Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
I love the idea of people being able to own something ... People from all walks of life, all income levels are willing to take risks to start their own company. ... And I like the idea of people being able to say, I'm in charge of my own health care ... I particularly like the idea of a Social Security system that recognizes the importance and value of ownership.
– George Bush, on his "Ownership Society" agenda, Dec. 16, 2004
Every working person dreams of sharing in the nation's wealth, of owning their own home and controlling their own future. That dream is the hook on which President Bush's Ownership Society hangs it's a visceral appeal to our naked self-interest. And even if you live on a commune, there's something compelling about relying on your own strong back and standing on your own two feet forget about social contracts, collective risk and safety nets.
The Ownership Society represents a new form of distinctly right-wing economic populism. It turns the notion on its head; while liberals offer a populism that promises underserved groups that "We will stand with you against the heartless and powerful," the central theme of the Ownership Society is that we're all big capitalists just waiting to blossom even the lowliest among us. If only we could get the yoke of taxes, asbestos litigation and regulations off our backs we would all be in a position to worry about losing a piece of our multi-million dollar estate to the "death tax." Forget about a semblance of economic justice, it's about giving you, the individual, the tools you need to beat your neighbor. And if you can't beat him, he'll beat you. It's a populism born in the Hobbesian belief that we all struggle alone in a world where life is nasty, brutish and short.
This is Bush's narrative that winds its way through cradle-to-grave issues as diverse as the move from universal public education to school vouchers, transitioning from Medicare to Health Savings Accounts and privatizing Social Security. The Ownership Society touches almost every major social program we've enacted since the New Deal.
Of course, the Ownership Society's policies which President Bush will be selling hard in the coming months won't do anything to add to the wealth of average families. As Lew Rockwell, founder of the Libertarian Mises Institute wrote in an e-mail, "The Ownership Society has become the rhetorical mask for the newest form of right-wing central planning." We know from experience how that impacts ordinary Americans.
While progressives seem to have seized on the artifice of the Ownership rhetoric, they haven't caught on to the fact that "Ownership" is simply a frame that further obliterates the line separating the interests of Joe Six-pack and William Three-martini.
But the narrative was on brilliant display at the White House economic forum in mid-December a far-ranging debate among like-minded economists. During the summit the administration pitched both the Ownership Society and "tort reform" a holdover from the first term and we got a preview of how the right will approach the politics of what is essentially an unprecedented privatization plan.
Typical of the discourse was Susan Dudley, of George Mason University's laissez-faire Merkatus Center, explaining that corporate regulations cost American households $843 billion dollars per year. "Now you might say, 'Well it's not really households that are paying the costs of regulation,'" she said, anticipating the groans of skeptics, "'it's really the big businesses.' But that's not really true. Small entrepreneurs ... who are the engine of economic growth in America bear the greatest burden."
Throughout the event, the panelists' language touted the great virtues of a mythic economic everyman inverted populism. So Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute funded by the usual right-wing financiers argued that our current healthcare system was "paternalistic" and that it was "crucial to put the genius of the American consumer to work ... "
And Bob Nardelli, the CEO of Home Depot, added: "While the lawyers are attacking corporate America, it's corporate Americans that are suffering." There are no corporate titans in the Ownership Society, just corporate Americans like you and me.
When one expert, Jim Glassman of JP Morgan Chase, forgot the theme and started prattling on about how "markets would worry about" Social Security, President Bush cut him off by asking: "Why do markets matter to the person out there looking for work?"
Bush's prompt reminded us that it wasn't Wall Street driving the agenda; it was all about regular folks and the "small businesses" where they work defined loosely enough that a publicly traded multinational with 500 employees would qualify.
Interspersed among the experts was the usual assortment of normal, working Americans who could relate to the agenda of the mightiest of moguls, including Hilda Bankston, a naturalized immigrant from Guatemala, and Sandy Jacques, who The New York Times described as a single mother from Iowa who would "speak on the advantages that private accounts could offer to divorced spouses and widows." In fact, as Josh Marshall pointed out, Jacques is a political operative tied to anti-tax zealot Dick Armey's Citizens for a Sound Economy.
The final piece of the Ownership Society message is fear. When Bush reminded the assembled, "There are more people now who believe they'll never see a check than people worried that they'll have their check taken away," he was playing on the very real uncertainty felt by so many Americans today the sense of being adrift in a global economy while looking down at a fraying safety net. In changing times, with the end of long-term job security presented as the price we pay to stay competitive, who can we trust but ourselves?
Of course, there's nothing new about any of this. We've heard that only conservative economic policies can prevent disaster to the American economy since the days of the robber barons. The difference is both one of degree and architecture. We're looking at a new framework that starts with the vague promise of allowing more Americans an opportunity to own their own homes and invest, and it ends with a classic caricature of a self-centered, meddling elite trial lawyers. Sandwiched between these poles is the GOP's privatization scheme. And it comes as a package. As Brian Wesbury, chief economist for the investment bankers Griffin, Kubik, Stephens and Thompson, put it: "This all fits in one box, so to speak ... it is entrepreneurial effort that creates wealth in societies." Not work, folks, just entrepreneurial effort.
According to media reports, President Bush intends to take that message directly to the American people as he did with the justification for the Iraq War by saturating the public with speeches, an ad blitz, op-ed pieces and "grass-roots" rallies.
Staring Down the Ownership Society
That's what we can expect on the domestic front during the second Bush term. The question is how can progressives develop and frame the arguments that might inspire a movement to shut down the agenda of a second-term president with majorities in both houses of Congress?
