At some point, we're hoping, the media and the public will start looking at what plans the presidential candidates have for helping America. When they do, Hickey's overview of President George W. Bush's "ownership society" proposal will be indispensable. Read on to learn how Bush plans to make Americans "own" the burdens of paying for their own health care, retirement and their children's education.
Roger Hickey is co-director of the Campaign for America ’s Future.
New York City —This election should be a referendum on President George W. Bush's record over the past four years in office and whether he has any new ideas that would justify voters giving him another term in the White House. Yet, friends of Bush’s have found a way to focus the presidential debate not on his plans for the country’s future or even the war in Iraq, but on John Kerry’s actions 30 years ago in Vietnam. Time will tell whether the strategy will work for Bush or backfire. But most voters tell pollsters that what they really want to hear is the candidates’ proposals for jobs, health care and the kind of country our kids will inherit.
Democrats and progressives argue that each of these problems requires concerted government action. Bush and the Republicans don’t believe in government—and they have systematically slashed public revenues. So they need an agenda that promises to address the problems, while continuing their crusade to cut taxes for the wealthy and downsize government.
So what does Bush have to sell? The following is a guide for concerned voters—and for the media who should be covering the real agenda of the candidates for president.
Defending His Tax Cut Gamble
First and foremost, Bush’s domestic agenda is wedded to the massive tax cuts he pushed through Congress in his first term. Quite correctly, Bush conservatives argue that spurring a growing economy is the best thing a president can do for Americans. “The best social program is a job for all who want one,” they argue. Unfortunately for Bush, despite his tax cuts, the economy has continued to be sluggish, poverty is growing, job growth hasn’t come anywhere near replacing the 3 million jobs lost in the Bush recession, and Americans with jobs are experiencing falling real wages, eroding benefits and general insecurity.
Since he has no other plan for economic growth and job creation, Bush will have to insist—during this week's convention and afterward—that the Bush tax cuts will eventually produce an economic recovery capable of generating substantial job growth. Most Americans understand what the Congressional Budget Office recently reported: The Bush tax cuts have benefited the wealthy far more than the rest of us, while blowing a $3.9 trillion hole in the federal budget over the next 10 years.
Even for the small minority who would find this tradeoff acceptable, the continuing failure of the Bush tax cuts to produce growth and jobs is becoming embarrassing. For the rest of us, the Bush record is tax unfairness and high unemployment— devastating cuts in public investment, rising local taxes and continuing economic sluggishness and growing insecurity.
With a record like that, even an administration that claims tax cuts will— eventually— solve all problems has an incentive to come up with some other “new ideas” if only to distract the public from the continuing failure of its major economy gamble on tax cuts.
Call It Bush’s "I Don’t Have A Plan" Plan
At the convention President Bush will unveil, not for the first time, an overarching theme designed to convince voters he has a vision for a second term: the Ownership Society. The Bush team has tried out this phrase sporadically over the last year or so— in a few unnoticed speeches, press releases, fact sheets and interviews by White House staffers like Mary Matlin. And the cover story of the latest Business Week , obviously informed by White House spinners, gives us a preview of what to expect. Bush’s ”ownership society” is an attempt to repackage a set of proposals that mainly benefit the wealthy and the corporations under the pretense of addressing real “kitchen table” concerns of the middle class and the poor. Virtually all the specific proposals, when presented and explained to average voters in polling or focus groups, are very unpopular. And there is considerable evidence that most already overwhelmed and overworked Americans reject the “big idea” that individuals must take greater responsibility for designing and “owning” their health care, retirement plans, education and work time.
In the face of new Census Bureau reports showing more Americans are living in poverty and a new CBO report showing that only the rich have benefited from Bush’s tax cuts, Bush’s handlers will have to practice some skillful spin. They must maintain that those same tax cuts—extended and made permanent— will someday soon result in revived economic growth and widespread economic prosperity. They will also have to unveil the Ownership Society theme in a way that makes it look grander and more popular than the sum of its unpopular parts.
