Thursday, September 29, 2011

Our Many Layers of Entitlement

The entitlement mindset includes much more than government benefits programs.

The word entitlement commonly refers to government benefits to which we are entitled as taxpayers and/or citizens/residents. But there are layers of entitlement in the American psyche far beyond government benefits programs.

Let's start with the government benefits entitlements. The programs most people refer to as entitlements are Social Security and Medicare, which taxpayers pay for with payroll taxes (even if the money just goes into one giant Federal pot).

Beyond these "I paid into them" entitlements are the "welfare" entitlements of Medicaid, Section 8 Housing, SNAP/food stamps, etc., which are paid out of general tax revenues and which are available to anyone who qualifies, regardless of their status as taxpayers.

Buried within Social Security is another large entitlement program for the disabled and dependents (widows and orphans).

Veterans are entitled to benefits as a result of their military service, as are their families.

Employers pay for other employment-related entitlements: Federal and state unemployment, workers compensation and disability insurance, etc.

The entitlement mindset is thus firmly established in the American psyche. If we experience bad luck and/or the negative consequences of poor choices, we have been trained to expect the government at some level to alleviate our suffering, cut us a check or otherwise address our difficulties.

The poisonous problem with the entitlement mindset is intrinsic to human nature:once we "deserve" something, then our minds fill with resentment and greed, and we focus obsessively on creating multiple rationalizations for why we "deserve our fair share."

Eventually this leads to a government that has been reduced to a competitive stripmining operation in which the spoils are divided up amongst the most politically powerful Elites: in other words, the government we now have.

The entitlement mindset atrophies self-reliance, adaptability and flexibility, all key survival traits. If the government will "fix" our health, we no longer feel responsible in the way one does if there is limited government/employer-provided healthcare. If we expect our Social Security retirement regardless of what other conditions may be affecting the global economy or our nation, then we stop being responsible for managing our financial affairs in the same way as one does when there is no "guaranteed" retirement entitlement.

The question isn't whether entitlements are a "right" or not, the question is their sustainability now that the demographic, financial and energy foundations of those promises has eroded. Clearly, the government has a role in providing for public health and safety, but to claim that entitling every citizen to hundreds of thousands of dollars in healthcare is "public health" spending is absurd.

Based on projections of high-birthrates/cheap-oil/high-growth in the 1940s - 1960s, entitlement programs were promised basically forever, with no recognition that conditions might change. Now conditions have changed, demographically, financially and in terms of energy input costs.

We might usefully think of the government as a ship in a sea governed by forces too planetary to influence: the tides, currents, winds, etc. Entitlements are essentially a claim that the small ship of government "should" be able to bend the sea to its will, regardless of what tidal forces, winds and currents are at work.

we can claim it's our "right" not to sink, but gravity and the ocean do not respond to our claims of permanent "rights."

But these direct government entitlements only scratch the surface of our sense of entitlement. We don't just expect healthcare and retirement; if we're honest with ourselves, don't we also expect these other entitlements?

1. Cheap and abundant fuels and energy. We can debate whether this constitutes an implicit "right" or an entitlement, but the point is that Americans expect unlimited fuels and energy at low cost, and if cheap, abundant energy vanishes then they will demand "somebody make this right," with the "somebody" presumably in government and certainly not the individual American or his community.

2. Ever-more government services and benefits, i.e. the entitlement mindset knows no bounds.

3. Full employment and bountiful employment opportunities. If we can't find a job or create value that someone is willing to pay/trade for, then the government should create jobs out of thin air.

There are only two ways to fund "make-work" jobs: either take more money from existing wage-earners via taxes and redistribute the funds to potentially unproductive uses, or print/borrow the money into existence. Both have costs in terms of the productivity surplus of the entire nation and in the potential to destabilize the financial foundation of the economy.

4. An education suited to the demands of a global economy, etc., as opposed to providing the basic skills of learning, so the citizens can educate themselves throughout life. This distinction is lost in the endless debates over education, but in fast-changing environments and times, the only real value of any education is to learn how to learn. Though it seems "impossible" to the Status Quo educator, the world we are preparing students for--one dependent on consumer spending, cheap oil, globalization, ever-expanding government and healthcare costs, exponentially increasing debt to pay for everything, etc.--may not exist in 5 or 10 years.

5. An upper-middle class lifestyle for everyone who does what the Status Quo expects: get a graduate-level university degree, sacrifice for the corporation, remain politically silent/passive, etc. The idea that toeing the line will not result in a big-bucks secure profession/career is somehow a violation of the social/financial contract of Corporate America--once again, a right or an entitlement that is implicit in the American psyche.

6. Cheap and plentiful food. Once again, if food costs actually rose to "percentage of income spent on food" levels found in developing-world nations, Americans would undoubtedly demand that the "government do something." Once again, this is like demanding the ship's crew change the winds and tides. As oil prices rise, food costs will rise. There is no way out of this, as the primary input of agricultural costs is oil and petroleum-based fertilizers, chemicals, transport, etc. extremes of weather can ruin crops regardless of policy.

7. That the U.S. should be able to influence other nations to act in what we perceive as our best interests. The idea that we cannot persuade/force others to do what benefits us is anathema to the general entitlement mindset, e.g. "what's our oil doing under their sand?"

There are undoubtedly many more layers of implicit entitlements, and the analogy that comes to mind is a worm-riddled, leaky wooden-hulled sailing ship approaching a coral reef. The only way into the relative calm of the lagoon beyond is to lighten the ship enough to pass over the reef, or the sand bar on the other side of the lagoon.

If the ship sails on fully loaded with the heavy baggage of the entitlement mindset, the reef will either rip out its bottom or the ship will be wedged on the sand bar, where the waves will break it apart.

In other words, the destruction of the ship is guaranteed in either scenario. The only possible way to save the ship and its passengers/crew is to throw most of the inessential baggage overboard. Everything that the passengers "can't live without" will doom them if it isn't jettisoned, and soon. Once the hull has been shredded by the coral reef, or the hull is stuck on the sand bar, it will be too late: jettisoning all the financial "rights," entitlements and "essentials" will not save the ship or its crew/passengers.

The entitlement mindset is heavy baggage indeed, and the emotional content of the baggage-- resentment, anger, and a debilitating focus on "what I deserve"--is toxic to the traits we will need in abundance to weather the decade ahead: flexibility, adaptability, open-mindedness, experimentation, community and self-reliance.

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