Perrspectives - Bringing light to Darkness

The Party of Choice

December 28, 2004

As President Bush ramps up his campaign for Social Security privatization, it looks like Democrats will once again win the battle of facts while losing the war of ideas.
While his proposals are widely viewed as bad public policy and enjoy only lukewarm public support, regardless of its outcome Bush's crusade for Social Security reform will likely cement the positive image of the Republicans as the "party of choice." And apparently unaware of the largers stakes, it looks like the Democrats once again will do nothing to prevent it.
First, a little background. As is typically the case with Bush proposals, the public and the facts support the Democrats. Recent polls shows the public split over the proposed reforms to allow individuals to invest a portion of their Social Security funds in private accounts. Social Security reform, in any case, is seen as a much lower priority for Americans than terrorism, Iraq, jobs, health care and a gamut of other issues.
As for the Bush proposal itself, analysts and commentators have already done a thorough job destroying the theory behind Bush's Social Security privatization plan and the dubious numbers behind it. Over at the Washington Monthly, Political Animal Kevin Drum has put together a solid series of pieces highlighting the absence of a real Social Security crisis, the surprising health and longevity of the Trust Fund, the regressive impact of Bush's shell game in borrowing $2 trillion to finance his plans, as well as the obvious risks to millions of American investors. On the merits, the Bush plan should be a non-starter.
The Republicans and the Facade of Choice
All of which is besides the point. As a political matter, though, the Bush proposal has already succeeded for the GOP. The Social Security privatization plan reinforces the Republican message of the GOP as the Party of Choice across the policy spectrum. That is, the reform plan gives Americans choices in planning for their retirement security. Similarly, Bush's tax cut program "trusts the people" on how to best spend "your money." The 2003 Medicare reform theoretically lets seniors choose prescription plans and, over time, insurers. "School Choice" (read "vouchers") lets parents decide where they will send their children to school. Medical savings accounts (MSAs) and association health plans (AHPs) let individuals and groups decide how to plan for and finance their health care. The choice, they say, is yours. (The cynical use of language by the GOP to brand and sell these programs is another topic; one which we've discussed elsewhere at length.)
These programs, all central to the President's supposed "Ownership Society", in reality are chimerical and offer only the facade of choice. Medical savings accounts in essence allow the healthy, wealthy and young to opt out, raising premiums for everyone else. The Bush tax cuts have by design generated a massive upward redistribution of wealth while spawning staggering budget deficits that our children will have no choice but to pay down. And Social Security privatization creates an unfunded $2 trillion hole while putting Americans' retirement security in the hands of the same folks who brought you Enron, Tyco, Adelphia, and Worldcom.
The Bush program, in a nutshell, lets those best off do better by opting out, while increasing the burden, risk and uncertainty for everyone else. As we've discussed before, Bush and the Republicans are creating not an "Ownership Society" but an "Opt Out Society" that poses an existential threat to national unity and the American social contract:

The American people...are being divided and splintered by a Republican public philosophy of market worship, the privatization or abandonment of traditional government roles and services, and a radical individualism. The Bush philosophy represents an all-out assault on common national purpose in the United States. Government not only can't solve problems, it has no moral claim on its citizens' participation in a shared national effort to try. At the end of the day, you're on your own in a Hobbesian struggle of each against all; the government's role is to stand aside and let you fight it out.
This Republican program seeks to undermine the traditional American social contract and create what can be called an "Opt Out Society." That is, the GOP will abrogate the unwritten agreements that have defined the national bargain for three generations, such as hard work in exchange for social mobility, commitment to public institutions in exchange for growing personal freedoms, and those disproportionately benefiting from the American system disproportionately contributing to its maintenance. Instead, conservatives push to privatize social services like education, health care, and retirement, while rewarding Americans for withdrawing their support from their country, their government, their communities, their schools - and each other

The Democrats and Universal Choice
But while the Republicans (dangerously misguided though they are) proceed to entrench the public's percerption of the GOP as the party of reform, new ideas and "choice", the Democrats are largely silent. More than merely seeking to block the conservative plan to create an Opt Out Society, Democrats need to offer their own vision of choice that harnesses the information technology and service personalization of the 21st century for the health care, retirement security, education and training of all Americans. Call it "Universal Choice."
Universal Choice has four simple principles that starkly contrast with the GOP's "you're on your own" program:

  • Everyone participates.
  • Everyone contributes.
  • Everyone benefits.
  • Anyone can purchase additional private benefits, but cannot opt out of their common responsibilities and obligations.
  • Some Democratic voices can be heard above the din, articulating a positive, new "choice-based" program. Former Clinton and Kerry speech writer Andrei Cherny in his book "The Next Deal", The New Republic ("Pro Choice") and New York Times described a Democratic politics of custom, personalized accounts and social insurance for Americans. A cornerstone to Cherny's new bargain: everyone participates and everyone performs national service. And at an operational level, the New Democrat Network has aggressively been providing a "new playbook" to Democratic candidates around the country.
    Similarly, some of the team at the New America Foundation have described a radical rethinking of social insurance in "The Real State of the Union". The range of proposals includes mandatory health and retirement "insurance" (not unlike auto insurance), new child investment accounts (each child gets a taxpayer funded $6000 account at birth), taxing inheritance benefits as income, extensions of the Earned Income Tax Credit to other areas of social insurance, and more.
    Of course, many of these ideas face serious political roadblocks and no doubt require raising taxes during the interim periods as new programs are phased in, requirements tightened, and benefits changed. But if Democrats don't aggressively articulate a program for reform, the GOP may for a generation be seen as the party of new ideas, the party of the future, and the party of choice.
    So during the Social Security battle, Democrats can't be timid. They have no choice.


    Jon Perr
    Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

    Follow Us

    © 2004 - 
     Perrspectives. All Rights Reserved.
    linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram