Stolen Society

"Too few Americans are saving for their own retirement. ... Savings, of course, is about more than protecting what you have, it's about creating and building greater wealth for a better future. With [private] accounts, working families will have a chance to invest just as wealthier families do today."

– William Jefferson Clinton, April, 1999

The Republicans' Ownership Society has gotten plenty of ink, but few have noted that it – like many of the right's messages – originated on the left and was subverted by movement conservatives.

Twice during Clinton's second term, he proposed adding USA Accounts – private IRAs that the government would subsidize with fully refundable tax credits – to our retirement system. "Universal Savings Accounts," he argued, "do just what the name says, they make savings universal ... And by rewarding responsibility, USA Accounts would help set [working people] on the road to further savings."

Of course, the Clinton plan was savaged by the very same think-tanks that are now quarterbacking the right's Ownership Society. They want transfers from the public sector to the private – trimming entitlements along the way – while Clinton wanted to add private accounts as part of a bargain with the right.

Clinton's plan wasn't a new idea for the left. Michael Sherraden, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, first proposed using private accounts to build assets among the poor in his seminal 1992 book Assets and the Poor: A New American Welfare Policy.

Since then, the idea of spreading ownership around has been reiterated many times. Gene Sperling, whom Clinton called the "MVP" of his economic advisors, has kept at the USA Account idea, now with the Center for American Progress.

Ray Boshara, director of the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation, has an even bolder approach; he'd give every baby born in America $6,000 dollars in an American Stakeholder Account, which would grow to be used for asset-building expenses like buying a first home or paying for college. Anything left over would go towards retirement.

Others have suggested using microcredits and community-based development accounts for small businesses, helping with first home purchases and selling off public low-income housing to residents for next to nothing.

Those are but a few of the dozens of initiatives out there that might create a progressive ownership society. The left's proposals address the kernel of truth behind the right's rhetoric: asset ownership is a darn good thing. But its concentration is approaching a crisis point in this country. And while progressives get into a lather – rightly so – about income inequality, it pales in comparison to wealth inequality; it's why "upward mobility" has largely become a myth in America – a fond remembrance of another age.

The ugly truth is that your parents' wealth is the single greatest predictor of your lifetime success – forget about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. As Dalton Conley, Director of NYU's Center for Advanced Social Science Research and author of Being Black, Living in the Red, told me, "When you look at how similar parents and children are on a variety of economic or social measures like education level, or what job they hold, the similarity in terms of wealth is greater. Wealth very manifestly displays the anti-meritocracy in America – the reproduction of social class without the inheritance of any innate ability." See Bush, George W.

But while the left has been talking about this for some time, it took the conservative message machine to frame the issue of asset inequality in an accessible way. They threw in a few looming financial crises and then crafted "solutions" according to their ideology – by trying to privatize great swaths of the public sector.

It's too bad they beat us to it, because creating a progressive ownership society would mean putting out the kind of bold proposals that have been in short supply on the left in recent years.

But as should be clear by now, that shortage isn't because we're incapable of the daring and the innovative. It's that in order to frame a major national debate, you need a certain amount of coordination between the policy wonks that come up with the policies, the policymakers who carry the fight in the legislature and those of us in the trenches who back them up. On the left, there's a break in that chain.

The disconnect might be institutional. Contrast the left with the conservative movement, with its mile-wide but inch-deep network of boot-licking pseudo-scholars in think tanks and "nonpartisan" research groups. They churn out nice-looking papers to back their policy-making counterparts and frame good messages for the media. They're also inside the Beltway and many have worked for, or been, Republican politicos.

And every week they disseminate their messages at an inside-the-Beltway meeting of right-wing activists, congressional staffers and friendly journalists hosted by anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist. Those meetings are, in turn, networked with groups in as many as 44 states, projecting a consistent strategy to all parts of the movement. Throw in an activist right-wing media – both bribed and free – and it's seamless.

The left, on the other hand, also has plenty of social scientists, former politicos and policy analysts, but they're mostly in universities or working with public advocacy groups and they don't seem to get as much play in Washington as the think-tankers.

Just ask NYU's Dalton Conley, who's got lots of good ideas for addressing asset inequality during a Republican administration. "I'm very upset with the Democrats." He'll tell you:
Since 1999, I've been arguing that an Ownership Society should be the legacy of the Clinton administration. Maybe I have to go to policy wonk therapy, because I never get any response. When [my book] Being Black first came out, I had a couple friends in the Clinton administration. They set me up with some meetings, I sent them books, I sent them summaries, made appointments and went down to talk to all these people. I gave them my spiel about the ownership society, everyone nodded nicely and I never heard from anyone ever again.
Perhaps you need to be on the D.C. cocktail circuit or on Fox News to be heard, but it may simply be that the Democrats have so internalized the right's conspiracy theories about radical college professors trying to brainwash America's youth that they're afraid to tap into their deepest intellectual well.

But it's more than just institutional differences; Democrats seem incapable of imagining a vision of a better future for this country. They've so fully bought into the right's nonsense about progressive economics being a form of socialism that they fear discussing these issues honestly really does amount to "class warfare." The charge has become so ubiquitous that it's now politically incorrect to even discuss the plight of working folks. Their problems are just a natural consequence of our "dynamic" economy.

As a result, there is an idea in our political culture – left almost completely unchallenged – that poverty and gross inequality are immutable conditions. That's a dramatic departure for a party that used to understand that a healthy middle-class has always been the result of active government support.

Creating a progressive ownership society would mean a significant – not radical, but significant – rethinking of our tax and benefit structures. If you don't know which side of the yawning wealth divide you stand on, there's no way you can take on a fight of such magnitude with anything more than simple, stubborn opposition.

Essentially, the Democrats have become an opposition party too fractured to generate daring, forward, progressive policies and too frightened to embrace them when they do come along. That's why the message-peddlers of the right embraced the language of ownership to push their tired privatization schemes while the Dems were standing still, immobilized by ideological squabbles that leave them too dazed to remember to stand up for the little guy.

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