Tribal Politics, the Stimulus, and the Right

What happens when knee-jerk conservative pundits deem a plan "liberal" without thinking it through first? No one benefits.
Rick Wilking/Reuters

My last column on KidSave generated a lot of responses. What I have found most interesting about the reaction to the column—setting aside a number of gleeful blogposts and tweets seizing on the numbers, addressed below—are the knee-jerk, snarky reactions to the fundamental idea behind KidSave.

Emblematic is the response of Powerline's John Hinderaker, who called it "a lefty idea." It was otherwise labeled a government giveaway to undeserving people, another example of quasi-socialism, etc., etc., by a long list of conservatives. How an idea that got the endorsement of Rick Santorum—yes, RICK SANTORUM—and Chuck Grassley could be a "lefty idea" is, shall we say, puzzling.

But it reflects, I think, the state of contemplation and discourse in the country, something very different than we had even a decade ago. A typical comment:

What an asinine idea! That money would be spent on diapers by the parents! The kid would never see one dime and the author knows it. It sounds good though doesn't it? Give every kid a welfare payment from day one. But it is progressive, Marxist nonsense.

Why would Rick Santorum endorse a form of KidSave? We will have to ask him, but I can give some answers as to why many conservative Republicans looked favorably upon the idea back then.

What KidSave would do is create a universal investor class in America. Everyone would become an investor with a real stake in economic growth, in a robust stock market, in a country that worked. Everyone would have a piece of the American Pie, and not feel entirely on the outside looking in. The money saved and invested would be used to help grow the economy. And, I am sure, some GOPers thought a sizable portion of a new investor class would look more favorably on the Republican brand.

Now I am sure that some fiscal hawks also saw KidSave as a way to justify major adjustments in Social Security; at least one commentator on the left called it "a wedge to undo the last tattered remnants of the social safety net." To be sure, giving everyone some additional cushion in a retirement account would create more wiggle room to make Social Security solvent over the long haul. But here is what I would suggest: Pay for KidSave from revenues created by ratcheting up the income levels subject to the FICA tax, using an idea floated by Al Franken—a doughnut hole, where payroll income from say $100,000 to $200,000 would not be subject to the tax, but every dollar over that amount would be. At the same time, beef up the minimum Social Security payment for retirees significantly, so that no one, including those with no or few other sources of retirement income, would have to struggle to get by in their sunset years, and change the cost-of-living formula on a means-tested basis—keeping the status quo for those with limited income other than Social Security, and applying chained CPI for those with more than, say, $50,000 a year in income over and above their Social Security.

Many of the responses to the column gleefully slammed an error—a big one. I want to acknowledge the mistake. I had data from the original analysis of the Kerrey/Lieberman plan on what the initial investments would accrue to after 60 years—but based on an 8.5 percent rate of return, the middle alternative from the Thrift Savings Plan, a not unreasonable ROR if one invested in an indexed stock fund like the S&P 500 which over long stretches has yielded considerably more. I am not sure why I wrote 5 percent and did not correct it in the editing; I will have to do a deep dive into aging brain synapses to get the answer. But the result was I used a dramatically overstated nest-egg projection. My apologies. A 5 percent return would actually yield $70,000 or so—more than the current average net worth of Americans, but no huge honeypot. Meanwhile, 8.5 percent would yield somewhere between $600,000 and $720,000 depending on assumptions of accrual rates.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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