Entitlement, the Word

Paraphrasing Robert Lewis Stevenson from his essay, “Truth of Intercourse”, to tell the truth is to convey a true impression. At odds with this, the word `entitlement’ is sometimes used in a way that misinforms.

So would you spend a lot of money to redefine a word? Probably not, even if you had it to spend. Well, you may not have known, but just in the past five years, 2007-2011, Peter G. Peterson spent nearly a half-billion dollars on his campaign to cut back the `entitlement’ programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.[i] In the process he continued to contribute to redefining `entitlement’.

He has advocated `entitlement’ cuts for at least 30 years. For example, the past Commerce Secretary and hedge fund billionaire had an article in the December 2, 1982 issue of The New York Review of Books, “Social Security: The Coming Crash” (gated). Analogous to extravagant claims made by others who advocate `entitlement reform’, he wrote,

If the size of the federal budget remains unchanged as a share of GNP, Social Security in 2050 will comprise over 70 percent of all federal spending.

Fact checking 30 years later, Social Security is 20 percent of the federal budget (the 20 percent mostly paid for by the payroll tax)[ii] or 4.9 percent of GDP. According to the CBO[iii], that’s expected to increase to 6.6 percent of GDP by 2086. I can’t envision how that could reasonably come anywhere close to 70 percent, even in 2086—maybe 25 percent of outlays?

Kevin Drum recently argued that Peterson’s influence on Social Security has been nil.[iv] Actually, Peterson has done better than nothing; he’s contributed to the redefinition of `entitlement’, and also helped promote the current austerity meme. But let’s stay with the word.

In an April 7, 1994 New York Review of Books’ article, “Entitlement Reform: The Way to Eliminate the Deficit” (gated), Peterson was still at it. He wrote,

…“entitlements,” the word for all federal benefits that are not controlled by Congress’s yearly appropriations. These include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Federal pensions, food stamps, and AFDC.

`Entitlement’ has been redefined as automatic federal benefits. That, along with the demonizing usage over the past couple decades by the austerity plunderbund, `entitlement’ has become a pejorative label.

You would have thought the word was neutral or even favorable. From Merriam-Webster online,

Entitlement : the state or condition of being entitled
Entitled : to furnish with proper grounds for seeking or claiming something

Given that, as I understand it, we are entitled to

….certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

So far, however, no one has overtly proposed to cut those entitlements.

Words have power. We know that from “shibboleth” as a pronunciation test more than 3,000 years ago (Judges 12:5-6): fail it and you died. Fast forwarding to the present era, here’s some of the latest from Frank Luntz, GOP political operative and wordsmith: `free market’ instead of `capitalism’, not `entrepreneur’ but instead say `job creator’, `government takeover’ for `health care reform’. The list goes on, `death panels’, `death tax’, `bailout’, etc.[v]

Manipulated words that try to force you to think along certain lines are particularly insidious. `Entitlement’ has become one of those. It was this that George Orwell meant by newspeak, language “designed to diminish the range of thought” (“1984”), words and language that invert customary meanings, channel your thoughts.

Consider this statement from a Koch brothers’ funded website:

Unchecked growth of the massive entitlement programs threatens to bankrupt the U.S. Government in the next few years. This could cripple our economy. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – the three biggest federal programs – are on “auto-pilot” and growing faster than the economy.[vi]

`Entitlements’ as redefined makes it easy to group these three programs together, along with words like massive, cripple and bankrupt. Why is this misleading? Social Security is not in dire circumstances and so shouldn’t be tied in with the two health care programs. The cost increases in Medicare and Medicaid are because of increasing costs of health care generally and are not specific to those programs. Health care cost-growth is considered a problem. Fix that and the Medicare/Medicaid increases are fixed. On the other hand, if the real purpose is to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits, then linking them together as `entitlements’ along with flavor words warning of doom may be a way to persuade. But it doesn’t convey a true impression.

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