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Saturday night’s alright

Joel Kolb | Friday, February 22, 2013

The date was Saturday, Feb. 16. Without a home game for men’s basketball, the day in my mind was relegated to a mundane workday with little to look forward to – that is, of course, with the exception of burrito night at North Dining Hall. Besides complicating the debate about dining hall superiority, burrito night provides weary, winter-worn students with the motivation to work hard during the day. A fair amount of you know the punch line, as it were, to this story. It turned out, hopefully by some unthinkable oversight, but more likely because of Junior Parents Weekend, that there was no burrito night. The caveman in me wanted to rise up and rebel, but the French in me decided against that. Why exactly did I feel so upset about such an (admittedly) small thing? Barring a physical addiction to burritos, the feeling I experienced was entitlement.  
In my mind, every Saturday night is virtually declared as, “Burrito Night in America” by Bob Costas himself. What I was perceived as mine was now taken from me.  
Honestly, I would venture to say the majority of us at Notre Dame have little to no experience with entitlements. So as not to get too carried away, my sense of entitlement towards Saturday night burritos is small compared to conventional entitlements – be it public union benefits, unemployment compensation, food stamps etc. What I need to learn, even if it takes something small like a burrito, along with the rest of America, is the danger of entitlements.  
Entitlements are, by definition, either something someone feels they have a right to, or something someone actually has a right to. Either definition suffices; however, the line between the two definitions is where entitlements become dangerous. “I have a right to do something” and “I feel I have a right to something” are different things. Once our feeling to have a right becomes an actual right, it is almost impossible to turn back. In a person’s mind, there is now a permanent expectation and deserving feeling towards that object, i.e. payment, benefit etc. Simply put, once a person feels entitled to something, there is no turning back.
I would now challenge most people to think of entitlement programs that have been reduced or cut by the federal or state government. There are some examples, but they are few and far between. As of just last year, it was estimated that 62 percent of the annual federal budget went to entitlement programs. Many of our country’s fiscal and budgetary problems stem from this fact. A laundry list of problems results from paying entitlements with the majority of tax revenue. Daily operations of the government are sacrificed due to lack of funds. States in particular are faced with the challenge of balancing a budget while a critical amount of their revenue goes to funding entitlement programs.  
Take Wisconsin, for example. About two years ago, newly elected Gov. Scott Walker was faced with a $3.6 billion budget deficit. In order to balance the budget, Walker proposed to make various cuts in different areas of the budget, but the main money-saving decision came in asking teachers to pay for a modest amount more of their health benefits. Walker simply asked public school teachers’ unions to pay for 5.8 percent of their pension costs and 12.6 percent of their healthcare costs. Compared to the private sector, the teachers still had a top-tier health and retirement plan. However, because of nothing but a sheer sense of entitlement, the teachers made a preposterous amount of stink about these modest increases. The public teachers union was used to always receiving more and more from the state without thinking about where the money actually came from. When the Wisconsin legislature met to pass the legislation in Madison, protests broke out. Protests are not inherently bad things, but the protesters’ presence in Madison had many implications. For one, some of the people were not even Wisconsinites – they had been bussed in from New York.  On top of that, teachers in the Madison and Milwaukee school districts took off time from teaching to join the protest in Madison. At one point, state senators received death threats while walking into the capitol building to do their job.
Ask yourself, what was the cause of these months of mayhem and unrest in the Wisconsin state capitol? The cause was entitlement. The teachers felt it was their right to have these benefits. The power of entitlement caused people to be beside themselves. The power of entitlement resulted in the recall (however unsuccessful) of a governor who had done nothing remotely criminal.
There are a lot of tough choices that need to be made in the near future. If a politician seems hesitant to make a tough change, it is because they are well versed in the power of entitlements. It is virtually political death to try to make major cuts to today’s entitlements. The uproar in Wisconsin and political hesitation merely speak to the power of entitlement.
With any luck, this Saturday night we’ll all be treated to another burrito. If eaten in the perspective of this column, burrito night can provide not only food, but food for thought.

Joel Kolb lives in St. Edward’s Hall and is a sophomore studying mechanical engineering. He can be reached at jkolb1@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.