bracket, but I strongly suspect that these homeowners are strongly skewed toward pre-Baby Boomer age groups. If so, that would seriously undercut the piece's "it's the Baby Boom's fault" premise.

As Dean Baker says, "What matters for inter-generational equity is the overall state of the economy and the physical and natural infrastructure that we hand down to future generations." You wouldn't know it by reading this piece.

Life During Wartime

"Democrats may not be actively hostile to the interests of young voters," Marche proclaims, "but they are too scared and weak to speak up for them." He goes on to say that "[t]he biggest boondoggle of all is Social Security. The management of entitlement programs, already weighted heavily in favor of the older population, has a very specific terminal point that coincides neatly with the Boomers' deaths. The 2011 report by the Social Security trustees estimates that, under its current administration, the fund will run out in 2036, so there's just enough to get the oldest Boomers to age ninety."

This is exactly backwards. Democrats should be defending Social Security -- which will not "run out of funds in 2036." It's estimated to be able to pay 75 percent of its current benefits after that. How is the difference best made up? According to Ronald Reagan's former chief actuary for Social Security, by raising the payroll tax for high earners.

But the one option that's fairest and most effective -- the one that discommodes the wealthy -- is once again missing from the pages of Esquire.

Talk about "dubious achievements."

The Real War on the Young

What's most astonishing about Esquire's latest folly isn't what's in the piece but what isn't. An entire generation is entering the workforce without jobs, and this period of early-career unemployment is likely to hold back unemployed young people's earnings for the rest of their working lives.

And yet the "War on Youth" piece can only discuss unemployment as if it were a generational issue -- which it isn't. Older workers are also suffering disproportionately, something the piece chooses to overlook in pursuit of its bogus premise. (The fact that members of Congress are "old" hardly has any bearing on the real conflict, which is income-based and not age-based.)

What's more, young people are graduating college with record levels of student debt -- another front of the real war that Esquire chose to avoid. In what may be the cruelest bait-and-switch in history, they were convinced to take out exorbitant loans by leaders in the government and banking. Now they're being asked to pay those loans back. More than 25 percent of student loans are already delinquent.

And now, thanks to Republicans in the House, student loan rates are about to double.

And this is one of the areas where, refreshingly, Democrats haven't been "too scared and weak to speak." Although they've failed to push strongly enough for more jobs, Democrats in the administration and on the Hill have made constructive changes in student lending and have proposed more.

In fact, their work in this area provoked an Esquire-like salvo from Politico, which complained that "[t]he Democratic strategy consists of shame and politics." But "shame" is the appropriate response to Republican policies like these -- and if "politics" means pursuing the policies people want, we need more of it.

The real war against the young is being fought over exactly these issues -- and over the fact that we're leaving them a decaying infrastructure, an imploding economy, and a future of joblessness or underearning.

There's a war on, alright, but Esquire has gone AWOL -- that is, when it isn't fighting for the wrong side.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future and the host of The Breakdown, broadcast Saturdays nights from 7-9 pm on WeAct Radio, AM 1480 in Washington DC.

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