It’s all in the wording. Throughout this presidential campaign, voters have heard a stream of claims and counterclaims about “entitlements” – payments the federal government makes to individuals.
The power of words to frame political ideas can’t be overemphasized. How we label specific practices and proposals affects the ways we think about them. Decades ago statisticians and economists used a neutral phrase, “transfer payments,” to describe various government disbursements: unemployment assistance, old-age pension support, food for the hungry, disbursements to veterans and federal employees.
By calling these “transfer payments,” they sought to focus on accounting techniques. They wanted to avoid the kind of charged labeling and stigmatization that we see today -‑ which prevents thoughtful discussion of the effects and benefits of these practices.
Now, amid a divisive presidential campaign, no such circumspection about word choice exists in the public debate about economic and social policies. Political leaders today use words that distort rather than illuminate, provoke rather than inform.
Liberals speak passionately about commitments to working people and those in need, all of whom are “entitled” to disbursements either earned or sought. Conservatives, in contrast, question not only the justification for such payments but also the sustainability of programs that seem to grow inexorably and exponentially over time.