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Wednesday, January 26, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

I should have the option of managing my own money

The defenders of Social Security retirement income in its current form have been offering some tricky arguments against individual accounts.

They have said the idea is a Wall Street scheme. But it wasn't investment bankers who promoted it for 25 years. It was the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think-tank stocked with academics.

In the 1990s the GOP came gradually to believe in private accounts as a way to individualize the welfare state, though I think what fetched George W. Bush was the idea that stock and bond ownership would convert millions of Democrats into Republicans. Anyway, Wall Street had little to do with it.

It is said there is "no Social Security crisis," and that reform can wait for another 30 years. So it could; but as the drop in birth rates ripples through the population, Social Security slips into cash deficit about 2018 and thereafter into a deepening hole. There is no one year in which reform has to happen, but the sooner the cheaper. Better to fix it now.

It is also said that private accounts will create their own deficits, because they will divert money paid to current retirees. That's true, but those deficits last only one generation. They are big, but they can be bridged with finance. This comes at a cost, but it should be weighed against the benefit of creating a permanent new pool of capital for business to tap.

The crucial argument is not about what can and can't work. Either system can be made to work. The question is which one people want.

I like private accounts. Probably, I'm too old to get a lot out of them, but I think if I want to manage my own money, I should have that option. I remember Barry Goldwater, who ran for president when I was in junior high. He said people should be given a right to opt out of Social Security. He lost, and that idea went underground. But I liked it, and still do.

The Cato Institute's plan for private accounts includes a Goldwater option. Cato would allow workers to exempt themselves from their share of the tax — half of the 12.4 percent total — by buying a deferred annuity. That is not much different from the old loophole that allowed public-sector groups to opt out. I know a retired teacher in her 90s who has never received a dime from Social Security because the teachers in her state opted out. She's doing fine.

The Bush plan may not include an opt-out, but even the idea of individually managed accounts worries some people. It shouldn't. We Americans are an independent people. We find our own jobs, our own marriage partners and rear our own children. We allow ourselves access to alcohol, gambling, guns and bank cards.

We mess up some of these things at one time or another, but generally come out OK, and would never entrust them to the government. Surely, we could manage our own retirement accounts, especially if given a lifetime to do it.

Furthermore, the Bush proposal will make it easy. Contributions will be mandatory and early withdrawals restricted. This mandates a robot-like investing in all markets, up and down, which is called dollar-cost-averaging. It is the safest kind of investing there is. Probably also the choice of investments will be no wider than in a 401(k) account — and how difficult is that?

The retort comes that Social Security isn't meant to have any risks. It's guaranteed, the same for smart people and fools. Well, under the Bush proposal you could still choose the system designed for fools. But if you wanted to control your own retirement account, you'd have that choice.

Well, I'm pro-choice.

Opponents are left with the prediction that the system of private accounts won't work well. What's clear is that they don't want it to work. They don't like what it does, which is to transform something run by the government into a private asset.

Actually, the account will be only quasi-private. But once we have Bush accounts, people will begin thinking about the next increment of choice. If Bush does not offer them the Goldwater option, someone else will.

I'll be waiting.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com. Look for more of his thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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