The Real Entitlement Crisis

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Common Dreams

The Real Entitlement Crisis

According to the Republican Party, Wall Street, “Morning Joe”, Fox News and every neoliberal financial analyst we live in an Entitlement Society. And it is carrying us into crisis. All the entitlements they want to reform or eliminate are provided by the state. Medicare and Social Security are the biggest villains, with Medicaid hot on their heels. So the critique of the entitlement society goes hand in hand with the demand by neoliberals to divest more and more activities from the state so that the market can handle them in its way. The neoliberal claim, in contrast to both the Keynesian liberals and radical democrats they oppose, is that the more activities folded into the “impersonal” market the more rational the world will be and the less taxes the state will gulp down. You can thus have both tax reduction and deficit reduction according to this fantasy. This story is all too familiar.

But why is the fantasy so persistently pressed even amidst abundant evidence that it is not true? Well, part of the reason is a theme that lurks just below the surface of neoliberal rhetoric. The more that the state safety net is handed over to the private sector the larger the number of constituencies who will be totally dependent on the market; they will be locked into a logic of opposing taxes, identifying with entrepreneurs and corporate elites, resisting market regulation, demonizing the poor, and defunding state activities that cannot be defined as military, crime control, or subsidies for “job creators”. Many moderates and Independents are also tempted by this story, as they struggle to make ends meet and wish they could locate an automatic way to resolve our ills without intervening in a gridlocked political process. Neoliberalism both satisfies market ideologues and plays to many people trying to get through the day without adding close involvement in the political dynamic to their heavy agenda of responsibilities.

The most obvious thing to note about the above “entitlements”, of course, is that each generation pays into these funds and each promises to support the next in turn through its payments. They are funded through a cross-generational social contract that builds trust across the generations. They are not welfare, though Medicaid is an exception.  Neoliberals do not like such programs in part because they want all social trust to be funneled into market processes rather than into cross generational links between citizens.  They also don’t like the fact that these programs work well, setting dangerous counter examples to their chant that the “cumbersome” state can never be successful and efficient. 

Given that background let’s look more deeply into why the word “entitlement” applied to the poor and middle classes is so appealing to the neoliberal Right. Why choose that word as the title of choice? Let’s peel this onion to uncover its rhetorical power.

Well, on the first layer there is the idea that too many people have come to feel entitled to benefits which they have not earned within the market place. The implication is that even if people pay into these programs they still have not earned a return on their investment by cashing quarterly dividend checks and profiting from the low tax on investment returns.  The mythic idea is that the corporate rich take risks to earn profits while others merely siphon off the largesse of the state. Very few remember to add that the rich can often pass their losses down the line to save themselves, or that the state is formally accountable to the electorate while the market is accountable only to itself.

The rich and the super-rich..."demand and receive special entitlements in the shape of a news media that coddles them, huge subsidies from the state for their enterprises, undue deference by those who seek jobs or philanthropy from them, an amazingly low estate tax, tax laws that allow them to pay a lower percentage of their incomes than their employees, and special access to public officials to ensure that their activities are not closely regulated in the public interest."

The word “entitlement”, however, does much more than merely quarantine those who earn their income from jobs and pay into public programs from those who profit from market processes.  It also conceals under the rubric of this shaky private/public split how one constituency works both sides of it to become the most entitled constituency of all.  I refer here, of course, to the rich and the super-rich. They demand and receive special entitlements in the shape of a news media that coddles them, huge subsidies from the state for their enterprises, undue deference by those who seek jobs or philanthropy from them, an amazingly low estate tax, tax laws that allow them to pay a lower percentage of their incomes than their employees, and special access to public officials to ensure that their activities are not closely regulated in the public interest. Indeed, as Paul Krugman details in a recent NYT column entitled “Egos and Immortality” this class feels entitled to curtail any criticism of its position, resources and excessiveness. They dismiss it as “class envy” when such charges are brought from any quarter. They confuse envy with indignation. Wall streeters, he says, “are spoiled brats with immense power and wealth at their disposal.” And they are using that wealth to “buy immunity from criticism.”  Let’s say, they feel entitled to put us at risk and to squash our attempts to hold them accountable for doing so. 

We do face an entitlement crisis, then. But it is not the one identified by Fox News and the Neoliberal Right. It is the one concealed by the nomenclature and attacks by the Right. What’s more, as the recent economic meltdown in 2008 demonstrated, these entitlements are not only unjust, they are extremely dangerous. A class entitlement to escape regulation while putting at risk a whole society, and indeed world, is nothing to sneeze at.  And as we have seen most recently, even if a world wide depression is avoided after such a meltdown, its costs and sacrifices gradually trickle down the social ladder until they, too, reach those at the middle and bottom layers of society. So, the rich and the superrich feel entitled to monopolize the largesse when growth occurs and to pass down the costs of their adventurism when the bottom falls out.  That is a hell of a lot of entitlement. That is precisely why so many are so eager to publicize the false version of “the entitlement society” today, within state legislatures controlled by the Republican Party, through Superpacs allowed by the gang of five neoliberals on the Supreme Court, and on the 24 hour News Media.  Reduce the deficit, they chant, by curtailing programs supporting the middle and poor classes. Quietly accept the double-trickle down process. But don’t you dare touch the entitlements of the rich that put everyone else at risk.

