From the pages of
The Scapegoat Generation. America's War on Adolescents
By Mike Males Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1996
Review by Richard B. Du Boff and Edward S. Herman
The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents, published by the progressive Common Courage Press, is a major disappointment and, in our view, transmits a decidedly unprogressive message. The author, Mike Males, depicts adolescents as widely accused of drug abuse and mounting cigarette addiction, sexual irresponsibility and teenage pregnancy, exploding crime rates and associated mayhem. These allegations, he replies, are based on "myth" and come from politicians, private interests, and media all trying to blame adolescents for problems endemic to the American social order.
But Males does not trace the source of this alleged scapegoating to the corporate system and its political excrescences. Instead, the scapegoaters turn out to be "liberals," "leftists," and "feminists": "it is society's most liberal elements who have proven most vulnerable to simplistic kid-bashing" and "virulent youth-hating policies" (37, 186). To prove this "liberal bigotry against the young" (29), Males bombards the reader with a vast, chaotic, and unorganized compilation of nearly everything negative that any "liberal" or "feminist" may ever have said about young people. Alexander Cockburn, who considers this a "great book," says that "Males's hate is pure." That it is--with the purest reserved for Bill Clinton, for whom Males finally succeeds in eliciting some sympathy, a notable achievement for anyone on the "left." "Clinton's health and welfare policy," Males charges, "has consisted of blaming teenagers for nearly all major social ills: Poverty, welfare, dependence, crime, gun violence, suicide, sexual promiscuity, unwed motherhood, AIDS, school failure, broken families, child abuse, drug abuse, drunken driving, smoking, and the breakdown of 'family values,' the latest count as of this writing" (6-7).
While Males plausibly argues that many adolescent problems stem from childhoods of poverty, inadequate education, and limited health care, he assigns primary responsibility for these conditions to America's elderly, many of whom supposedly grow rich on overgenerous Social Security benefits which gobble up public funds that America's youth so badly need. This genuine scapegoating of the elderly, emphasizing the need to curb their entitlements as a way to alleviate the distress of the "scapegoat generation," fits perfectly the Wall Street, corporate, right wing agenda on entitlements and gives this book a reactionary thrust.
Males's definitional and analytical frameworks contribute to this result. His "scapegoat generation" is "adolescents," but the victims referred to are children, babies, young families, and anybody else below age forty. More serious, the notion of a "generation" being scapegoated implies that all individuals in that age group tend to be treated badly by (in this case) the greedy geezers. "America ... is not just anti-minority or anti-poor, but fundamentally anti-adolescent regardless of race or class" (186). And he means all classes: "age is rapidly becoming the primary delineator of well-being," and adult generations are "lambasting the teenagers they raised" (6-7). This is patent nonsense: the children of the affluent in this country fare very well and are in no sense scapegoated. The high rates of child poverty here don't prove generational mistreatment; they show that racism and a ruthless elite and class system are taking a heavy toll of traditional victims. Males mentions race and class and even notes that "teen-aged childbearing" is often a euphemism for nonwhite childbearing, but he asserts that "young age has become a major new factor" without giving any evidence whatsoever that generation rather than race and class explains anything important (10-11).
This thoroughly unradical substitution of generation for class and race has devastating consequences. Instead of putting capitalism and its effects on jobs, politics, and human welfare at the core of his analysis, Males stresses the assault of the "old" on the young. Instead of class warfare Males gives us generational warfare. This leads him straight to an alliance with Republican investment banker Pete Peterson and his Concord Coalition, the premier Social Security bashers of our times. He endorses Peterson's charge that Social Security is "simply subsidized welfare, Aid to Dependent Seniors" (37) and supports the Concord Coalition's campaign to strip it down: "It is not the cost of the old, but the politics of the old, that is the problem. It is probably no coincidence that the Concord Coalition is comprised of former officials, or that most of their critics are unelected leftists" (280; emphasis in original). In other words, Paul Tsongas, Warren Rudman, and Pete Peterson are models of economic analysis and public policy for this so-called generational war; "unelected leftists" are incompetent and misguided and will so remain until they can get the experience of meeting a government payroll.
