Private accounts

Ever-cautious Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic Party’s 2008 presidential nomination, made an uncharacteristic mistake about a week ago while addressing the Congressional Black Caucus. The New York senator offered off-the-cuff support for an idea that would represent a major domestic and economic policy initiative: setting aside $5,000 for every baby born in the United States.

“When that young person turns 18, if they have finished high school, they will be able to access it to go to college or maybe they will be able to make that down payment on their first home,” Sen. Clinton said Sept. 28.

Her Republican rivals have since seized on that statement to pound the former first lady as a big-spending socialist. “It’s got to come out of somebody’s pockets,” White House hopeful Rudy Giuliani said Friday at the Americans for Prosperity conference. “You know who it comes out of? Yours, mine, hard-working Americans.”

Sen. Clinton has since backed off the proposal. “This is an idea I threw out. It is not a policy,” she said at a Chicago fundraiser. Her spokesman said it would not be a part of the economic platform she plans to reveal this week.

The lightning-quick nature of attack politics and campaign spin cheated American voters out of a detailed policy debate, here.

To be sure, if Sen. Clinton were to advocate billions of dollars in tax increases to buy savings bonds for every baby born in this country, then pile those costs on top of expanded social services and government programs, then it’s a terrible idea — another entitlement with an uncertain long-term price tag.

However, if Sen. Clinton supported the creation of private investment accounts for the youngest American citizens as a means of replacing existing government programs, then such a proposal might have merit.

Imagine the savings to taxpayers if, by giving each newborn the chance to have between $20,000 and $25,000 available at age 18, the federal government could gradually phase out Pell Grants, housing subsidies and other welfare programs. Or if the account were set aside to supplement whatever meager Social Security benefits are offered 70 years from now, to ensure young workers have some savings in old age?

But why do we suspect that if some child of the welfare state cashed his investment account and blew the entire sum on a car stereo system, big-screen TV and parties at nightclubs, five other government agencies would be on standby to cut more checks?

Such private accounts aren’t “owned” without personal accountability. And that’s an ideal that’s been noticeably absent from Sen. Clinton’s campaign.

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