“Entitlement” is not a four-letter word, but in many circles it is flung about with the same disgust and anger that people use when cussing.
What we mean when we cuss entitlements, however, is inconsistent. Most of us, for example, have heard older conservatives lambaste people who are on Medicaid, food stamps or other welfare programs, but they also complain that they aren’t receiving enough Medicare and Social Security.
This American perspective is fueled by politicians who continually reinforce the myth that this is an “us vs. them” system. Their goal is to win support and votes by making you feel as if you aren’t getting your fair share, but that someone else is getting way too much.
An example of this divisive rhetoric comes from the Koch-supported Kansas Policy Institute, which has been hammering away at public employees’ pensions. The conservative political outfit — a tax-exempt organization — thinks it is horribly excessive that some long-time public employees will, over a 20-year retirement, receive more than a million dollars in pension payments.
The same organization also argues that it is horribly burdensome to expect millionaires — such as some coaches at Kansas universities — to pay any state income taxes.
It’s not that pensions for public employees — or big salaries — should be sacred issues that can’t be discussed.
Civil debate is worthwhile. That debate should encompass the cost of public pension funds to taxpayers. And it also should include discussion about why university coaches are typically the highest paid public employees in the state.
Are they entitled to such largesse?
It does seem that we are creating special entitlement niches for a few public employees, not only at the local and state level, but also at the federal level.
For example, the controversies created by EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt have as much to do with his sense of entitlement as his policy decisions.
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency has demanded around-the-clock security since taking office. He ordered the EPA to build him a secure $43,000 phone booth in his office suite. He has forced EPA staff to partner with lobbyists and special interests to arrange expensive foreign travel.
Pruitt feels entitled to special treatment. Similarly, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke orders National Park staff to provide his friends and family with free tours and special access, while at the same time demanding that the rest of us pay outrageous increases in entrance fees.
No modern presidency has appeared so out of touch with Americans.
Yes, it’s true that the senior George Bush appeared puzzled by the then-common use of bar codes. And yes, the Reagans were criticized for adding glitz and glamour to the White House following the comparatively modest style of the Carters.
But they are no competition for a president who spends roughly 20 percent of his time on the golf course, who defends and promotes cabinet members’ expensive tastes and travel, and who mixes business, politics and pleasure without thought of ethics or conflicts of interest.
We are seeing a sense of entitlement that is unprecedented.
That will make it more difficult to address the increasingly expensive entitlement programs funded by taxpayers.
Most Americans are willing to discuss reform of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other entitlement programs. But only if the politicians who are making the decisions show that they are sincere in their efforts and careful with our money.
But when officials demean ordinary Americans who depend on entitlements while using public funds to finance lives of luxury, reform becomes a much harder sale.
Many conservatives think they can make it — by focusing on the “us and them” narrative, claiming that some people are getting too much at taxpayer expense.
But the people who are getting the most are those who already have the most. And while the overall cost may not be great, Americans ought to question the motives and the logic of political leaders who want all of us to sacrifice, while demanding that we pay for their expensive tastes, habits and hobbies.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.