Liberal journalists and politicians seem to be struggling with the question of whether the Ownership Society should be contested issue-by-issue or taken on as a whole. So far, there is no coordinated message. Folks like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and the Center for American Progress's Christian Weller have stressed the big picture. Reich points out that "the Republican rhetoric assumes most Americans can save and invest," but argues working Americans are too deep in debt to accumulate wealth. He equates the idea of private accounts with a casino game and says bluntly: "The Republican 'Ownership Society' is hokum. Ownership of America is now more concentrated than since the days of the Robber Barons of the 19th century. The richest one percent of America owns more than the bottom 90 percent put together."
Weller says it's a bait and switch, noting that "many working families pay no or little federal income taxes because their incomes are too low, and thus, receive few benefits from [the tax reform] proposal. Instead, high-income families, who typically had financial assets of $364,000 in 2001, will benefit handsomely."
Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) used a New Deal argument in an address last spring, recalling the victories of progressive politics in the 20th century, and calling on Americans to create a genuine "opportunity society" in the United States that "provides all our families with economic mobility and security." As an alternative vision, it sounded great:
Progressives cannot continue to play defense in the battle of ideas. The stakes are too high. Nor can we allow ourselves to be cast as mere defenders of the status quo. We must make the debate between our vision of the future versus theirs. In reality, it is the Republican Right which is wedded to the ideas of the distant past, 19th century ideas which America rejected in the early years of the last century. We should portray them for what they are, Neanderthal merchants of outmoded ideas recycled from long ago.
It was a nice speech, but I tend to agree with American Prospect editor Michael Tomasky's argument that in order to effectively fight this battle we need to better understand that it is self-interest rather than liberal notions of collective responsibility and community that is driving American society. Tomasky has so far attended to just one pillar of the Ownership Society agenda Social Security. He says that instead of denying that there is a Social Security crisis, we should focus on the benefit cuts that privatization would no doubt entail. It's a good argument; the Congressional Budget Office found that beginning in 2013 and for most of the next 50 years, total benefits under the most likely projected Bush plan would be lower for every age group starting with those born in the 1950s.
Robert Kuttner and Paul Krugman are also focusing on Social Security. Kuttner is hopeful that it might be the comeback battle in which Democrats recover both their souls and their political energy." Krugman's doing what he always does speaking truth to right-wing economic nonsense. He's been debunking the crisis, and made it clear that this issue will be a focus of his columns for a while.
But it may be less what the opposition does and says than gridlock and institutional inertia that ultimately brings the Bush plan down. Perhaps the agenda will simply clash with budgetary reality a reality that should be pounded home by Democrats.
Or maybe the increasingly messy and unpopular war in Iraq will be the president's undoing. An argument can be made that by engaging the Republicans on their own terms discussing whether Social Security is really in crisis for example we only keep their chosen discourse in the public's imagination and add fuel to their fire. Putting the administration on its heels with big, real crises like the war and the blossoming deficit would be a pleasant change from the reactionary stance that the liberal establishment has been stuck in for the past four years.
I think there's something there. In 1964, Johnson won big and started pumping out Great Society legislation for his 295-Democrat House to pass. Historian Theodore Kovaleff wrote in the Presidential Studies Quarterly that after 84 of the first 87 bills submitted by Johnson were passed, "almost immediately, the specter of Vietnam began to create problems as opposition to his proactive Asian policy began to take shape." It was not a Republican minority but the facts on the ground in a far-off country that caused a decline in Johnson's popularity and threw a monkey wrench into the works of the Great Society.
And this fight will hinge on public opinion. President Bush has said that he'll spend political capital on his agenda, but he's two years from being a lame duck. He's had lock-step support from Republican caucuses particularly in the House but that won't continue if legislators are looking past an unpopular domestic proposal to their own re-elections. Remember that senators like Chuck Hagel and John McCain are influential moderates within the GOP with their eyes on a presidential run in 2008.
Already, House Majority Leader Tom Delay has expressed concern that a fight over Social Security could spell doom for the Republicans' majorities. And in December Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard:
... at the moment, Republicans are an even bigger problem for the White House [than Democrats]. For a reform measure to win approval in Congress, Republicans must be united. True, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that entitlement reform requires bipartisanship. With only a handful of Democrats likely to sign on, however, that won't happen. So that leaves the matter with Republicans, and they are anything but together.
But the progressive community can't assume that it'll get lucky and have John McCain deep six Bush's Ownership Society on their behalf. It's worth thinking through how best to accomplish the feat. Whatever the approach, there's a window of opportunity in the few weeks before the White House actually presents its plan and frames the debate on the president's terms. The parallel is the Clinton health plan, which was widely attacked long before it was actually put on the table. As the conservative Washington Times editorialized last week:
The longer the president's reform allies are forced to defend against a campaign of scare tactics, the more likely it is that his political support will diminish. By late winter or early spring, the White House's congressional allies conceivably will have taken such heavy blows that recovery would become problematic.
If progressives and Democrats use the coming weeks to hammer away at Social Security and shift the public's focus to Iraq and the deficit, they'll not only have stopped Bush from shrinking down government until you could drown it in a bathtub, they'll also have set America back to addressing reality.
Joshua Holland is a fair-trade activist, a student of international relations at the University of Southern California and Editor-in-Chief of the Trojan Horse , USC's lefty muckraker.