Though President Bush deserves enormous credit for proposing real reform of Social Security, including personal accounts, it is not going to be a grand embodiment of conservatism. In fact, it will look an awful lot like what a reform-minded Democrat might put forward.
What Bush is set to propose isn?t privatization. It?s not even partial privatization. Bush?s pending plan is a small step for Social Security reform, though hardly a giant leap for smaller government.
In fairness, there is no plan yet, at least not in final form. But that?s not to say that the general direction and outlines have not been set. They have. It will be the most ambitious reform of Social Security ever proposed by a sitting president, but it will still be nowhere near as expansive as most envisioned it would be.
Who could blame people for getting the wrong idea? In the State of the Union address, the president made the most compelling case any politician ever has for a free market reform of the granddaddy of all entitlements. He appeared to rule out raising taxes, and he set the benchmark for the amount of income diverted to personal accounts at four percent?double what most experts thought would be acceptable in any bipartisan plan.
Within weeks, we learned that Bush was considering raising the income ?cap,? or the level of income subject to Social Security taxes, which is currently $90,000. And full personal accounts would be phased in over nearly 40 years?meaning that four percent won?t be four percent for many until after 2040.
The widest gulf between rhetoric and reality, though, was on Bush?s best selling point: ?In addition, you?ll be able to pass along the money that accumulates in your personal account, if you wish, to your children and ? or grandchildren. And best of all, the money in the account is yours, and the government can never take it away.?
But if you read the fine print, the government can?and will?take it away.
Depending on a number of factors, between 60 ? 80% of the money accrued in someone?s personal retirement account will be gobbled up by the government. Sure, the person will get it back, but only in the form of an annuity, a fixed monthly payment that lasts until death.
In the technical sense that you still receive your money, then yes, it?s yours. But in the sense of property that we all know and love in America, ownership is about choice and control. Forced annuitization leaves you with neither. It also strips away your ability to leave a sizable nest egg to your children or grandchildren.
Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.
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