Unfortunately, the media have shown themselves to be more than willing to report Bush administration spin as real substance. All the more important that activist groups understand what Bush is proposing— and find ways to explain to their fellow citizens what a hollow agenda the whole package represents.
Health Care: No Real Solutions
The costs of health care premiums are skyrocketing, and the Census Bureau has just issued a report showing that 45 million Americans have no health insurance at all— a 3.2 percent increase over the 43.6 million who had no coverage a year ago. (Among people under 65, almost 18 percent of all Americans were uninsured.) In the face of this certified crisis, what is George W. Bush’s proposed solution? Tax credits for people who purchase their own health care premiums (which many experts believe will give employers and excuse to bail out of paying for health care altogether). And tax deductions for the wealthiest Americans who have enough income to shelter some of it—tax free—in Health Savings Accounts to pay for catastrophic health care costs. Many observers have noted the only way these proposals would reduce health care costs would be by placing the burden of payment on individuals, encouraging them to avoid the doctor even for crucial preventative health care. And experts have already questioned Bush’s relatively modest projections about how many Americans his plan would cover. Bush’s Ownership Society forces individuals to own responsibility for their own health care themselves— and, as usual, provides help in the way of tax subsidies only to those who are rich enough to take advantage of the subsidies.
Prescription Drug Benefit For HMOs And Drug Companies
At the convention, Bush is sure to brag that he has produced a prescription drug benefit for seniors, but if he is smart he will downplay the details, because polling shows that the details of the Bush plan are unpopular with a majority of retirees. Why? Because the new law is confusing, with a truly crazy benefit structure requiring an advanced degree to understand. But the most unpopular aspect of the Bush drug plan is the way it clearly benefits HMOs and big drug companies more than seniors. The bill prohibits Medicare from using government buying power to get lower prices for drugs. And a bizarre system of subsidies to HMOs helps assure that more and more seniors will be dumped into HMOs to get their Medicare. In the Ownership Society version of Medicare prescription drug benefits, the big drug industry and HMOs do very well, while seniors get the short end of the stick. This is why thousands of activists around the country are joining together to demand to know whether candidates for Congress and the presidency stand with seniors or with the corporations who benefit from the Bush drug plan [for more information, click here ]. They are demanding a prescription drug benefit within Medicare that will bring prices down.
Undermining Retirement Security
Amazingly, the Bush Ownership Society agenda would undermine the one reliable and guaranteed leg of the three-legged retirement stool: the Social Security system. Americans are increasingly insecure about their retirement. Gone are the days when most employers provided their employees with real “defined benefit” pensions. Instead, most workers are lucky if their employer contributes to an IRA or 401K account which the employee is responsible for investing in the stock market, win or lose. Most workers have little of their income left over for retirement savings after living costs are covered— and many are in debt to make ends meet. In this environment, what is the Bush Ownership Society program for retirement? They want to privatize Social Security by cutting guaranteed benefits in order to create risky private accounts invested in the stock market. Experts have shown that privatization would require more than $1 trillion in transition costs, far less than the costs of protecting Social Security’s guaranteed benefits for the next 80 years.
Education Left Behind
Education was the signature issue that allowed Bush to portray himself as a “compassionate conservative” in the 2000 elections. But Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation imposed enormous burdens on public schools, requiring what many experts and teachers call “mindless” testing, while failing to provide the resources necessary to improve education— or even to pay for the testing. President Bush has also failed to do anything about the high cost of college, but has increased the costs of higher education by kow-towing to the private banking sector. President Bush as actually tried to increase the costs of financing student loans, costing the average student borrower about $5,500 more in interest payments, according to the Congressional Research Service. Led by the Campaign for America ’s Future, NEA and MoveOn.org, a massive nationwide movement will conduct thousands of house meetings to demand real action to improve education. [Learn more about this effort here.]
