Few would accuse George W. Bush of being an intellectual, yet his presidency has been shaped to an incredible degree by intellectual theorists, from the neoconservatives who cooked up the invasion Iraq to his latest, CATO Institute-style push to slowly privatize Social Security.
Bush's latest philosophical push is dubbed "the ownership society." The idea, as the president put it in a Tuesday speech at the Detroit Economic Club, is that "the more people own something in America," (a home, a business, or "their healthcare,") "the more likely future generations will have a vital stake in the future of our country." In other words, no one ever washed a rental car.
For the intellectual architects of Bush's domestic agenda, including the Heritage Foundation and CATO think tanks, business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and political organizations like Club for Growth, more private ownership and personal responsibility "creates responsible citizens." It also means less individual reliance on the federal government, and, that makes major cuts in federal programs, like those in Bush's new, draconian $2.5 trillion budget, more feasible over time. As Club for Growth founder Grover Norquist readily admits, the ultimate goal is to dramatically reduce spending on entitlements, limiting federal spending mostly to defense.
A Change in Mindset
If the Bush neocons draw from the Woodrow Wilson school of global democratization, the political thinkers behind his domestic policies have been heavily influenced by another president: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose domestic policies they frankly despise. But they also recognize how fundamentally the New Deal reshaped the political landscape in the last century, and now they're trying to shift it back.
Roosevelt's New Deal taught three generations of Americans to see government as the backstop against the scourges of poverty and want, and as a protector of individuals against corporate, civil rights or other bullying (where a generation before, it had been a main source of cronyism and corruption). That mindset led to further expansions of government programs through the 1970s, and that in turn helped create more than 50 years of Democratic political strength in state houses and in Congress, which lasted even when Republicans held the White House.
Now, the GOP hopes to convince a new generation of Americans that outside of protecting them from terrorism and nuclear threats (and defining social contracts like marriage,) government can't do much for them.
How To Do It?
Step one is to dramatically cut taxes, freeing wealthier Americans from as many of the common obligations of self-government as possible (theoretically, so they can "create jobs,") and giving people of more modest means a small increase in their paychecks.
Step two is to encourage Americans to spend the extra money buying formerly government-offered services from the private sector (coincidentally, often from the administration's corporate benefactors.)
Step three is to free those private-sector corporations from government regulation, which in theory means more freedom and lower prices, but in practice also makes more corporate money available to extend the Republican Party's hold on power, and therefore, its ability to keep the cycle going.
The formula works for almost any program:
Healthcare: Offer Medicare drug discount cards instead of broad, government-negotiated price controls, push seniors toward private HMOs and other workers toward tax-deferred health savings accounts. Insurance and drug companies stand to reap huge profits from increased product sales, while the government avoids a confrontation with the main source of rising healthcare costs: skyrocketing drug prices. (Pharmaceutical industry political contributions totaled $16,576,483 in 2004, with 67% going to the GOP. Insurance industry contributions were $34,312,720. Share to the GOP: 68%.)
Meanwhile, so far, the savings for individual Americans from 2003's Medicare overhaul appear to be relatively meager. In testimony last June before the Senate Finance Committee, Robert Hayes of the non-profit Medicare Rights Center called the Internet-based drug discount card system "hopelessly complex" and said most people with Medicare will receive little if any benefit."
Employers continue to shift more of their health insurance costs onto employees (in some cases, cutting retirees off entirely,) and it's questionable whether a person earning $10 an hour could ever afford to open and maintain a health savings account.
Education: Institute federal standards for schools, while decreasing federal payments to school districts. Offer states flexibility in spending federal block grants, while forcing them to adhere to a national testing program. And divert public money to private schools, forcing failing public schools to compete for students (and the federal dollars that go with them). Also under No Child Left Behind, failing schools must allow private tutoring firms to operate on their campuses and compete with one another for student business often valued at more than $4,000 per child.
Over the last three years, just one of those tutoring companies, Sylvan Learning Centers, has seen its profits climb to $250 million. According to the American Association of Publishers, testing material sales to U.S. school districts reached $592 million in 2004, up from $211 million in 2002. Three companies, McGraw Hill, whose directors have long-standing ties to the Bush family, UK-based Harcourt (a division of London's Reed Elsevier), and Houghton Mifflin, together control about 80 percent of the market, plus a sizable chunk of the $7 billion overall annual market for textbooks and educational materials.
Social welfare: Divert tax money to private aid agencies, including those run by religious organizations. This allows the federal government to reduce spending while shifting long-term reliance toward private charity. In the budget submitted by the White House this week, traditional government programs aiding the poor, the disabled and even veterans face steep cuts, with some of the funds redistributed to private, often religion-centered programs promoting marriage or sexual abstinence, treating drug addicts or counseling at-risk youth. (The president's brother similarly pushed state funds to Florida's first "faith-based prison.")
As pointed out by the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, pro-marriage programs alone receive $280 million more under Bush's proposal, while the agency administering them, Health and human services, is slated for more than $700 million in cuts. At the same time the administration is seeking to boost the tax breaks for charitable giving, encouraging wealthier Americans to fund to social welfare programs currently associated with government. Meanwhile Medicaid is slated for $45 billion in cuts; and other programs slashed include food stamps, housing help for the disabled
Social Security: Allow younger workers to voluntarily give up their federally guaranteed future benefits in exchange for a "private account" that can be invested in stock or bond funds. Investors would be gambling, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has repeatedly pointed out, that their investments will do better than the 3 percent return the trust fund currently gets with treasury bonds. And they would be doing so with borrowed money: if their gamble pays off, they lose in government benefits what they gained in the market. If it doesn't, they just lose. And retirees under the program would be forced to purchase an annuity to distribute their funds every year, which couldn't be passed on to heirs, contrary to what Mr. Bush is saying on the stump.
Investment firms and fund managers would be big winners, while over the long term, most everyone would see reduced benefits, not to mention the $2 trillion in set-up costs that would further explode the budget deficit and ultimately hurt the economy. The administration has admitted that such a program would have no impact on Social Security's financial condition.
(One conservative principle these policies don't advance is constraining the overall size and reach of government. In fact, Bush's policies do the opposite -- to the horror of old-fashioned, "paleoconservatives" -- by adding layers of federal bureaucracy to achieve the new intrusions on education and social welfare.)
The long-term result of these policies, Bush's supporters say, would be a truly free market, where consumers, rather than government, seize the reins of property, healthcare, education and retirement, making Americans more independent and self-reliant, and giving them a shot at building real wealth. But the downside the theorists fail to mention is that for most Americans, the immediate result would be to shift a host of financial burdens from the federal government onto the states, and ultimately onto them, and to make Americans as dependent on insurance and drug companies, fund managers and religious organizations as conservatives say they are on government.
Put that way, Bush's vision of "ownership" reads more like: "you're on your own."
Joy-Ann Reid is a freelance writer in Florida. Her articles and columns have appeared in the Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, on Salon.com, CommonDreams.org and other publications. She can be reached via her web site at http://reidreport.com.