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Pensions and Health Insurance for the Elderly Are Not Just 'Entitlements'

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Words are contested terrain in political debate. The words we use to label issues and ideas shape how people think about them.

Abortion advocates identify themselves as "Pro-Choice." Opponents prefer to be seen as "Pro-Life" rather than as "anti-Abortion." People who support immigration reform refer to "undocumented immigrants. People who want greater restrictions on entry into the United States complain about "illegal aliens."

One of the problems in discussion over the current economic crisis in the United States is that conservative, pro-business, and pro-wealthy Republicans are getting to define the terms of the debate. They have the more "sexy" phrases that the media loves to promote. They want action to cut the national debt, reduce the tax burden, avoid the fiscal cliff, and to restrict "entitlements" for the elderly and poor. For them the smaller the government, except maybe when it comes to military spending and subsidies to industry, the better it is.

Conservative forces that during the Bush administration wanted to "privatize" Social Security but failed to garner support are now making a heavy push for cuts in funding for Social Security and Medicare, primarily by raising the age of eligibility. They argue that these are entitlement programs that some people may want, like the 47 percent Mitt Romney dismissed as dependent on government largess, but the nation can no longer afford to extend them charity.

"Entitlements" has become a bad word in the conservative lexicon, They are presented as a drain on the productive people, the taxpayers.

But pensions (Social Security) and health care for the elderly (Medicare) are not "entitlements" demanded by the unworthy. They are insurance plans that working people paid into their entire working lives.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, he explained it as an attempt to "insure" millions of Americans providing them with "old-age pensions" that would protect them against "poverty-ridden old age," not government handouts. In fact, the way the system is designed, the more a worker puts in, the more she or he receives back when they retire.

When he signed the Medicare bill in 1965 to offer cheaper medical services to the elderly, President Lyndon Johnson explained:

There are more than 18 million Americans over the age of 65. Most of them have low incomes. Most of them are threatened by illness and medical expenses that they cannot afford. And through this new law, ... every citizen will be able, in his productive years when he is earning, to insure himself against the ravages of illness in his old age. This insurance will help pay for care in hospitals, in skilled nursing homes, or in the home. And under a separate plan it will help meet the fees of the doctors ... During your working years, the people of America -- you -- will contribute through the social security program a small amount each payday for hospital insurance protection ... The employer will contribute a similar amount ... No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts.

As a social studies teacher I am particularly upset with the way right-wing ideology and vocabulary are creeping into the secondary school economics curriculum as part of a concerted campaign by right-wing groups to proselytize their views and shape future political debate.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist from Princeton and op-ed columnist for the New York Times, believes "deficit scolds" who claim to stand for fiscal responsibility are economically "wrong about everything" and are actually promoting a right-wing political agenda that wants to decimate the social safety net in the United States, especially Medicare and Medicaid.

Krugman identified the lead player in this pseudo-economic political campaign as David Walker, former C.E.O. of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Krugman called Walker the "most visible deficit scold in America" and labeled the Peterson Foundation the major funding source for the right-wing campaign.

Walker and the Peterson Foundation are behind a new, widely distributed, high school economics curriculum, that purports to be non-partisan, but in its vocabulary and the material it presents to students tries to legitimize the views of Krugman's "deficit scolds."

They gave a three-year, $2.45 million grant to Teachers College at Columbia University to develop a high school economics curriculum that they call "Understanding Fiscal Responsibility." It is supposed to be a non-partisan curriculum that "teaches students to think past the political rhetoric they hear about the economic challenges we face as a nation and learn to think for themselves."

To promote the plan, free copies of selections from the curriculum package have been distributed to 18,000 high school principals, 6,000 school superintendents, and 10,000 social studies teachers to promote the plan. The goal of the project is to eventually involve 40,000 high schools across the country. Meanwhile, the full curriculum with supporting material is available online.

The vocabulary of the sample lessons suggests that students will be introduced to the technical language needed to understand the present debate. The reality is that the political right is using the lessons to shape the terms of the debate itself.

Over and over again the lessons focus on costs and trade-offs, but do not involve students in a discussion of the responsibility of government to meet the needs of people or the purpose of government and society. The forward to the curriculum says it will "help students cut through the partisan obfuscation of both sides" and understand the "accounting identity" that there is "no free lunch." But by suggesting that the poor, Occupy Wall Street, and liberals want free lunch, the curriculum is identifying, not with accounting principals, but with right-wing rhetoric.

Sample lessons show how social security, Medicare, and foreign aid contribute to the national debt, but not how tax policy and Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy or military expenditures are responsible. Lesson 1 claims to explore "What costs and trade-offs are we willing to accept to ensure the benefits of income security to Social Security recipients?", but among the options students are asked to consider is whether social security is a "Ponzi scheme." Setting up the debate this way is akin to requiring students consider creationism in a discussion of biological evolution.

In none of the sample lessons did I see a "guns versus butter" discussion or a reference to the quote by former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society."

In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson, described his hopes for the creation of a Great Society in the United States. He believed "The challenge of the next half century," which to my calculation extends to 2014, "is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization." This Great Society would rest on "abundance and liberty for all" and "an end to poverty and racial injustice."

We still have a few years left to build Johnson's Great Society. But to do it, we need to talk about the responsibility of government to meet human needs, not budget cuts, tax breaks for the rich, and the decimation of vital social programs.