Along the Tracks

Saturday, December 20, 2003

A greater 'Society'

In today's New York Times, David Brooks offers a preview of the major new domestic initiative to be laid out in President Bush's State of the Union Address in about six weeks. The name Brooks relays echoes Lyndon Johnson just enough to create a perfect irony: The Ownership Society.

Johnson's Great Society, of course, was underpinned by the belief that the federal government could solve socio-economic problems itself. The past 35-40 years have more than proven that premise to be misguided.

Bush will turn the concept on its head, according to Brooks. The Ownership Society will give workers the opportunity to control assets which presently are held by the government or by employers - things like health insurance policies, job training credits, unemployment reserves, medical savings accounts and, the big one, social security accounts.

The effort would pale in comparison to Johnson's Great Society in budgetary terms, as this is more about control than new programs. But the Ownership Society's social intent is equally profound: To transform the employment landscape by making it easier for workers to change jobs, and to morph government from a provider of programs to a protecter of opportunity.

With control, of course, comes responsibility, and undoubtedly this is where the debate will focus, as liberal Democrats would prefer to see the powers of the state determine outcomes, not opportunities. That is a good political debate to engage, and will in yet another way offer sharp contrasts between Bush and his Republican supporters and the Dean Democrats.

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