Thursday, August 05, 2004

Bush's Social Security Dodge

I hear murmurings that some folks close to the Bush campaign want the president to make Social Security a major issue in the campaign, pushing hard for "voluntary" private accounts. While he may do so at a high rhetorical level, I can almost guarantee that he will not put forward a clear, comprehensive, costed-out proposal, just as he has not during the almost four years of his presidency. Why? The reasons are simple. First, with a half-trillion dollar deficit, it would be very hard to get the public to swallow the huge, present-day transition costs associated with ANY privatization plan. Second, the idea of "voluntary" accounts doesn't make sense. You either create universal, mandatory accounts paid for by carving out a percentage of present FICA taxes, or you do nothing. If you allow for voluntary accounts, you create almost insurmountable problems about what you do with people who try to go back and forth between private accounts and Social Security. (for a nice discussion of why this is problematic, see this short piece by Kent Weaver of Georgetown: What this basically means is that any privatization scheme only makes sense if everybody is in--and obviously the Bush people realize that, as a political matter, it is vital that privatization be seen as "voluntary" if it's going to fly. The problem is, once they try to make this work as policy, it falls apart.

The politics here are obvious--Bush may be able to get political points, possibly with younger voters, by pushing social security privatization. And he clearly needs to support it to keep the backing of the more libertarian wing of his party, which is already pissed off with him about the Patriot Act, ag subsidies, steel tariffs, etc. But the political advantage of the idea only holds so long as he avoids the numerous, specific policy questions that privatization entails. It is important to note that I believe that these questions can be answered (and have been, by more honest supporters of privatization), but many of the answers aren't pretty, if you do the accounting seriously. This suggests a political strategy for Kerry--if the debates allow the candidates to ask questions of each other (and Kerry's people should push for this, hard), he should ask Bush how he intends to make his Social Security plan work (acting as if he's already announced one, which is fair game--if Bush won't tell people what privatization entails, Kerry can reasonably tag the president with the content of the plans that are floating around in the conservative policy world), especially how he will avoid making it blow a huge hole in the deficit. This is precisely the sort of policy-content-heavy question Bush is terrible at answering, and it will serve the good government interest in keeping the president from having his Social Security cake and eating it too.

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