A nation in change

Posted: Nov 30, 2004 12:00 AM

President Bush's nomination of Condoleezza Rice to be our next secretary of state is a fitting and symbolic beginning to a new wave of change only possible in a country as strong and free as ours.

My mind reels at the thought of this elegant and learned black woman, from humble roots in Alabama, a few generations apart from slave forbears, assuming this high-profile Cabinet post.

It is doubtful that former secretaries of state like Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, or even George Marshall or Henry Kissinger, could have imagined that their job would one day be held by an African-American woman. Rice will represent America to a global community of nations that we hear is upset with us and our president. Her very presence will help make clear to these nations what we are about _ the triumph of principles, character and ideals over narrow interests, stereotypes and the past.

As Rice carries this message forth to the rest of the world, we need to place it front and center at home. All indications are that Bush is ready to provide the leadership to do this.

Our nation today is weighed down with the baggage of the past. Our Social Security, health care and educational systems are dysfunctional relics of times gone by. Their problems reflect a failed mindset that government intervention and social engineering would improve our society.

At the root of Bush's concept of the "ownership society" is the principle that individuals, rather than socially engineered systems, should be the central operating pillar of our society.

Social Security was born in the 1930s as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. It seemed like a simple straightforward concept then that taxing a small percentage from the paycheck of every worker and using those funds to pay out a stipend to retirees would provide a simple and painless social safety net. However, the falsity behind virtually all social-engineering schemes is the notion that the world doesn't change.

When Social Security was passed in the 1930s, our society had more than 50 working individuals for every retiree. Today, as a result of massive demographic changes, we have barely three people working for every retiree. Soon we'll be down even lower. The payroll tax will have to go out the roof to maintain this concept.

Restoration of ownership is the only answer. Let every individual fund his own retirement account. We'll be free of this unmanageable social scheme and provide a framework for individuals to accumulate personal security and wealth.

Our health-care system is a relic of World War II, when we shifted a good portion of health-care provisions to employers. By allowing business to provide health care to their employees and deduct this as a business expense, we institutionalized and took the human face off this most human and personal of human needs. Who knows today for what and how much they pay when they go to the doctor? Health costs are out of control because of a faceless and bureaucratic system.

A positive move was the passage in this Congress of health savings accounts that open the door to allowing individuals to manage and deduct the costs of their own health care. I think an appropriate companion move should be total removal of health-care deductibility from employers. This will open a dynamic market of creative health-care products aimed at individuals in all walks of life.

Public education is an idea that goes back to the early days of the nation. However, it has become a misguided ideal. As with the Social Security system, the country is a far different place today from when the public-education system was established. We are far more diverse in our values and our sense of what it means to be educated. The government-mandated extraction of traditional values and prayer from public schools is simple tyranny. The only answer is school choice. School choice touches the spirit of America and will revitalize education in our country.

This sea change of reform is vital for our future. It is particularly vital for our nation's poor, who bear the brunt of the problems of our broken retirement, health-care and education systems.

Almost 60 percent of eligible Americans turned out to vote in this election, the largest turnout since 1968. I think our citizens were driven to the polls, in some instances waiting hours in line to vote, to make their voices heard at a time they sensed as historic. Bush received a vote of confidence for the vision he has put forth for moving our nation into a new era. We should all work to help move America back to a model of values, individual responsibility and choice.