On teenage smoking, Males points to adult smoking at home as a crucial influence. A good point, but in the course of overkilling it, Males feels he must deny any importance not only to peer pressure but cigarette advertising as well. In the process he becomes a de facto apologist for cigarette advertising. It may affect the choice of brand, he says, "but so what?" (140) These ads are "deceptive" and "contribute to the general climate, reinforced by the social acceptability of adult smoking," but Males repeatedly denies that there is any evidence that ads cause more teenage smoking. He uses a double standard on evidence: "all teenagers are exposed to the $6 billion per year tobacco advertising barrage, though only a fraction smoke" (142); on the other hand, in the study he conducted only 16 percent of children in households with smoking adults smoke, but this is not cited as weakening the case for the crucial influence of adult household smoking.
It is difficult to measure the effects of advertising on smoking, as it is a pervasive background factor that operates in different forms over many years, and it affects teenagers indirectly and directly. Where studies show increases in teenager smoking following major ad campaigns, like that for Joe Camel in 1988, Males goes to great pains to deny any advertising effects, claiming that other evidence shows teenage smoking declining in 1988. But this hardly contradicts a finding (140) of an increased smoking initiation rate in 1988--the precise goal of Joe Camel. Males labors to prove that teenage smoking rates are lower than for any other age group and have been falling for 20 years. But his numbers are practically impossible to verify because of discrepancies in nearly every citation he gives. Furthermore, they cover the 12 to 17 age range, which is bound to show lower rates because many future tobacco addicts don't take up the habit until the later teens. Males also ignores the statement in the 1993 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (111), a source on which he claims to rely, that "other surveys of adolescent smoking trends have found a lack of an appreciable decline in smoking rates of adolescents" since 1985. It is noteworthy that since publication of The Scapegoat Generation, a survey by the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the number of smoking teens rose from 27.5 percent in 1991 to 34.8 percent in 1995 (New York Times, May 24, 1996). Yet in a later article on this same topic in In These Times (August 5, 1996), Males never mentions this widely quoted survey.
Alexander Cockburn's applause for Males's "hate" is misconceived. Even to be effectively destructive, rage has to be controlled and focused, not merely vented. Take, for example, Males's sneers at "social science" as it "discovers the adolescent scapegoat . . . . Do experts really believe the idiocy they declare in the press" (32-33). He quotes one social scientist who says that adolescents are "impulsive," then quotes several "researchers who have directly examined the question of adolescent 'high risk'" who agree with Males that the first social scientist is wrong. This shows that experts disagree on the point and that, by Males's own standards, some are not idiots. So the generalization about experts' "idiocy" is contradicted by Males himself; the pure hate produces a meaningless effusion.
Another cost of uncontrolled hate is unreliability. Males showers his readers with endnote references--a total of 934 in nine chapters--but the barest sampling confirms one's suspicions: his sources are often inadequate, incorrect, willfully misrepresented, or conspicuously absent at key junctures. A few examples:
- "Assailing welfare mothers as lazy leeches deserving cutoff was not simply a right wing crusade, but one of feminist columnist Ellen Goodman--as long as the mothers in question were teenagers" ( 28). This is a gross distortion. In the Boston Globe article which Males cites (April 16, 1992), Goodman refers to a 20-year old Maine mother and her children living on welfare, with the mother desiring only to practice "motherhood . . . it's my job." Goodman finds herself "uncomfortable" with this situation "as well as with the way that the focus of the welfare debate has shifted onto this subject," because it is a "myth" that this is the typical welfare case. But if society decides not to accept it, "we need to ensure that work [for welfare mothers] will pay," and "we must be willing to pay for birth control and its backup, abortion."
