Psychology is my professional field. Politics is my hobby. I’m a political news junkie and can name obscure pundits the way most sports fans can name the entire bench of the New York Knicks. This being an election year, I can essentially mainline my addiction. Yesterday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney named Paul D. Ryan as his running mate. For those of you who live under a rock (one of the joys of having an obsession is mocking those who don’t share your obsession), Congressman Ryan is a forty-two year old policy-wonk, representative for Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, Chair of the House Budget Committee, fan of objectivist “philosopher” and writer Ayn Rand (who he has now distanced himself from), and author of the April 2011 Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal, otherwise known as the guiding document for Republican budget proposals. The Path to Prosperity essentially suggests we need to go after Medicaire.
Ryan is irnonically (but not surprisingly) popular with Tea Party activists who infamously and illogically sport signs that read “Keep Your Government Hands off My Medicare”, proving that Red States are not only rejecting education in subjects like evolution or health, but also have dropped figurative forms such as irony from the curriculum. Ryan and his supporters have decided that debt reduction entails reducing the cost of entitlements, which most certainly includes Medicare, and capitalized on a growing perception that there are masses of individuals out there getting rich off of something they don’t deserve.
Nobody likes the word entitlement these days. Entitlement has long been a legal term signifying an individual’s right to receive a value or benefit provided by law, originating in Old French (which right away makes most Republicans suspicious) for conferring a noble title on someone. Entitlement has become a dirty word. Feeling entitled to something, while not especially humble, also implies the possibility of actually deserving something. You know, like destroying the economy, bankrupting the economy, and then feeling “entitled” to a bailout because you’re “too big to fail”. But I digress. Entitlement, in a casual sense, refers to a notion that someone (or yourself) deserves some particular benefit, and is more often than not used pejoratively these days e.g. a “sense of entitlement” is rarely used except to imply that some is not actually entitled to what they think they are, and as Americans, we tend to reject the idea that some should receive preferential treatment, unless of course that preferential treatment benefits us. For example, I am definitely entitled to the last piece of red velvet cake. Democrats feel they are entitled to moral superiority. Republicans feel they are entitled to all the money.
American culture seems to superficially (and officially) reject the notion that someone can be legally entitled to something. Simultaneously and paradoxically, pop culture promotes the notion that everyone should feel a sense of entitlement. The celebrity rags like US magazine or In-Touch literally drip with a sense of entitlement. The runner up on The Bachelor, season after season, always feels they were screwed out of the first place finish they were entitled to and thus become the next season’s bachelor. How about American Olympic Champion Ryan Lochte feeling entitled to be either on Dancing with the Stars or the next Bachelor. What about American Jordyn Weiber’s emotional breakdown at the Olympics after not qualifying for the individual all-around, as if she had been predestined for that spot? Oprah feeling entitled to an audience on her OWN network just because she had a successful book club (ok I slightly underestimate her success)? Celebrities (even the D list ones) that feel entitled to Celebrity treatment wherever they go (ok, that is a bit meta) unless they are entitled to privacy? You can see the sense of entitlement at a more local level. In New York a dog feels entitled to snacks upon entering a concierge building. I, of course, support this entitlement because in New York dogs rule!
In psychology an unrealistic, exaggerated, or rigidly held sense of entitlement may be considered a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder, seen in those who feel the right to demand lifelong reimbursement from fate. That’s perhaps an extreme way to characterize employees in the workplace. But as my blog has pointed out there is this sense of entitlement when it comes to salary expectation & negotiation, workload and emotional outbursts. Some employees are so filled with a sense of entitlement that they demand salary increases after just 4 months of working (at an average pace and workload). The sense of entitlement in the workplace is so pervasive one might think an entitlement drug has been put in the coffee. Regarding the non-profit world, there is also the sense that these agencies are working hard to get preferential treatment for particular segments of the population, especially since government funding patterns “favor” certain populations.
Politically, an entitlement is a guarantee of access to benefits based on established rights or by legislation. A “right” is itself an entitlement associated with a moral or social principle, such that an “entitlement” is a provision made in accordance with the legal framework of a society. With Medicare and healthcare one can argue that these should not be pejoratively labeled as entitlements since they concern fundamental issues of well-being. Most of the Western world regards these as rights, not entitlements. There are approximately 48 million Americans receiving Medicare benefits. Of course, Congressman Ryan also proposed changes to Medicaid which would affect another 50 million people. In essence, Ryan has proposed to remake Medicare from a defined benefit plan in which coverage is guaranteed to a plan that requires a defined contribution. The specifics are not part of this blog discussion. The point here is that he is proposing changes that go from automatic receipt of benefits to a contribution program. Considering the psychological state of entitlements, good luck on any change being implemented going forward. We may be in denial about our cultural sense of entitlement, but we’re not stupid, or at least we know enough not to cut of our nose to spite our face.