Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What's In a Word?

After years of complaining that environmentalists are not liberals and that “job creators” who defile the environment are not conservatives, I’ve come to accept having been tilting at windmills. I was about to give up my gallant stand against the misuse of the word “entitlement” until reading Hendrik Hertzbergs’s article in the April 8 New Yorker. Evidently the first usage of the word in its current context is as recent as Ronald Reagan’s presidency and was novel enough at the time to require quotation marks. Daniel Patrick Moynihan didn’t think much of it, calling it “semantic infiltration.” But the Great Communicator has prevailed until now, specifically denigrating social programs of which he disapproved.

His targets were most notably Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but only Medicaid fits this description. It is a benefit, like police and military protection to which citizens are entitled even though they may not have paid a penny toward the system. Medicaid might have been one of those unspecified loopholes Romney had in mind eliminating, a loophole for poor people to get free health care.

Social Security and Medicare are literally insurance policies paid for, like it or not, by the beneficiaries. Whether a person is insured by government through deductions from wages or pays for insurance privately, he or she is still purchasing insurance. Why is only one such transaction considered an entitlement?

For its first eighty years Social Security took in so much more than it paid that its trust fund is currently one of the government’s major creditors. It is expected to start costing the government money in twenty years. Should people who contributed to past surpluses now be expected to accept reduced benefits in advance of a legitimate need, to help people of wealth retain their current tax status?

Medicare is costing the government money today. We have the most expensive per capita health system of industrialized nations and yet are well down the list in almost every category. We’re simply not getting our money’s worth. I heard on NPR that the lion’s share of people with heavy offshore investments are not financiers like Romney, but from the medical complex. My prime suspects are hospital administrators. Yes they have their share of freebies. But their numbers pale before the size of known overcharges. “Non-profit,” a euphemism for tax exempt, doesn’t limit salaries of administrators.

If one accepts Mr. Hertzberg’s conclusion that the accepted meaning of entitlement is not yet etched in stone let me take a stab at it and suggest that it describes more than food stamps. It also can be fairly said of something into which many fortunate people are born, people like Mitt Romney and the Kennedys.

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