WASHINGTON — Let's drop the whole notion of "entitlement." Just eliminate it. Politicians, pundits and academics who talk about entitlements would then have to name the actual programs and argue their merits and demerits. This would encourage clarity and candor.
Of course, that's why it won't happen. Generally, Americans don't want clarity and candor in their fiscal debates.
We blame our leaders for budget brawls — this latest was a doozy — but forget that our leaders are largely governed by public opinion, which is awash in contradictions.
So the government is "open" and the immediate threat of default has lifted. Great. But the political stalemate remains. Americans oppose excessive government spending and persistent deficits. Yet, they also support the individual benefit programs (aka "entitlements"), led by Social Security, that drive spending and deficits.
Until the 1980s, entitlement wasn't part of everyday language. Ronald Reagan was apparently the first president to use the term extensively.
He may have "tired of getting beaten up every time he mentioned Social Security, and wanted a broader and more neutral term," political scientist Norman Ornstein has suggested.
Entitlement is a bland label. To say there's an "entitlement problem" shrewdly avoids connecting it explicitly with popular programs. President Obama evasively speaks of entitlements in this way; so do most Republicans. Their veiled references cover Medicare and Medicaid as well as Social Security.
Two things are wrong with this.
First, it's misleading. Social Security, Medicare (health insurance for the elderly) and Medicaid (health insurance for the poor) aren't the only big entitlement programs.
Here are 12 of the largest in 2012, ranked by the number of recipients, according to the Office of Management and Budget. (Note: CHIP stands for "children's health insurance program." Child nutrition is mostly subsidized school meals. Supplemental Security Income aids the aged, blind and disabled.)
Entitlement Program Recipients, 2012:
1. Medicaid/CHIP: 63.2 million
2. Social Security: 55.8 million
3. Medicare: 49.9 million
4. Food stamps: 46.6 million
5. Child nutrition: 35 million
6. College loans: 11.3 million
7. Unemployment insurance: 8.9 million
8. Supplemental Security Income: 7.9 million