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WASHINGTON — In George W. Bush's America, there seem to be few societal problems a little ownership wouldn't help solve.
Social Security in trouble? Let workers set up private accounts to partially finance their own retirements. Healthcare system broken? Get Americans to self-insure and monitor their own medical expenses. Communities in distress? Help more low-income people buy homes.
Those concepts are at the core of the "ownership society" agenda that President Bush endorsed at last week's Republican National Convention, and which conservative activists characterize as a bold rebuttal to Democrats' reliance on government guarantees.
"Ownership brings security and dignity and independence," Bush told GOP convention-goers in New York. "In all these proposals, we seek to provide not just a government program, but a path — a path to greater opportunity, more freedom and more control over your own life."
To Bush's critics, it is also a path to a more fragmented society.
"It's a Trojan horse," said Gene Sperling, who headed former President Clinton's National Economic Council and now advises Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry.
"They're trying to get through the gate with rhetoric that implies this would help the middle class save more," Sperling said. "But that promise is hollow, and the only thing inside is yet another opportunity for those who already have wealth to see their wealth compound tax-free, and shift more of our tax burden to the work of the middle class."
Activists in both the conservative and liberal camps said Bush's advocacy of the ownership agenda in last week's acceptance speech set the stage for a protracted political struggle over pressing domestic policy issues such as Social Security and healthcare reform.
"What the president did was put on record that this is one of the things this election is about," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading apostle of ownership. "When he wins it will ratify that, and those congressmen and senators who were worried about these issues will see they are safe to deal with."
Among the key "ownership" proposals endorsed by Bush:
• Workers would be allowed to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts containing stocks, bonds or other securities. Benefits would not be cut for current retirees or those near retirement, and payroll taxes would not be raised. The diversion of payroll taxes, estimated at $1 trillion or more over 10 years, presumably would be covered by increasing federal borrowing.
• Americans would be given new tax-preferred vehicles for long-term savings. "Lifetime savings accounts" would allow Americans to accumulate tax-free funds for job training, college tuition, home purchases and retirement. "Retirement savings accounts" would consolidate and expand several existing types of retirement accounts.
• Expanded "health savings accounts" would allow individuals to choose their own insurance plans and accumulate money tax-free for future medical expenses. By purchasing lower-cost, "catastrophic" policies and paying for routine services themselves, they presumably would become more interested in keeping costs to a minimum.
• The "American dream down payment initiative" would provide government assistance to help about 40,000 low-income families buy homes. The "single-family affordable housing tax credit" would offer another vehicle to promote homeownership.
Most of the elements of Bush's ownership agenda are carry-overs from his first term, and some go back even further. Privatization of Social Security has been knocking around in Republican circles for two decades. Conservative activists trace the intellectual underpinnings back to Aristotle's observation that "the ideal situation is that all families should own property."
But the president's allies say the sales pitch devised by the White House represents something new.
"I don't remember a politician ever wholly endorsing the idea that ownership is a great way to solve societal problems quite the way Bush has," said economist Kevin Hassett of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "He's applying themes for a lot of conservative reforms in a way that hasn't been done before…. It's a big-think, big-idea approach."
Former Cabinet secretary and Republican New York congressman Jack Kemp said he and other reform-minded lawmakers began talking about a "stakeholder society" in the late 1970s, emphasizing increased ownership of homes, businesses, investment capital and retirement assets. But it was Bush who brought those ideas together under the "ownership society" rubric.
"He gets credit for it, because he has really elevated it to the national level," Kemp said. "It's a new way of describing a rather old principle. It reconnects the Republican Party of the 21st century with the Republican Party of Lincoln. Lincoln said he didn't believe in laws that prevent a man from getting rich. He wanted every man to get rich."
Critics dismiss the "ownership society" theme as little more than a marketing ploy, an attempt to dress up old ideas in new clothes. But advocates counter that creative packaging has always been an important part of promoting substantive policy initiatives.
"It's a way for the president to tie together a number of programs that have this common theme of giving average Americans more control and more ownership over the important aspects of their lives," said David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute. It has been pushing Social Security privatization since the 1980s. "In that sense, it has more real meaning than 'New Deal' or 'Great Society,' which could have been anything. 'Ownership society' anchors you to something specific."
Supporters said opinion polls are finding the ownership theme resonating with many Americans. Younger workers who fear Social Security is headed toward insolvency like the idea of supplementing the public program with private accounts. Healthy workers are interested in opening tax-free accounts that let them buy low-cost catastrophic insurance policies and accumulate additional savings for future medical needs. Lower-income Americans welcome anything government might do to make it easier to buy a first home.
But the very features that make the "ownership society" appealing to some demographic groups make it a potentially bad deal for others, critics said.
They said the president's proposals to promote private retirement and medical savings accounts represented back-door assaults on Social Security and Medicare, the big government insurance programs that shielded millions of people from poverty by spreading risk among rich and poor, healthy and sick.
If workers begin to view privatized Social Security accounts as the preferred vehicle for retirement savings, it might be easier to gradually scale back the traditional government-financed insurance pool, they said. If enough Americans open personal healthcare savings accounts, it might be easier for employers to scale back medical benefits and for government to reduce coverage under Medicare and Medicaid.
"These programs were designed to be insurance systems," said former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich. "If you privatize them, you leave individuals vulnerable to bad luck. The very nature of social insurance is that it is social."
Opponents said the new tax-preferred savings accounts, though theoretically available to everyone, would mainly appeal to wealthy Americans with enough discretionary income to take full advantage of them. They cited studies showing that only a small percentage of Americans currently made maximum allowable contributions to 401(k) plans and Individual Retirement Accounts.
"The idea is you'll make everyone identify with the interests of rich people if you give them something so they can say they're owners," said Dean Baker, director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research. "So you get a typical worker who might have a $30,000 retirement account voting for the same things that will help Bill Gates…. It really counts on people not looking at the details."
Supporters dismissed the criticism as so much liberal carping, and said it illustrated the contrast between Democrats' faith in government as the ultimate guarantor of social equity and Republicans' emphasis on self-help and entrepreneurship to promote the public good.
"There are certain choices we're not used to making as individuals because by tradition those decisions are made by other people," said economist Daniel Mitchell at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"Will any system be perfect? Of course not," Mitchell said.
"Right now people go out and probably choose the wrong toothpaste. Some people buy lemons when they purchase automobiles …. But we don't want to make the perfect the enemy of the good, especially when we're trying to replace a system that's not good."