What is are these "entitlements" I keep reading about? Just today, Rupert's Wall Street Journal had a headline that stated, "White House targeting entitlement limits." This must be a good thing, because, really, feeling entitled is an unattractive trait. If applied to our tax dollars, a sense of entitlement is downright unpatriotic.
Are they the $1.8 trillion given to defense contractors since 2006, including $400-billion-and-counting for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, intended as as an "affordable" mass-production jet that is now 70 percent over budget? Are they the huge subsidies that the fossil fuel industries receive from American taxpayers? (Worldwide, burning up the planet is being subsidized at a rate of $2 trillion).
Speaking of entitlements, don't forget the $3.4 trillion in corporate profits that are allowed to be parked elsewhere. This allowed these companies to avoid paying taxes that maintain the commons which allowed them flourish in the first place. Public policy tilted to make the rich richer, rather than encouraging them to create companies and jobs? Don't forget carried interest for hedge-fund financiers. And it's not just the rich — our entire society is tilted to heavily subsidize sprawl and single-occupancy vehicles traveling on roads that do not pay for themselves in basic ciphering, much less their costs in climate change. Surely these and more are what is meant when we hear of "entitlements," "cutting entitlements" and "entitlement reform."
One basic rule in journalism is to avoid lightning-rod words such as this ("reform" is another). Although I break it myself sometimes, it's also a good axiom for critical thinking. I don't know about you, but I've been paying into Social Security and paying taxes that helped finance Medicare since I was seventeen. I helped finance the social safety net, such as it is, small by the standards of advanced nations, for my grandparents and parents generations. I did this gladly. It is part of the compact between generations. If I ever am able to stop working for a paycheck, and I am a work-minded person, I certainly won't feel as if my Social Security is an "entitlement."
Now we're deluged with information about an "aging society" and so many more retirees being supported by relatively fewer workers compared with, say the 1970s. This might be more persuasive if taxes weren't so low — not just on the 1 percent but even down into the middle class. If corporations weren't dodging taxes. If we weren't spending a trillion bucks a year on a national-security state, and god knows how you even calculate the costs of empire.
But the more subtle message is: Blame the baby boomers. Break the compact.
Young people entering the labor force need explanations for why their wages now are less than what mine were when I was their age, with this handicapping their earnings trajectory for life. They want to know why opportunity is so stunted and economic mobility constricted except for the elite. And they confront these barriers while carrying historic highs in student debt. The large generation born between 1946 and 1964 is a good target for blame. To be fair, it doesn't help that the two Boomer presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, left legacies that ranged from the tarnished (Bill) to the criminal (W.).But the non-silver-spoon Boomers were the first generation to be forced into 401(k)s instead of receiving traditional pensions. Lose your job and you're over fifty — you're out of luck. Boomers my age will have to wait until 67 to get Social Security, unless the eligibility age is moved again, and actuarially many of us will be dead before we can ever claim benefits from a system we paid into our entire working lives. And this is not a monolithic generation. Older Boomers, particularly those in red states, may be willing to sign onto a plan that would preserve (or so the Republicans and President Obama would claim) most benefits for them, while reducing benefits and moving the eligibility goalposts for everybody else.
Rulers of most societies through history have always needed enemies, not just external and internal for the nation as a whole, but ones it can set classes and generations against. They do this to help preserve their position. A famous example was in the Jim Crow South, where poor whites and poor blacks faced many of the same challenges. Instead, they were the most bitter antagonists. Part of this is human nature, the kicked needing someone lower to kick in return. But the Southern oligarchs also ensured that the two groups were kept at odds. Otherwise, the pair would have swept the elite away. Huey Long was a dangerous man, no doubt (as FDR believed), but he also was a rare Southern politician to largely set aside color and target the rich.
My research and boots on the ground tell me it's tough all over, at least age-wise. I hear from many Boomers who can't get work because of their age. I talk to Gen X-ers worried about being pushed out in favor of a cheaper Millennial. There is a great divergence in opportunity, far different from the country in which I grew up. But we're being thrown against each other, taught to resent.
Someone benefits from this distraction. It's not the majority.