'Ownership society' vs. social responsibility

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Admit it, you may be leery of President Bush's ideas on how to fix Social Security, but there's a certain raw appeal to the idea of creating individual private accounts for people under 50. After all, long-term investments in the stock market are pretty safe considering the historical averages. And the chances of earning a little more than the government normally pays out are enticing.

Then there is the promise of an "ownership society," which the president says is his goal to create. Who could be against that? Ownership is part of the American dream. It begins with owning a toy, progresses to owning a late-model sedan, and often leads to owning a second home somewhere warm.

You aren't a fan of the "ownership society"? Why do you hate freedom?

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But on the way to a brighter, better, more individually owned America there are a few sticky questions. Exactly how would the president's plan work? Where could the individual account owners place the money? How would this solve the long-term money problems with Social Security? And, the always complicated, how would the country pay for it?

The answers (in order): We'll get back to you. That's still to be determined. It wouldn't. And, who knows? All we know for sure about the plan right now is that people under 50 would have the option of creating their own Social Security personal savings accounts with one-third of their Social Security money to invest in government-approved stock/bond funds. In interview after interview, young people say they like this plan because they'll be able to do what they want with their money. They won't. Those funds would have to be confined to very safe investment options to hedge against massive losses by individuals.

The federal government - whatever it looks like in 30 years - is surely not going to let elderly retirees starve because they thought www.thenextbiggestthing.com seemed like a surefire investment at the time. And AARP will still be around in 30 years to make sure that America's seniors - who will comprise an even larger segment of the population by then - are well represented in this city.

OK, so the plan isn't going to make anyone rich - except maybe stockbrokers and money managers (who, by the way, are the big winners under a similar system in place in Britain for 17 years). But it will at least solve Social Security's long-term problems, right?

Actually, no. The administration has quietly acknowledged that the individual accounts won't make the system more financially solid. To do that, guaranteed benefits would have to be reduced or the retirement age would need to be raised, as, probably, would the amount of income taxed (it currently has a ceiling of about $90,000). These are topics much less pleasant to discuss than the wonder of "ownership."

In the end, though, all those issues are only parlor-game fun when one contemplates the real problem hanging over the president's plan: There is no money to pay for it. Right now, when workers pay their Social Security taxes, they aren't putting cash aside for their retirement; they are paying for those currently drawing a Social Security check.

If the individual account money comes out of the Social Security fund, the government still has to pay for those already receiving their checks. The cost of doing that is likely to run somewhere between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in the first 10 years - and significantly more after that. And this is after a recession, the war in Iraq, and the president's beloved tax cuts have left the nation with a forecast cumulative deficit of $1.3 trillion from 2005 to 2014.

Is the president's plan intriguing? Yes. But it won't solve the long-term fiscal problems with Social Security and it will run up the deficit. So why do it? The true benefits, the president will probably argue, come in furthering the creation of an "ownership society" and giving people a bigger role in their own retirement, and that is a good in itself.

Maybe. But if you agree with that premise, consider this: The national debt is currently $7.6 trillion. That means every man, woman, and child in the United States owns a share of about $26,000 of that debt.

Part of ownership is responsibility. It seems wrong to talk of creating more of the former while we are running from the latter.

Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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