WASHINGTON -- Pat Moynihan was puzzled. He was speaking in March 1994, on an almost deserted Senate floor, about Social Security but some unlikely people were listening.
They were clerks in the front of the chamber -- mostly young law school graduates. ``They never listen to speeches,'' Moynihan later wrote, ``having other things to do and having heard it all before.'' He summoned them to his desk, where they confirmed his suspicion that they were listening because they had never before been told there would actually be Social Security for them. This was, Moynihan wrote in 1997, symptomatic that ``as a people, we are simply turning away from government.''
Were Moynihan still with us, he, unlike today's mostly unreflective Democrats, would articulate why President Bush's proposal -- the explosive combination of progressive indexation of Social Security benefits and personal retirement accounts financed with a portion of payroll taxes -- is dynamite packed around the foundation of the Democratic Party's edifice of belief. That foundation is an ethic of common provision through government.
Progressive indexation -- larger benefits for the less affluent -- would mean that for the more affluent 70 percent of Americans Social Security would be of diminishing significance as their affluence grows, with dwindling relevance to retirement planning. This 70 percent would be the portion of the population most able to take advantage of personal accounts. And it would possess more than 70 percent of society's political skills -- the will and ability to get the attention of politicians by articulating grievances and participating in politics by financial contributions and other means.
Progressive indexation is means testing politely labeled, and means testing, however labeled, is an attribute of welfare programs. Which is why in 1997 -- eight years before Bush's attempt to attract Democratic support by proposing progressive indexation to make Social Security more redistributive -- Moynihan understood why a combination of progressive indexation and personal accounts ``carved out'' of Social Security would repel Democrats. Moynihan wrote:
``Once the great majority of citizens found that they would do better in the private investment part of this new system, support for the redistributive aspects of Social Security would quickly erode. It would become a residual relief program for the poor elderly, possibly turned over to the states as is done with welfare.''