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Some liberals favor private accounts
by Jay Ambrose
Scripps Howard News Service


March 10, 2005

Private Social Security accounts? Why, say some critics, this is nothing but a right-wing, Wall Street-profiting scheme that would gouge the little guy, a plan to elevate the rich, to abandon our communal obligations, a betrayal of the social salvation that came our way through the New Deal.

When I hear all this, I laugh, because I immediately think of Sam Beard.

I first met Sam in 1996 when he paid a visit to my office in Washington carrying a briefcase bulging with facts and figures about Social Security, bringing with him a mind bulging with ideas for the system's rescue and bringing, too, a heart bulging with concern for the down-and-out.

Sam, you see, is a liberal, a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy who tirelessly promotes volunteer efforts to assist the poor and endlessly explores governmental means of making ours a more caring, loving land. A chief tool for giving comfort to the afflicted, he first told me some nine years ago, was private Social Security accounts.

He didn't just tell me. He offered incisive analyses and a barrelful of statistics to demonstrate that it would be difficult to impossible to keep Social Security reasonably intact _ and to sustain it without reverting repeatedly to powerfully painful tax cuts _ through any other device. I can promise you he wasn't looking to make the rich richer. His aspirations were of a different order.

Sam was - and is - convinced, as am I, that private accounts could afford even minimum-wage workers an avenue, and the only possible one many would have, of accumulating serious wealth through their lifetimes. If they put their total 12.4 percent contribution to the payroll tax into a balanced portfolio, the miracle of compound interest would deliver hundreds of thousands of dollars to them by retirement. Wealth disparities in America would have been dealt a blow.

What President Bush is talking about is just a 4 percentage-point voluntary investment. But if that were successful, as it likely would be if care were exercised, if we learned from the mistakes in Sweden, Britain and elsewhere, if Congress made use of the extraordinary detailed work done by such think tanks as the Cato Institute, then the percentage would likely be gradually expanded, bringing this society closer and closer to the Sam Beard dream.

Sam's hardly the only liberal Democrat who has embraced the idea of private accounts, although today's low-life demagoguery by many on the subject would make you think it is only Republicans who favor it, and not so many of them, just the demented ones with reactionary, near-fascist political dispositions whose chief objective in life is to cheat the unfortunate.

The critics forget that one advocate of personal investment accounts was the Senate's chief intellectual, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a keenly astute Democratic policy analyst and perhaps as great an expert on Social Security as anyone in Congress when he was there or since.

Aides report that President Bill Clinton was moving in the direction of some form of personal accounts until the Monica Lewinsky scandal robbed him of the political capital to press the project. Al Gore once gave the idea lip service. When he was in the Senate, Bob Kerrey spoke kindly of an account system. Joseph Lieberman was an advocate before joining the Gore ticket as a vice-presidential candidate in 2000, and remains responsible enough to argue for Social Security reform today. The highly respected Charles Stenholm, the former congressman from Texas, is another Democrat who has favored private accounts.

Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself believed that pay-as-you-go Social Security should eventually be "supplanted by self-supported annuity plans," as he said in a 1935 speech.

I don't pretend there are no reasonable objections to private accounts coming from objective, nonpartisan analysts, but many of the objections are unreasonable. They are the knee-jerk, unthinking, highly partisan, politically inspired or ideologically fixated responses of unremitting Bush haters who apparently have not had the pleasure I have had of meeting someone many of them would almost surely like and just might find persuasive, namely the infectiously enthusiastic, very liberal Sam Beard.


Jay Ambrose, former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)


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