Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Entitlements: An Invitation to “Get Real”

Originally posted on February 1, 2010

America is going through an interesting developmental phase, akin to the early teen years. The era of the cost of living being cheap and easy is drawing to a close, because (1) natural resources are less plentiful and cheap; (2) the expectations of the people have gone up significantly; (3) services (especially health) are more complex—and far more expensive; (4) other nations are becoming more modern and competitive; and so forth. In short, Americans have been “spoiled,” in the sense of feeling not only accustomed, but entitled, to a more prosperous and secure life, and to a life that has required relatively fewer sacrifices.

Let us consider some factors. Economic conditions often continue with some momentum beyond the time when they peak. It took several centuries before Americans could fully exploit the nation’s natural resources, and as a result we’ve had, for example, relatively low costs for oil, gasoline, paper, coal, wood, other products. As population grows and other factors change, everything is starting to cost more. This isn’t mere “inflation.”

Another change was the shift from massive immigration of people who were grateful to be earning more than what they did in their homelands—but this labor still was paid in startlingly low wages. After the growth of mass media, civil rights, and a general raising of the cultural set of expectations—and some of this was due to unionization, which reduced the gap between the owning class and the working class—, people have been asking for major increases in wages which, in turn, has driven up the costs of everything. So the rise of the “bar” of expectations has added to the present cultural malaise.

A corollary of the rise in expectations has been the demand for the best in health care and other services, a raising of expectations that evokes a rise in response—inventions become more available, but technology is usually expensive—not just the things, but the know-how in working those technologies.

For a century, America was protected from the crises that have kept the other countries far less vigorous economically, far more under-developed. After the Second World War, though, and in spite of ups and downs, there has been a gradual flourishing of economics and expectations in other countries—including countries which had previously been considered “third world.” This has not only made the idea of touring in those countries far more expensive, but many other gradients economically have also “flattened” out.

Other factors that have been introduced have included the costs of trying to reduce pollution and the exhaustion of environmental resources—whether that involves closing off fisheries and letting them—like farmland—recover from continual exploitation, or finding other ways of using or generating required energy. I’m sure this list could be expanded at length, but the point to note is that I’m not sure the meaning of all these changes has yet been accepted by the mainstream of the American People.

We’re talking about a renewed ethos of “We can’t afford it,” not because we’re in a depression —though that reality has been painfully close in the last two years—but because even if we don’t re-enter that economic state of collapse, we will need to become far more realistic and frugal.

We need to differentiate between two sorts of discomfort: One comes from being told what we sense to be a lie. The other comes from being told something that is true, but, as Al Gore has called it, an “inconvenient” truth. Our inner child rebels—wants it all to be easy, the way it was when we were kids.

The sad thing is that lots of media shows and politicians and advertisers unconsciously or maybe even consciously pander to this unconscious desire to be reassured: You can have it all, have it better, and it won’t cost you, because we’ll be clever, work smarter, more efficiently, cut off the fat. This approach indeed is 2% true, but it’s 98% a lie: You get on the whole what you pay for, and who wants to look at that clearly? Not as long as someone is saying with charisma and confidence that there are short cuts and it need not cost you.

In other words, political rhetoric and advertising and nowadays, alas, even some colleges are selling products that are essentially illusory. Regarding colleges, as long as grades are given for remedial classes, and grade inflation continues, and cheating is tolerated, the whole authentic college experience becomes closer to the diploma mills and the diplomas-for-a-fee rackets that they want to admit to themselves. (Sorry, but this is a bit of fuddy-duddy ranting, a bit of exaggeration and unjustified extrapolation, that nevertheless is based on some issues that are genuine and perhaps not all that far off the truth,)

In summary, this essay is a response to listening to some “man-in-the-street” interviews (women, too) that had people complaining that the gummint (government) or certain leaders, if only they knew, if only they cared, could do something to make it better. No one interviewed had any specific ideas about what could be done for the well-being of all—though some wanted more money allocated for this or that pet interest. The idea that politicians should know how to fix the problem operates, as it were, from what seems to be a deep lack of awareness that many of these expectations are unrealistic and also based on the aforementioned illusions that people should get more without having to pay or sacrifice more, and that this is in some vague way our “right.”

Entitlement is the psychological attitude that something should be given one regardless of that person’s having worked for it. For many people it’s an either-or kind of thing. Most of the time, in reality, most social contracts are graded and depend on reciprocity—you do this much, I’ll do that much; you do more, I’ll do or give more.  But that whole business has become overgeneralized in the popular media, where it’s not just dumbed-down, but made to appeal to childish unconscious desires. We need a strong dose of reality-testing: Just what is actually realistic to expect, to negotiate for, and what do we realistically need to recognize that we’re going to have to pay for what we want?

One Response to “Entitlements: An Invitation to “Get Real””

  • Cheryl says:

    We used to have a society based on the production of things that we need. Now it is all about relative products, those with status. Poverty has prevented me from becoming focused on things. I got a new-to-me stove for free because I really needed one and I couldn’t be happier.


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