With Ryan's Ascent, A Few Thoughts On 'Entitlement' The Republican vice presidential pick wants to take another look at programs like Medicare and Social Security. Fresh Air's resident linguist parses the word "entitlement" in its political and nonpolitical contexts.
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With Ryan's Ascent, A Few Thoughts On 'Entitlement'

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With Ryan's Ascent, A Few Thoughts On 'Entitlement'

With Ryan's Ascent, A Few Thoughts On 'Entitlement'

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Mitt Romney's choice of Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate suggests a major focus of the fall campaign will be on fiscal issues, particularly on the cost of programs called entitlements. But as our linguist Geoff Nunberg points out, that word carries a lot of social and political baggage.

GEOFF NUNBERG: People are saying that Mitt Romney's selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate creates an opportunity to hold what Ryan likes to call an adult conversation about entitlement spending. In the present political climate, it would be heartening to have an adult conversation about anything.

But it helps to bear in mind that the word entitlement doesn't put all its cards on the table. Like a lot of political language, it can enable you to slip from one idea to another without ever letting on that you've changed the subject.

Entitlement originally had two separate meanings, which entered the language along very different paths. One sense of the word was an obscure political legalism until the advent of the Great Society programs that some economists called uncontrollables. Technically, entitlements are just programs that provide benefits that aren't subject to budgetary discretion.

But the word also implied that the recipients had a moral right to the benefits. As LBJ said in justifying Medicare: By God, you can't treat grandma that way. She's entitled to it. The negative connotations of the word arose in a very distant corner of the language, when psychologists began to use a different notion of entitlement as a diagnostic for narcissism.

Both those words entered everyday usage in the late 1970s, with a big boost from Christopher Lasch's 1979 best-seller "The Culture of Narcissism", an indictment of the pathological self-absorption of American life. By the early '80s, you no longer had to preface sense of entitlement with unwarranted or bloated. That was implicit in the word entitlement itself, which had become the epithet of choice whenever you wanted to scold a group like the Baby Boomers for their superficiality and selfishness.

Granted, these polemics belong to an ancient genre. People may not have talked about entitlement as such before the Boomers and Generation X. But critics were saying similar things about the generations of the '50s, of the '20s, of the 1890s, and so on back to Generations A and B. It's hard to think of any age when people weren't saying: Kids today, I'm here to tell you.

Still, entitled isn't quite the same as time-honored reproaches like spoiled. Like narcissistic, entitled adds a tone of clinical authority. If you want to know if someone is spoiled, you ask your grandmother; if you want to know if they've got a sense of entitlement, you ask Dr. Joyce.

And while spoiled suggests someone at the mercy of infantile needs, a sense of entitlement implies a legal or moral claim. When you give a kid who's spoiled a B-minus on his final, he comes to your office hours and throws a tantrum about how he needs an A to get into medical school. When you give the same grade to a kid with a sense of entitlement, you're apt to get a call from the family lawyer.

The two words spread the blame around differently, too. Spoiling begins and ends at home. But while parents are blamed for creating entitled children, critics of the entitlement epidemic find lots of other culprits for it - from the media-fed obsession with celebrity to schools that over-praise their pupils, feminism, affirmative action, plastic surgery, cheap credit cards and Wikipedia.

But it's only when critics get to the role of government that the two meanings of entitlement start to seep into each other. On the one hand, the psychological sense of the word colors its governmental meaning. When people fulminate about the cost of government entitlements these days, there's often the implicit modifier, unearned, lurking in the background.

And that in turn makes it easier to think of those programs as the cause of a wider social malaise - that they create what critics call a culture of dependency or a class of takers, both of them ways of referring to what the Victorians called the undeserving poor.

This isn't a new argument. The early opponents of Social Security charged that it would discourage individual thrift and reduce Americans to the level of Europeans. But now the language itself helps make the argument, by using the same word for the political cause and the cultural effect.

You can deplore the entitlement society without actually having to say whether you mean the social or political sense of the word, or even acknowledging that there's any difference between them. It's a strategic rewriting of linguistic history, as if we call the benefits entitlements simply because people feel entitled.

But to make that linguistic fusion work, you have to bend both meanings of the words to fit. When people rail about the cost of government entitlements, they're thinking of social benefits like Medicare, not the price supports or the tax breaks that some economists call hidden entitlements.

And what people call the culture of entitlement is elastic enough to include both the high-school senior who's been told he has a right to get into Harvard and the out-of-work plumber who isn't bothering to look for a job because he knows his unemployment check is in the mail. But it rarely stretches to include the hedge-fund manager who makes a life model of Ayn Rand's Howard Roark, who's actually the most conspicuous monster of entitlement in all of modern American literature.

No question, it would be useful to have an adult conversation about entitlement and entitlements. Not that politicians or pundits are about to abandon the words or the semantic sleight-of-hand that's built into them. But with more people paying closer attention, those moves may be a little harder to get away with.

DAVIES: Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at Berkeley School of Information. His new book "Ascent of the A Word" will be published this week.

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