Entitlements

At present we here in the United States are in an interesting situation.

This whole year our elected representatives have been wrangling over the budget — first with the showdown over the shutdown, and now with the debt ceiling high noon. And much of the discussion has centered not on bringing more money in, but cutting the money that’s going out, usually focusing on “entitlements.”

There has been discussion of cutting all Title X funding for women’s health on the basis of “no taxpayer money for abortions,” even though none of the Title X money goes to abortions at all. There have also been proposals to effectively defund the Environmental Agency, specifically making it illegal to regulate greenhouse gasses. And most significantly there have been “bold” proposals for cutting or even effectively privatizing Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security over time, never mind that these measures would almost certainly increase costs for the poor and elderly and thus completely gut the main mission of those organizations.

Note that many of these issues are still in contention — some guaranteed not to pass, others being used as bargaining chips. Both parties, however, are agreeing to major cuts in the so-called “entitlement programs” that (mostly) benefit older and poorer folks; the difference between the parties’ positions is only in how much they’ll cut, not if. Note that the parties are also united in deregulating major industries, such as banking and telecommunications — again only differing in degree. And while President Obama has proposed raising taxes, he had the opportunity to do exactly that some months ago and, quite simply, didn’t — meaning that the parties, in deed at least, are also united on cutting taxes.

They’re also united on saying as little as possible about the defense budget. There has been some acknowledgment that the Pentagon’s share cannot be expanded much further, but this year’s “cut” was actually a six percent increase, only a reduction in that it could have been much more. The defense budget, by the way, is almost double what it was in 2001. It’s six times what the next-biggest spender, China, forks out for its armed forces. China could fight us if it chose to attack its biggest customers and kill their economic boom; Russia, spending half of what China does, could fight us… if it were 1962. The other six big military spenders are all such close allies that if they’re against us, we’ve already lost. In short, there is absolutely no credible military threat to us in any way. Terrorism is a different story, but ten years ago we invaded a country to catch one criminal, a decade later, that criminal is dead because of long and patient spying combined with a rather small assassination raid. The war we began for his head is increasingly irrelevant; the Iraq War was certainly a total diversion, and a brutally costly one at that. Meanwhile almost all the terrorist attacks prevented since the wars began were partially caused by the wars, while they were in fact prevented mostly by careful police action and good luck, not military operations. War as a method of preventing terrorism seems to leave something to be desired, considering what other options are available and necessary.

In short all our wars are wars of choice, and the choices we’ve made have mostly proven poor. Yet the military budget goes up, while the “entitlement” programs are threatened with evisceration or extinction.

Why is it that no one calls the “defense” budget an entitlement program? Considering that the Pentagon cannot pass a basic audit and cannot account for billions given away in no-bid contracts, it would seem to have as much fiscal responsibility — or lack thereof — as the worst hypothetical welfare queen. And you bet the contractors feel entitled to the money; the merest whiff of a cutback and howls of protest are raised, lobbyists dispatched, members of Congress bought.

There are other giveaways that could be termed “entitlement” programs, yet aren’t labeled as such: the FCC’s de facto legalization of media monopolies, for instance, have effectively given away the public airways at zero profit for the public. Wall Street, the author of our current financial woes, makes its money in ways that were illegal not too long ago, before the big banks persuaded both parties to let their lobbyists rewrite the law; when the disasters those laws warded off duly came upon us, we got the “too big to fail” banks back on their feet, which… as might be said… only encourages them. In short Wall Street felt entitled to the people’s money and got it. Finally there are the tax cuts for the wealthy. Ask any of the beneficiaries of those cuts if they’re entitled to keep the money we’re now, in essence, giving back to them.

It is frequently said of giving money to the poor — on the personal or the governmental scale — that it’s worse than useless because “they’ll only buy booze/drugs/etc.” with the money. To my knowledge only my mother has ever said, “Don’t give that CEO a tax cut, he’ll only buy a yacht.”

Perhaps no one calls these giveaways of the public wealth “entitlement” because neither party is at all interested in anything but the status quo (as I said here). But the status quo cannot endure; radical action will be needed. Yet there is no voice for that action. The Democrats and the Republicans do differ somewhat — look at health care — and I do not wish to say that President Obama has done nothing. But he has positioned himself as the ultimate guardian of business as usual. His Secretary of the Treasury was in New York as the economy tanked, and did nothing; his chief of staff is, of all people, a Daley. Guantanamo is still open, the warrantless wiretaps continue. The wars go on, and even spread. Change, indeed. The differences between Democrats and Republicans are clear, and the differences are not enough.

So it is up to us.

It is tempting to say, “We must reclaim the Democratic Party!” — or even the Republican Party instead. But every politician, in either party, is there because they were good at the game as it is. You’d have to gut the party leadership.

In that case it’s tempting to say, “We must establish a third party!” But first off, nothing united the two extant parties more than a third. You might say they feel entitled to their position. And I have to wonder at the long-term wisdom of responding to the GOP becoming the Tea Party and the Democrats becoming the GOP by creating a new liberal party that would, in time, fall prey to exactly the same problems.

No, any purely political solution would be at best a band-aid, at worst cosmetic. Even a constitutional change would only be first aid. Even a grassroots campaign might not have any real effect. None of these methods would treat the fundamental problem that we’re wrestling with.

What we need is not a change of party, a change of government, or a change of constitution. What we need is a change of mind.

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2 thoughts on “Entitlements

  1. “Don’t give that CEO a tax cut, he’ll only buy a yacht.” – Your mother is a wise person!
    Really nice presentation of the current issues at stake. After taking political science at UW, I found it hard to rally behind the “we need a third party!” people, as every third party in history has just taken over for one of the two others… In this first-past-the-post system, it’ll always come back to two parties duking it out over the center. Really not sure what a solution would be.

    What would a change of mind look like to you?

    • A change of mind… well, I’ve given some indication in other essays, and I’ll continue to do so… but for now, here’s a paraphrased quote from a story I wrote:

      “Sides. Why do people love to be on sides? We’re all on the same side, and that’s the breathing side…”

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