Flexibility At Work—For Employers, That Is
At a campaign speech on July 31 in Pittsburgh, President Bush tried to use the Ownership Society packaging as a framework for a set of administration proposals that have widely been seen as helping employers, not workers: “We'll help American families keep something they don't have nearly enough of, and that's time, time to be with your kids, time to take care of your elderly parents, time to help yourself by education. Congress needs to enact what we call comp-time and flex-time, to help American families better juggle work and home duties.”
But the so-called “comp time” legislation Bush is pushing—along with the new overtime rules his Labor Department has just put in place—would actually reduce the average worker’s control over their work time, and thus over their time with their kids. The new overtime rules would make over 6 million workers vulnerable to losing overtime pay when the boss requires them to work over 40 hours a week. The “comp time” law would undermine the basic wage and hour legislation, fought for and won by the labor movement. Under the new legislation, employers could not only require employees to work overtime, but, instead of being required to pay them time and a half, the boss could simply promise to give them “comp time” at some future time, not at the employee’s choosing. Here is a dramatic example of how the Ownership Society proposals are being sold as programs to enhance the freedom and self-determination of working Americans, but they are, in fact, designed to enhance the power, flexibility and bottom-line prerogatives of corporations, employers and Wall Street.
Taxes: Killing Progressive Taxation and Shifting the Burden from Capital to Workers
Like the whole Bush economic program, the heart of the Ownership Society agenda is cutting taxes for the wealthy and the corporations. Since 2001, President Bush's tax cuts have shifted federal tax payments from the richest Americans to a wide swath of middle-class families, according to the newest analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO study found that the wealthiest 20 percent, whose incomes averaged $182,700 in 2001, saw their share of federal taxes drop from 64.4 percent of total tax payments in 2001 to 63.5 percent this year. The top 1 percent, earning $1.1 million, saw their share fall to 20.1 percent of the total, from 22.2 percent.
Bush is calling on Congress to make permanent those parts of his tax cuts that are still temporary, abolish the tax on the estates of the super wealthy and he is trying for still more reductions in the taxes on capital gains and on corporate profits. On top of this, Bush recently mused that he would like to replace the progressive income tax with a regressive national sales tax. Clearly, the goal of Bush and the conservatives around him is not only to starve progressive government, but to shift the burden of taxation off of income earned by capital and investment and onto the backs of working Americans exclusively. And given another four years, they might well achieve that goal completely.
Ownership Society vs. Shared Security
Clearly, the Ownership Society program that Bush will present to the Republican Convention will contain a hodge-podge of old conservative proposals repackaged to distract public and press attention from the fact that Bush’s real domestic agenda—tax cuts for the wealthy— are failing to produce growth and jobs. If enacted, they would worsen the growing polarization of American society and concentration of wealth and power.
But here's a more pressing pragmatic question:“Will the press and the American people buy them?” Most likely, the Ownership Society proposals will serve a temporary purpose of getting Bush through the convention with the illusion of having a program. Most Americans will not notice. But if they do, they may well backfire.
In focus groups conducted in early March in Cleveland and Atlanta, public opinion analyst Celinda Lake asked likely voters their reactions to the Ownership Society proposals. After hearing a description of the phrase “ownership society”, voter perceptions shifted pretty solidly negative. The Ownership Society proposals “evoked images of an end to the social safety net. In addition, many of the participants thought the idea of controlling their own health care, retirement, and children’s education sounded burdensome and frightening. In a system where there would be clear winners and clear losers, they worried what how they and their families would fare.”
Lake found that the term “shared security” was much more popular. “In contrast to the individualism that participant associated with “ownership society”, they perceived “shared security” as a model in which people banded together to ensure the essentials and protect the vulnerable. It even assuaged the doubts of some of the skeptics, as all of the participants saw a need for some form of a social safety net, particularly in regards to Social Security and Medicare, health care and education.”
This hopeful note for Democrats requires two things to be made real: First, progressives must unmask the Bush agenda for what it is: another set of plans to aid the wealthy and powerful while undermining the rest of us. And an aggressive campaign to explain and sell an agenda of “shared security” to the America people.
Our work is cut out for us.