- "The AARP [American Association of Retired Persons] demands full maintenance of Social Security (even the $75 billion paid to seniors with cash incomes exceeding $50,000 per year) . . . even if the price is a million more children impoverished due solely to FICA deductions from their caretakers' paychecks" ( 39). There is no citation for the parenthesized part of this sentence, for good reason: it is false. In 1993, families in the upper fifth of the income scale ($51,845 or more) received $41 billion in benefits of a total of $286 billion paid out--14.3 percent (Social Security Bulletin, Summer 1995, 23). For the "impoverishment" of children due to payroll taxes, Males cites a Census Bureau publication. It does show that these taxes--like all taxes--reduce incomes and drive some people of all ages below the poverty line. Males fails to report that 400,000 people 65 years and over are also pushed below the poverty line by FICA taxes, but that this effect is more than reversed by benefits going to senior citizens, children, and others. When Earned Income Tax Credits, food stamps, school lunches, Medicaid, and other government transfers are added to household incomes, the number of children in poverty drops by 10 million.
- "Today, the nation's 400 richest Americans have combined incomes of $500 billion per year, 25 times more than paid in AFDC to 16 million needy children" ( 275). The citation is an address given in Phoenix by one "D. Liederman." In other words, 400 families receive 6.4 percent of all personal income in the United States and have annual incomes that average
$1.25 billion! While the U.S. income distribution is sickeningly lopsided, and getting worse, these figures are preposterous. (In 1995, the highest paid CEO earned a mere $65.6 million.) Imagine what a Heritage Foundation economist would do with this example of "leftist" research!
- The Social Security system "heavily taxes young workers to support older retirees, most of whom have had a quarter-century of high incomes and property accumulation sufficient to support themselves (to their credit, some Social Security defenders, like John Hess, recognize this iniquity and have proposed funding alternatives)" ( 276). No citation is supplied. The first part is a cruel distortion repeated by all Social Security bashers--that the old are generally self-supporting through their own savings. In fact, without Social Security, the incomes of two-thirds of the elderly would drop 40 percent or more; a third of the elderly would lose at least 65 percent of their incomes (Social Security Bulletin, Summer 1995, 28). The parenthesized part is meant to give the impression that Hess would restructure benefits for the elderly. This is Hess's own response, given to the authors: "It's outrageous to include me in this outrageous and dishonest paragraph. Males knows damn well that my argument is with regressive Social Security taxes alone, which I'd like to abolish in favor of funding the whole system through general, progressive income tax revenues."
- Seniors "have amassed household net worths (assets minus debts) averaging
$148,000 for couples, $64,000 for single men, and $60,000 for single women. Not only were the average net worths of seniors more than triple those of younger age groups, seniors were the only age group to show an increase from the 1980s" ( 38). The source cited, an obscure newsletter on government finance, contains no reference whatever to the net worth of the elderly, although for Males its appeal is evident: its author complains that tax breaks for the elderly represent "fiscal pampering at the expense of other age groups," rather than one more indication of a tax system that is arbitrary throughout--especially in its "pampering" of large corporations--and should be replaced by one dominated by a progressive tax on income from all sources. Wherever Males's numbers on senior wealth do come from, they are misleading, and wrong. They obviously include the wealth of owner-occupied homes, which cannot easily be converted into permanently higher incomes. In addition, the best source on wealth holdings (Edward Wolff, Top Heavy, 1995), shows that from 1962 to 1989, the assets of people over 70 increased less than those of any other age group.
Mike Males is right that politicians and pundits have focused unduly on the crimes and problematic behavior of teenagers, often misleading the public and promoting wrong-headed policies. But his ferocity leads him to overstatement of his case, massive at times, and irresponsibility in his use of sources. In his zeal to attack greedy geezers, he rides roughshod over evidence and gives aid and comfort to the Concord Coalition and other battering rams for cutting social programs and privatizing what's left. In Z Magazine (July/August 1966), Henry Giroux also looks at the phenomenon of "Beating Up On Kids," but reminds his readers that "at the same time, youth attract serious attention as both objects of commodification (as in the recent Calvin Klein jeans campaign) and a profitable market." In our "free market" system, America's youth are like anyone else--valued for their disposable income, despised when they can be used as scapegoats for an increasingly rapacious, short-term returns-oriented capitalism. When Males learns that lesson, he might be able to redirect his rage where it belongs.