President Bush's Social Security initiative has gotten off to a shaky start. However, polls indicate that voters are warming up to the idea of personal retirement accounts. It's time for the Bush administration to start making crystal clear the core principles that distinguish its approach on Social Security reform from that of Democrats.
Whereas Bush is selling his reform under the theme of an "ownership society," I would call the Democratic alternative the "plantation society." The "plantation society" is characterized by a wealthy class of owners who want to limit the choices, opportunities and freedom of working-class Americans.
According to public record, one of every three members of the Senate and one out of every four members of the House are millionaires. Despite popular stereotypes of Republicans as the party of the rich and Democrats as the party of the working class, the wealthiest member of the Senate (John Kerry of Massachusetts) and the wealthiest member of the House (Jane Harman of California) are both Democrats. Of the top six wealthiest senators, five are Democrats.
The ownership society has certainly found its way into Congress. But the wealthy Democratic owner class shows little interest in spreading the wealth and opportunity around.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, worth $16.3 million, is an appropriate spokesperson for the plantation caucus. This past week she stood at a press conference with other Democratic leaders stating uncompromising opposition to personal retirement accounts. The Democrats' message: no negotiation on Social Security until "privatization is off the table."
Certainly, Pelosi seems quite comfortable in her ability to manage her own millions. However, the thought of working Americans retaining a few thousand dollars each year of their own earnings to invest in a personal retirement account is so outrageous to her she won't even discuss it. The argument that a private account, ultra-conservatively managed, could at least double the retirement income produced by the current Social Security system doesn't seem to interest Pelosi. Nor does the idea that this would be privately accumulated and owned wealth.
When America's political class debated emancipating slaves, an issue that dampened enthusiasm for the idea was the thought that these slaves could simply walk off the plantation and integrate into the nation and live as free people.
The owner/masters of today's Democratic plantation reject all attempts to roll back government and give working Americans more choice and freedom. The response is the same whether it's personal retirement accounts or choosing where to send your kid to school. Anything reducing government control gets rejected.
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