The right-wing strategy in the current presidential campaign is now clear: it’s all about attacking the so-called entitlement society.

The terms of the strategy were first announced by Mitt Romney in a December 2011 op-ed piece:

In less than a year, the American people will go to the polls and choose a new president. A matter of great moment is at stake in this election. The question we will decide is this: Will the United States be an Entitlement Society or an Opportunity Society?

In an Entitlement Society, government provides every citizen the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to innovate, pioneer or take risk. In an Opportunity Society, free people living under a limited government choose whether or not to pursue education, engage in hard work, and pursue the passion of their ideas and dreams. If they succeed, they merit the rewards they are able to enjoy.

Those same terms are repeated in Paul Ryan’s budget proposals and by the Wall Street Journal/American Enterprise Institute (and then invoked as a scare chart by Greg Mankiw).

This is what the world looks like according to those who decry what they perceive to be the dependence of able-bodied, working-age, black and Hispanic Americans on government handouts:

There are at least three issues that need to be raised here.

First, we need to contest the meaning of dependence. In particular, why is selling one’s ability to work for a wage or salary any less a form of dependence than receiving some form of government assistance? It certainly is a different kind of dependence—on employers rather than on one’s fellow citizens—and probably a form of dependence that is more arbitrary and capricious—since employers have the freedom to hire people when and where they want, while government assistance is governed by clear rules.

Second, as I showed yesterday, corporations have been successful in shifting the financing of government assistance programs from their surpluses to workers’ incomes. But the solution to the pressure on current workers’ standard of living is not to cut government programs but to change how they’re financed.

Finally, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has shown, most of the benefit dollars that entitlement and other mandatory programs spend go to assist people who are elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households—not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work.*

These are the main ideas—the meaning of dependence, the financing of government programs, and the recipients of social insurance expenditures (like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and unemployment benefits)—that challenge the terms of the attack on the so-called entitlement society, which the Republican machine doesn’t want us to see or to raise in the existing debate.

*And there’s one other issue that needs to be raised: the distribution of entitlement benefits stands in sharp contrast to the distribution of benefits for tax expenditures, which represent (to use the Republican language) “tax entitlements.” According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the top fifth of the population receives 66 percent of tax-expenditure benefits (compared to 10 percent of entitlement benefits), while the middle 60 percent of the population receives a little over 31 percent of tax-expenditure benefits (compared to 58 percent of entitlement benefits) and the  bottom fifth receives just 2.8 percent of tax-expenditure benefits (compared to 32 percent of entitlement benefits). The top 1 percent of the population alone receives 23.9 percent of tax-expenditure benefits—more than eight times as much as the bottom fifth of the population, and nearly as much as the middle 60 percent of the population. Who, then, is benefiting from, and contributing to the declining culture of, the so-called entitlement society?


While I’m at it, how are the profits that are received by private-equity companies (like Bain Capital), not to mention the multimillion-dollar payouts to CEOs, not themselves a form of dependence on the surplus created by workers in enterprises they invest in and manage? Don’t venture capitalists and other members of the 1 percent feel entitled to receive their large share of the booty society produces—and then to pay lower and lower taxes on their cut?

  1. Stephen E Cullenberg says:

    Excellent post.

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Cornelius says:

    Fantastic post. I’m also not sure that Romney/Ryan’s plan will increase equality of opportunity: John Roemer has studied this, and found that equal opportunity is best in countries like Sweden and Norway, which have substantial welfare state measures and free postsecondary education.

  3. […] Earlier this month, I explained the terms of the right-wing attack on government programs for the poor, elderly, and disabled, a campaign Romney announced in a December 2011 op-ed piece. It’s a campaign he continued by choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate. […]

  4. I really appreciate this blog post. You make very good points. I think we see the world differently but I like the parallels you make. Here’s a post I made on the same subject, just a different take.

  5. […] other, as I’ve tried to do before, is to contest the whole idea of dependence on the […]

  6. […] this is the intellectual caliber of people who teach economics in leading US […]

  7. Z says:

    Good post. There is so much “newspeak” around this — social security and unemployment benefits seen as “welfare” and that being seen as bad, etc. And if you are rich you are deserving, apparently — all the talk about “personal responsibility” does not apply to them.

  8. […] I wrote back in 2012 (at the early stages of the previous presidential campaign), there are at least two […]

  9. […] in 2012, I suggested we need to contest the meaning of […]

  10. […] in 2012, I suggested we need to contest the meaning of […]

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