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COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Whose Entitlements?

In the midst of the senseless rhetoric that constitutes a presidential campaign season these days, one of the right’s favorite whipping boys is what it likes to call “entitlements.” One favorite object of attack is Social Security, enacted during the New Deal to keep dependence and poverty from being the common plight of the elderly. Social Security later added SSI, or insurance against permanent partial or total disability, commonly work related. And unemployment insurance has given one or more years of minimal support to workers cast off in times of economic slump like the present. Another favorite “entitlement” target of politicians on the right, like House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, is Medicare, the government health insurance program enacted in 1965 to give low cost care, including often free hospitalization and surgery to persons over sixty-five. Both Social Security and Medicare never have been programs wherein government largesse is showered on undeserving freeloaders. They are federally run insurance programs that the vast majority of working Americans pay substantial portions of their paychecks into during the scope of their entire working lives. Hence, they are not “entitlements” in the pejorative sense the right likes to use in speaking of programs that benefit ordinary or at-risk Americans. Real entitlements, the true budget busters, are given to corporations, many of which now locate chiefly offshore.

We might start with fossil fuels industries, led by big oil, which is given billions of dollars per year in subsidies. Subsidies for startup industries are not a bad idea. The US gave them to railroads when they established the first nationwide transportation and freight networks. And they began giving them to oil in the early days of exploration, as a new source of energy was being developed. But we are far beyond those days today. Railroads, now in bad disrepair, could actually use public subsidy again, to relieve congestion and pollution and offer economically stressed Americans a thrifty alternative to the automobile. Instead we subsidize the oil driven industries that have made freeway gridlock and suburban sprawl a common fact of life. This condition contributes to climate change, wetlands depletion and species extinction. But the political class, bought by fossil fuels industries, is only too happy to sweep these issues under the rug. Thus tax dollars fund oil company propaganda that alternately denies global warming’s existence, minimizes its effects, or claims it is not human caused. Let big oil pay for its own disinformation, since it’s now richer than most countries, and not in need of subsidy.

War, or “defense,” is the source of our most subsidized industries. The US now spends close to half its federal budget on defense. China, to whom we are deep in public debt, spends six per cent. When the second president Bush began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz predicted they would run well over three trillions, and thus they have. Much of this blood money has gone to enrich weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, or war service providers such as Halliburton and Kellogg, Brown and Root. Our wars have also greatly enriched people like Erik Prince, CEO of the private army formerly known as Blackwater. Enriching private parties through war contracts would likely have constituted illegal war profiteering in the World Wars, but not in these days of permanent resource wars, waged to ensure Western oil companies’ access to whatever petroleum remains in places like the Middle East and Central Asia.

We could go on and on enumerating the billions in taxpayer dollars given to corporations. For example, Wal Mart, the world’s biggest corporation, regularly receives public subsidies to alter vast acreage and gain the rights of way necessary to build their merchandizing behemoths notorious for low wages, poor benefits and destruction of local businesses. But as five Supreme Court plutocrats have now guaranteed, only the Big Money deserves public largesse. Real flesh and blood citizens, especially the increasing numbers of poor, do not. Whatever meager help they get is disparaged as “entitlements” and slated by the likes of Paul Ryan and his enabler, would-be -President Mitt Romney, for deep budget cuts.

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.