Breaking New Ground on Social Security


One can be forgiven the first reaction: Oh no, not another Social Securitycommission. After all, appointing a commission to study ways to reform thenational retirement program has almost become a presidential right ofpassage. Every few years a president appoints a commission. It breaks downin partisan haggling. Congress heaves a sigh of relief that it won'tactually have to make any tough decisions. And nothing happens.

But on second look, President Bush may actually have done the nearimpossible--created a Social Security commission that works. The commissionis dutifully bipartisan and broadly diverse, packed with women, AfricanAmericans and Latinos. Its members come from a variety of backgrounds:government, business and academia. It is co-chaired by former Sen. DanielPatrick Moynihan, whom official Washington regards as close to a sage, andRobert Parsons, the head of AOL Time Warner and a prominent African AmericanRepublican. Members include a former aide to Sen. Bobby Kennedy, a formerDemocratic congressman, an economist from the World Bank and formerofficials from the Reagan and first Bush administrations. But despite theirvaried backgrounds, commission members have one thing in common. All arecommitted to the idea of allowing younger workers to invest at least aportion of their Social Security taxes through individually owned accounts.

There is also a subtler but even more far-reaching facet to the commission.In the past, discussions of Social Security reform were dominated by thesystem's financial plight. It is easy to see why: The program will begin torun a deficit in just 15 years and is more than $22 trillion in debt. Thiscommission, by contrast, is composed of members committed to Social Securityreform for other reasons.

President Bush set the tone for the commission himself, saying in a RoseGarden ceremony: "Personal savings accounts will transform Social Securityfrom a government IOU into personal property and real assets; property thatworkers will own in their own names and that they can pass along to theirchildren. Ownership, independence, access to wealth should not be theprivilege of a few. They're the hope of every American, and we must makethem the foundation of Social Security."

That is the real issue of Social Security reform--and it is a fundamentallydifferent way of looking at the issue. It transforms the Social Securitydebate from one about numbers, budgets and actuarial projections into oneabout opportunity, hope and prosperity. It asks not just how can we preservean aging and inadequate system, but how can we create wealth and retirementsecurity for all Americans.

The road to Social Security privatization is far from assured. We aretalking about nothing less than the transformation of the largest governmentprogram in the world. The opponents of individual accounts are alreadymobilizing. And the president will have to deal with the weak sisters in hisown party who live in fear of doing anything "controversial."

But for now, President Bush has gotten the debate off on the right start.