President launching a quiet domestic revolution, too


The Dallas Morning News

President George H.W. Bush called it "the vision thing." It is one of the factors that voters and historians use to judge a president.

Since 9-11, discussion of the current President Bush's vision has been limited primarily to foreign policy and the Bush doctrine of "pre-emption." But while foreign policy legitimately has dominated, Mr. Bush quietly has pieced together a domestic policy vision that has just as much chance to be revolutionary.

Many conservatives have faulted the administration's domestic policies because the government hasn't been a model of spending restraint under his leadership. Some even have started labeling him a "big government" Republican. That is a valid complaint. Mr. Bush clearly doesn't worship at the altar of a balanced budget.

But judging his policy vision solely by that measure misses Mr. Bush's larger goal. While FDR had his "New Deal" and LBJ had the "Great Society," it is becoming clear that GWB wants to create an "Ownership Society."

Ownership, in Mr. Bush's worldview, is more than just the dream of owning one's home. To the president, the principle of ownership can take many forms and solve many problems. From retirement to health care, the goal is to move people from being dependent on the state to owners of their own security.

One of the prime examples of this philosophy is Mr. Bush's approach to retirement. The president appears to grasp the fundamental flaw of Social Security's pay-as-you-go structure - that the program can't be sustained with today's longer life expectancies and lower birthrates. Without reform, our children face a $25 trillion unfunded liability. Mr. Bush's answer is to give all workers a stake in the future of our economy and the ability to increase retirement savings by establishing assets that can be passed on to their heirs.

The idea of increasing access to ownership in retirement isn't limited to Social Security. Mr. Bush also has proposed the creation of retirement savings accounts, which will benefit Americans at all income levels but especially low- and moderate-income families. The accounts will extend the benefits of Roth individual retirement accounts, in which deposits are made with after-tax dollars, so withdrawals are tax free.

Nowhere is Mr. Bush's ownership vision more revolutionary than on the issue of health care. For decades, the left has dominated the health care debate, and the answer always has been the same - more government. Whether it be Medicare, Medicaid or the liberal nirvana of a national government-run single-payer system, more government control is their answer.

Rather than making everyone reliant on government, Mr. Bush believes that the government should create an environment where everyone can own a private insurance policy. To do that means reforming the tax law that has shaped our health care system. The tax law penalizes people who purchase their own insurance. If the tax law treated employer-sponsored plans and self-insurance the same, we would see an immediate, sharp reduction in the uninsured population. Thus his proposal for health care tax credits.

But owning your own policy isn't enough. Many of the other problems in the health care system, from rising costs to rationing care, stem from the fact that most patients are disconnected from the cost and decision making of most treatments.

That is why the creation of health savings accounts, an evolution of the medical savings accounts idea conceived by National Center for Policy Analysis President John Goodman, was so important. Those accounts have the potential to revolutionize our health care system. They should appeal to those who want an alternative to both government and health maintenance organization rationing and to every individual who suspects that impersonal bureaucracies care less about us than we care about ourselves.

Health savings account holders will be able to manage some of their own health care dollars to pay expenses not covered by third-party insurance, including the cost of out-of-network doctors and diagnostic tests, or they can use the funds toward their deductible. And they will be able to profit from being wise consumers by having account balances grow tax free and eventually be available for nonmedical purchases.

This country was built on the principle that we all were endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But since the time of FDR, our nation's leaders have seemed to argue that it should be life, liberty and entitlement. The Bush domestic policy vision represents a sea change from past administrations. It is one of empowerment - one that seeks to restore the notion of ownership.