Institutionalizing Meanness

Institutionalizing Meanness

Before 1982, if your Social Security benefit came to, say, $419.43 you would receive a monthly check of $419.50. If you began collecting Social Security in 1982, however, and were entitled to the same benefit, your monthly check would be automatically rounded down to $419.00. The change is emblematic of the meanness of the Reagan-Bush administrations, now mutating into a more virulent form.

To be “mean,” a dictionary tells us, is to be “1a: selfish in a petty way, unkind b: cruel…2: ignoble, base…3: miserly, stingy”—all perfectly exemplified by the changes in Social Security procedures. Its semantic resonance can be sensed by considering an antonym, “generous”: “1: liberal in giving or sharing 2: magnanimity.” A lack of generosity is an unwillingness to share with others, and this absence partly explains why meanness is considered ignoble.

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Lima