While participants in a town hall meeting about Social Security had differing views about whether the system should be privatized, they all had a common worry - whether the government or private firms could be trusted to invest people's retirement money in the stock market.
"I think the Wall Street brokers are going to be making the money," said one woman.A panel of policymakers, college professors and lawmakers convened by President Clinton sparred over the costs and risks of Republican-championed proposals to divert a portion of the Social Security trust fund, which is now invested in safe but low-yielding government bonds, into potentially higher yielding private stocks.
The government could hire outside managers from Wall Street to invest the funds, do the investing itself or establish individual investment accounts so people could do their own investing.
Many were apparently squeamish about the first two options.
"I believe that the people who are advocating privatization are just like the tobacco people who are the ones that garner the big money with their programs," said one women.
Panel member Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said he worried about Uncle Sam playing the stock market with Social Security money, but for a different reason. "That would be too much control of the private markets," he said.
Policy expert Robert Reischauer saw problems with the prospect of letting people decide on their own how to invest funds in individual accounts.
"There will be many who will invest unwisely or are unlucky, for one reason or another," said Reischauer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "And the question is, what a happens to them?"
Clinton didn't hide his skepticism about privatization. He noted that in the six years he has been president, the value of the stock market has nearly tripled.
But he went on, "Can we look forward to having that happen every six years from now on? If not, what are the risks?
"I think we have to be open-minded about these proposals and we also have to ask the hard questions," he said.
Even if the government could come up with a plan to safely invest some portion of Social Security trust funds in the stock market, Clinton said it would be a tough sell.
"How will you ever convince the American people since they always believe the government would mess up a two-car parade?" Clinton asked Reischauer.