Stop the Draft!

Gerald Epstein

It’s time to stop the draft.

I know: the military draft effectively ended in 1973.

But even if the government is no longer conscripting the youth into the Army, our young people are subject to a draft nonetheless: they are now being sent in droves into the “reserve army of the unemployed”.

And with the economic collapse, they are facing high odds that their number is going to come up.

According to the latest figures,  18.1 percent of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed. But, as with the Vietnam War era draft, different groups face radically different chances of being drafted.  Black and Hispanic youth have an unemployment rate of 31% and 20% respectively, while white youth face a high rate of 16%.

U.S. college graduates are also being drafted in dramatically increasing numbers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, unemployment rates have dramatically increased for young college graduates since the start of the recession (from  2007 to the last 12 months of this year): for whites from 5.1 % to 9.2%, for Hispanics from 6.6% to 13.5% and for Blacks from 8.7% to 14.7%.

And these diminished job prospects are hitting up against the massive debts that students are accumulating to pay for college: according to researchers at Rutgers University, the median level of debt that students graduate with from four- year colleges is $20,000. Meanwhile, for those lucky enough to have a job, the median reported salary of $30,000 is 10% lower than if they had gotten the job before the crisis hit. Unsurprisingly, most of the students who graduated in recent years still owe more than half their debt. Meanwhile, only half of recent college graduates have gotten jobs that even require a college education.

To be sure getting drafted during the Vietnam War meant that the young could get killed or maimed, (and possibly have to kill others). Getting drafted into the “reserve army of the unemployed” is unlikely to put youth at such risk –at least not in the short run.  But the consequences can be dire nonetheless: permanent losses in incomes, self-esteem, career opportunities. And remember that our current “volunteer military” relies to some extent on drawing from the reserve army of unemployed: risking life and limb in Iraq or Afghanistan may appear a better option to some than languishing in unemployment or underemployment.

Of course, from the point of view of U.S. foreign policy, the Vietnam Era draft had a function, misguided as it was. What function does the draft into the reserve army of the unemployed serve? According to Karl Marx, the economist who is most credited with developing the phrase and concept of the “reserve army”, its function is to raise the profits of capitalists by driving down workers’ wages and making them more docile, easy to boss around. Marx saw this as a necessary evil to get the engines of profit-led capitalism going. So should our drafted youth feel good about making this indirect contribution to our general prosperity?

Not so fast. The “reserve army” has certainly kept wages low and even lowered them further for youth: we all know young people who are working in “unpaid internships” in the desperate hope of finding a “paying job”. And the reserve army has certainly made workers more docile: workers are afraid of being fired and are less likely to stand up for their rights at work.

And, just as Marx said, the reserve army is doing its job to raise profit margins for U.S. corporations, which are at post-war highs.

But so far this has not reignited the engines of growth and employment creation: it has mostly maintained CEO pay, and given corporations piles of cash to use for stock buybacks to prop up their stocks and keep CEO’s stock options valuable.

Young people have laid down their jobs for this?

In the 1960s, after a time, many got fed up with the Vietnam War draft. They saw that our President, most members of Congress, and the political establishment had little interest in ending a system of conscription that threw many of our generation’s bodies and psyche’s into a destructive, futile and unjust war. Many stood up to protest the draft. Some fled. Others went to jail. But in their own ways, they said, enough is enough.

Today, in Spain, the UK, Italy, and elsewhere, young draftees are beginning to wake up and demand some change.

Here in the United States, some youth have simply gotten confused. Some follow the rants of the tea party and ideologues like Ron Paul, who somehow have convinced them that destroying the government will unleash the benign forces of the bankers and the captains of industry who, they are told, will rescue them from the reserve army pits – even though it is these same liberated bankers who crashed the financial system in the first place and it is these very captains of industry who have taken factories to China and parked their billions in the Bahamas. Wrecking the government will just give them even more sway, and power, and more opportunities to raid the public treasure.

This week, as school begins and I stand in front of my students to try to demystify economics and the economy, I will wonder: am I educating my students for a life of productive and fulfilling employment? Or am I just helping them bide time until they get drafted into the reserve army of the unemployed?

And, most of all, I will wonder –  when will they stand up, demand that President Obama and the Congress “stop the draft”, and collectively declare: hell no, we won’t go.

One Response to “Stop the Draft!”

  1. Garrett Connelly says:

    Look, I know this is just a catchy headline, but I’m a father of a fourteen year-old who has come to see the draft was actually a better idea than the various options which have more or less successfully divided and ruled. Really, once a person has an unlikely lottery number solidarity is over and the system of economic class war is easier to wage internally and over seas, not accidentally yielding millions of unemployed youth eager to be part of the growth industry called eternal war.