George Bush's "ownership society" - a vision most recently expounded in his Sept. 2 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention - sounds so fabulous that it's almost a shame to expose it as a hoax. But here are some facts: Forty-eight percent of households today have no stock market holdings whatsoever, either directly themselves or indirectly via pensions or 401(k) plans. Only 40 percent of Americans hold stock (in any of these forms) worth more than $5,000. And of households that do own stock, the least well-to-do 40 percent have portfolios worth $1,800 on average.
OK, that was three facts - admittedly taxing the factual capacity of public debate nowadays. But these data, drawn from the Economic Policy Institute's indispensable annual volume The State of Working America, show that easy talk of how "everyone is in the stock market now" couldn't be more misleading.
Eighteen hundred bucks in a 401(k) does not a democracy of wealth make.
But it does make Bush's phony ownership agenda a close cousin of the Marie Antoinette Diet. Why? Because Bush's proposals mainly involve tax breaks to boost ownership for people who already own everything. For the rest, compassionate conservatism's new subtitle reads: "Let Them Own Cake!"
People buy stock with savings. Most lower- and middle-income families today barely earn enough to make ends meet. They're already maxing out on their credit cards to pay soaring health and tuition bills. They're not saving a dime, let alone socking money away in the market.
Offering such folks a theoretical tax break to put cash into a 401(k) is a sham. The folks who'll devour most of the extra break are people already well off enough not to need new incentives to save. Draining the Treasury to fund these new breaks thus becomes a double whammy, since it makes it harder to bolster programs such as Pell grants that genuinely ease the burden on ordinary Americans.
This reality should be obvious even to the national press, which nonetheless stenographically touts Bush's faux ownership agenda as if it were relevant to most Americans.
An honest (as opposed to a cynical) call to create an ownership society would indeed be exciting. But the only way to make such a vision progressive, and give average folks a bigger stake, is to have government top off the savings of people who can't afford to save.
Don't take some liberal's word for it; take it from Newt Gingrich!
In a conversation the other day, I asked Gingrich about making these ideas work for everyone. For low-income people to share in the benefits of compound interest and accumulate assets, I said, don't you need some kind of redistribution on their behalf to help fund accounts for them?
"Yes," Gingrich said simply.
"And doesn't that make the way that Bush is talking about this a real charade?" I asked.
"No," he said. "It means the next stage is to see whether or not he has the nerve to propose real redistribution."
(Now there's an interesting new litmus test for this President, I thought: Real conservatives have the nerve to redistribute wealth!)
Gingrich points to Britain, which is experimenting with accounts that assure every child has some assets from day one. Inspired partly by Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott's book The Stakeholder Society (which boldly called for every American to receive an $80,000 stake from the government when he or she reaches adulthood), Tony Blair has introduced "baby bonds." Blair's team is now weighing whether to increase the estate tax to fund these modest stakes more adequately as part of his reelection platform. It's a start.
Similar ideas have been floating around the United States at least since Bob Kerrey pushed "Kidsave" accounts in the mid-1990s. Today, Sens. Jon Corzine (D., N.J.) and Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) have a bipartisan proposal along these lines. The ideologically androgynous New America Foundation has been beating the drums in Washington for such innovations.
For his part, Gingrich told me he sees such ideas as "the Information Age equivalent to the Homestead Act." He's right.
But just as with Lincoln's Homestead Act, a 21st-century ownership society means government has to help those who have little to build something real. As it stands, Bush's version puts a new, pretty-sounding gloss on his enduring economic policy: plunder from above.
Surely a President whose personal asset accumulation came from various endowments provided by Bush family friends, plus public financing of the Texas Rangers' stadium, could wrap his mind around government's proper role here if he chose.
Matthew Miller is author of "The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love."
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