The real entitlement crisis also puts democracy at risk, as Steven Johnston has shown in a recent post on TCC. It would take action on numerous fronts to expose, shame and tame the real entitlement class. Media exposes, blog assaults, public protests, electoral victories, teach-ins, new Supreme Court appointees to replace those now governed by neoliberal ideology—all these and more would be needed. The goal would be to galvanize the young and minorities of numerous sorts to take back this culture from the entitlement class.

The stakes are high.   Many leaders of the entitlement class believe that we are ordained to drink this socially toxic cocktail to protect their largesse, subsidies, social risk taking, privileges and expectations of deference. And too many outside the elite who aspire to the same entitlements identify too strongly with them. Some right wing Christians, for instance, celebrate such entitlements, now acting as if God himself has invested economic markets with divine dispensation. And many in the business elite actively support state lotteries, partly to create new business opportunities and also perhaps to build up false hope among the down and out who cannot get good jobs or pay accountants to minimize their taxes. It is worth noting that evangelists who once opposed gambling as much as they did sex out of marriage have more or less dropped their concern about the first activity. 

When the next meltdown occurs many identifying with the entitlement class will be tempted to impose a neofascist response upon those who protest against its irrational leadership and largesse. For, you see, those who are most intensely and totally committed to such actual or aspirational entitlements are apt to go to any lengths to preserve and protect them. You already see signs of this intensity in laws to disenfranchise poor voters, in the eagerness with which pseudo-doubts about Obama’s American birth and Christian faith are embraced, in the way Romney’s base welcomes the bald lies fueling his campaign, in the secrecy by which the corporate right funds Superpacs to weaken unions and support voter suppression,  in the ugly primary campaigns by Bachmann, Gingrich, and Santorum, in the racially fueled intensity of the gun lobby, and in the disconnect between the Supreme Court’s protection of corporate hegemony in the name of freedom and its treatment of regular citizens suspected of crime or its tolerance of voter disenfranchisement.  This is not a Supreme Court that “strictly” interprets the Constitution. It is one that folds a neoliberal, corporate ideology into its interpretation of key statements in the Constitution. 

Where will President Romney, if and when elected, turn as such right wing drives intensify? I recall that a lot of people said during the 2000 election that George W. Bush was a moderate, compassionate Republican.  Don’t worry too much if he is elected, they said. And, besides, a Democratic defeat will force the party to become more progressive. They were correct that the democratic Left needed to become much more active in the micropolitics of churches, schools, families, unions, localities, protests, consumption choices, and cross-state citizen movements. But two horrible, unfunded wars later it turned out that they could not have been more mistaken about the wisdom of handing an election over to the right wing. 

Now we hear that Romney, too, is a moderate playing to an extremist base to win an election. Or, sometimes we hear that he is a hollow, flip flopper who is not too dangerous for that very reason. I believe the latter is true, but this truth makes him an extremely dangerous man. Hollow men, if you scratch them, turn out to be loaded with existential resentment. They resent their own hollowness, and they seek others upon whom to vent that resentment. The young Romney at Cranbrook Boarding School could, for instance, recruit a gang to hold down a teen age boy and cut off his blonde locks, just because that boy’s distinctiveness assaulted Romney’s fragile sense of normality. Don’t believe his bullshit story that nobody in his generation was alert to the issue of sexuality.  I am older and more honest than Romney, and I grew up in southern Michigan too. I once even voted for his daddy for Governor because he opposed the Vietnam War before Democratic officials were prepared to do so. The issue of sexuality was a regular topic of nervous, ill-informed and defensive conversation in locker rooms. And yet nobody I knew took the sort of action Mitt Romney adopted. 

When the going gets tough for them powerful, hollow men revert to repression.  And this hollow man already has “a base” urging him on, one that could soon control both houses of Congress. If you seek to understand the psychology of a President Romney watch The Conformist by Bernardo Bertolucci. That hollow man first joined the fascists in Italy to protect the fragility of his identity and then attacked the fascists as traitors as soon as the Allied victory over Mussolini was complete. He was not merely a flip-flop artist. He was a hollow man.

The real entitlement crisis threatens democracy and economic stability together.

William E. Connolly

William E. Connolly is a political theorist known for his work on democracy and pluralism. He is the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.

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