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One of this site's favorite topics is the framing of political issues.  We've all seen countless diaries here by and about George Lakoff, about Overton Windows.  The over-riding theme in these discussions has been how the side that initially frames a political issue gives itself an inherent advantage over the opposition.

Yesterday's announcement that Paul Ryan will be Romney's running mate ensures that Medicare and SS will be front and center in this fall's campaign debates. In a failure of framing, those programs will be generically labeled as "entitlements."  For decades, these earned benefits have been mischaracterized.  It's long past time to call them what they actually are.

Webster-Merriam defines "entitlement" as follows:

en·ti·tle·ment noun -ˈtī-təl-mənt\
Definition of ENTITLEMENT
1a : the state or condition of being entitled : right b : a right to benefits specified especially by law or contract
2: a government program providing benefits to members of a specified group; also : funds supporting or distributed by such a program
3: belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges
In the current debate, that 3d definition is the one that (at least implicitly) tends to resonate.  Alan Simpson's favorite greedy geeezers line is emblematic of this thinking.  People who spent decades paying into these programs didn't earn the benefits they're getting now.  They're receiving these benefits b/c they're entitled.

In one of the greatest acts of political sleight of hand, the GOP has spent the past 3 decades distracting Americans from our neo-gilded age income and wealth distributions.  Reagan started it w/ his "welfare queens."  Today, his party has been depressingly effective at engendering the belief that state and local govt. employees are getting undeserved pension and medical benefits.  It's all part of a brilliant divide and conquer strategy amongst the 99% to keep them from teaming up and confronting the 1%.

We will never prevail in any economic debate unless and until we change this way of thinking.  If someone starts w/drawing from a 401k into which they've paid for decades, no one begrudges them for doing so.  Why are SS and Medicare any different?  My parents paid into those programs for decades, and it would be extremely cruel to question their ability to draw from them now.  I've been paying into those programs for years, and I will have no qualms about benefitting from them in a future that gets closer by the day.

We could use the term "accrued benefit," which is defined as follows:

Definition of 'Accrued Benefits'
Coverage earned by an employee on a pension plan, based on years of service with an employer. Accrued benefits may include vacation, sick or personal time off, or other related benefits. Employees who are laid off, retire or are fired must receive all unpaid accrued benefits.  Investopedia explains 'Accrued Benefits'
Accrued benefits are another form of income employees receive, but this income is not paid immediately. For example, a worker will accrue vacation time and still receive a regular salary when off on vacation. Other accrued benefits can include a profit-sharing plan, a stock bonus plan, an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), a thrift plan, a target benefit plan or a money purchase pension plan.
For political purposes, however, that term is a little dry and actuarial.  It's accurate, but it's not going to have much appeal on the stump.  These benefits were accrued, but they were earned, too.  The idea of them having been earned should broaden their appeal.

The GOP has succeeded at framing for decades.  In the contemporary environment, estate taxes that only impact decedents w/ $5mm or more have become "death taxes."  The gutting of our constitutionally-guaraneed civil liberties has been re-branded a "homeland security."  We still recall the "death panels" of 2009.  The term "right to work" laws has been a GOP staple for decades.

It's time to confront the GOP on their terms.  Let's not hear about "entitlements" (or even worse, about "entitlement reform") in this campaign.  Let's hear about "earned benefits" and the long-standing plan of the GOP VP nominee to deprive ordinary Americans of those hard-earned benefits.  The game is on, and let's change the rules of engagement.

EDIT: I neglected to give credit to Mike Lofgren, who said the following:

You know that Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy when even Democrats refer to them as entitlements. "Entitlement" has a negative sound in colloquial English: somebody who is "entitled" selfishly claims something he doesn't really deserve. Why not call them "earned benefits," which is what they are because we all contribute payroll taxes to fund them? That would never occur to the Democrats. Republicans don't make that mistake; they are relentlessly on message: it is never the "estate tax," it is the "death tax." Heaven forbid that the Walton family should give up one penny of its $86-billion fortune. All of that lucre is necessary to ensure that unions be kept out of Wal-Mart, that women employees not be promoted and that politicians be kept on a short leash.
I'm halfway through his brilliant new book, The Party is Over, and I urge everyone here to read it.

Originally posted to RFK Lives on Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 09:21 AM PDT.

Also republished by Social Security Defenders and Political Language and Messaging.

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