The Twilight of Entitlement. By Robert Samuelson. Real Clear Politics, April 29, 2013.
– We are passing through something more than a period of disappointing economic
growth and increasing political polarization. What’s happening is more
powerful: the collapse of “entitlement.” By this, I do not mean primarily cuts
in specific government benefits, most prominently Social Security, but the
demise of a broader mindset – attitudes and beliefs – that, in one form or
another, has gripped Americans since the 1960s. The breakdown of these ideas
has rattled us psychologically as well as politically and economically.
1995 book, The Good Life and Its
Discontents, I defined entitlement as our expectations “about the kind of
nation we were creating and what that meant for all of us individually”:
We had a grand vision. We didn’t merely
expect things to get better. We expected all social problems to be solved. We
expected business cycles, economic insecurity, poverty, and racism to end. We
expected almost limitless personal freedom and self-fulfillment. For those who
couldn’t live life to its fullest (as a result of old age, disability, or bad
luck), we expected a generous social safety net to guarantee decent lives. We
blurred the distinction between progress and perfection.
Clinton has a pithier formulation: “If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll
have the freedom and opportunity to pursue your own dreams.” That’s
entitlement. “Responsible” Americans should be able to attain realistic
more. Millions of Americans who have “played by the rules” are in distress or
fear that they might be. In a new Allstate/National Journal survey, 65 percent
of respondents said today’s middle class has less “job and financial security”
than their parents’ generation; 52 percent asserted there is less “opportunity
to get ahead.” The middle class is “more anxious than aspirational,” concluded
the poll’s sponsors. Similarly, the Employee Benefit Research Institute found
that only 51 percent of workers are confident they’ll have enough money to
retire comfortably, down from 70 percent in 2007.
national goals remain elusive. Poverty is stubborn. Many schools seem
inadequate. The “safety net,” private and public, is besieged. Our expansive
notion of entitlement rested on optimistic and, ultimately, unrealistic
that economists knew enough to moderate the business cycle, guaranteeing jobs
for most people who wanted them. This seemed true for many years; from 1980 to
2007, the economy created 47 million non-farm jobs. The Great Recession
revealed the limits of economic management. The faith in a crude stability
that large corporations (think: General Motors, AT&T) were so dominant that
they could provide secure jobs and generous benefits – health insurance,
pensions – for much of the labor force. Deregulation, foreign competition and
new technologies changed all this. Companies became more cost-conscious,
cutting jobs and squeezing fringe benefits. The private “safety net” has shrunk.
that improvements in economic efficiency (aka, “productivity”) would lift
living standards and finance bigger government without steeper taxes.
Government could pay for new programs by taking a fixed share of rising
incomes. In reality, greater income inequality has dampened middle-class living
standards, while existing programs – soaring health costs and the effects of an
aging population – have claimed an ever-larger share of taxes.
that lifestyle choices – to marry or not, have children, or divorce – would
expand individual freedom without inflicting adverse social consequences.
Wrong. Family breakdown has deepened poverty and worsened children’s prospects.
About 30 percent of children live with either one parent or no parent; on average,
their life chances are poorer than those in two-parent households.
down by these contradictions, entitlement has been slowly crumbling for
decades. The Great Recession merely applied the decisive blow. We’re not
entitled to many things: not to a dynamic economy; not to secure jobs; not to
homeownership; not to ever-more protective government; not to fixed tax
burdens; not to a college education. Sooner or later, the programs called “entitlements,”
including Social Security, will be trimmed because they’re expensive and some
recipients are less deserving than others.
collision between present realities and past expectations helps explain the
public’s extraordinary moodiness. The pandering to the middle class by both
parties (and much of the media) represents one crude attempt to muffle the
disappointment, a false reassurance that the pleasing past can be reclaimed. It
can’t. This does not mean the economy can’t improve. Derek Thompson, writing in
The Atlantic, suggests that when “millennials”
end their delays in marrying, having children and buying homes, they will
administer a welcome stimulus to growth. The trouble is that today’s grievances
transcend the economy.
post-entitlement era, people’s expectations may be more grounded. But political
conflicts – who gets, who gives -- and social resentments will be, as they
already are, sharper. Entitlement implied an almost-limitless future. Facing
limits is a contentious exercise in making choices.