The Real Cost Of 'Ownership'

By now, if the Republicans did their job right, the term "ownership society" is still rattling around inside your head. It sure sounded great when President George W. Bush unveiled it at the Republican convention last week. Instead of depending on government or an employer, you'd own your own future. "Ownership," he said, "brings security and dignity and independence."

What's not to like? You could own an individual Social Security account, new high-powered retirement and savings accounts, your own health-care account. If the government trims Social Security and Medicare benefits--that's inevitable, given the looming retirement of the baby-boomer generation--you'd own accounts that no one could take away.

But the president didn't exactly burden us with details about paying for all this. It's great marketing: show your audience the goodies but not the price tag. It's like going to the supermarket, picking out your stuff and taking it home without stopping at the checkout line to pay. The bill? That will come later--or maybe get sent to your kids. Sound laughable? Consider the recently enacted Medicare prescription-drug program. Cost: hundreds of billions. How we're covering the cost: government borrowings, to be paid for by taxpayers yet unborn.

Who can argue against ownership? Ownership's great. Take housing. More than two thirds of us own our homes. Not only is homeownership socially desirable, but rising housing prices have multiplied the wealth of tens of millions of ordinary Americans. I love it. But the individual Social Security accounts that are the centerpiece of Bush's "ownership society" aren't an unalloyed good, as homeownership is.

There are huge personal and social costs to these accounts: giving up a guaranteed benefit and cutting holes in our nation's most important safety net. You can't decide if private accounts are better than what we've got until you see the price. The Devil is in the details we haven't yet seen. How do we pay today's beneficiaries if workers put some of their Social Security taxes into individual accounts? The gap--we're talking at least a trillion dollars--has to be filled somehow. The budget surpluses that Bush inherited are long gone, so where's the money going to come from? Huge government borrowings, massive cuts in other programs or raising taxes.

And private accounts don't address Social Security's long-term shortfall: projected revenues are about 30 percent below projected costs. Bringing Social Security into balance while letting people put some Social Security tax into private accounts implies a cut of at least 50 percent in the government's payment to future retirees.

Sure, even if we don't adopt private accounts, future Social Security recipients are going to get way less from the government than the current benefit formula calls for. But private accounts won't miraculously make the need for cuts go away. So Bush is being less than candid when he talks about such accounts' protecting Social Security and doesn't even address the concept of trade-offs and risks. True ownership is about taking risks to control your own destiny. It's not about getting something for nothing, which is all the "ownership society" has offered thus far. Bush is peddling gain without pain--and anyone who truly believes in markets and self-reliance knows perfectly well that there's no such thing.

The Bush response? "Unless we take on and modernize the entitlement programs [Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid], they will devour the rest of the government," says White House spokesman Trent Duffy. Totally true. Duffy says that if Bush's economic policies are adopted, a stronger economy will help generate tax revenues to cover the tab. Can we be a tad specific, I ask. Sorry, no numbers.

Bush's speech had no mention of the controversial "retirement savings accounts" and "lifetime savings accounts" that are a keystone of the "ownership society." These large, high-powered accounts would make income from investments tax-free. They would be great for people who already have plenty to invest, but not helpful for people who don't already own plenty of capital. It's all part of a long-term plan to turn the income tax into a wage tax, make inheritances and income from investments tax-free and fill the budget gap with a national sales tax or value-added tax.

Ironically, the Clinton administration--remember them?--also proposed reducing people's dependence on employers and government programs. "There were discussions about ways to help people save and invest more," recalls former Labor secretary Robert Reich. But Clinton's marketers never came up with anything as snappy as "ownership society."

The bottom line: whenever the government offers to help you grow wealthier and more self-reliant, ask what it costs and who pays. Administrations change, but economic fundamentals don't. No matter which party's in power, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

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