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Conservative thinkers tout three innovative and controversial proposals

The idea has not been debated among the GOP leadership in Congress, but it has generated criticism among conservative thinkers who say the government should not reward people for behavior that they might do anyway, such as having children.

Marriage insurance

Conservatives have long touted the importance of marriage. Bush even established a "Healthy Marriage Initiative" that created small federal grants for pilot programs to help couples strengthen their marriages. (That funding expires next year, and President Obama created a pilot program focused on fatherhood to replace it.)

Much of the energy from conservatives went to promoting marriage as a cultural virtue. But Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, says that it is important to highlight the economic benefits of marriage.

The divorce rate among college-educated Americans has dropped since the 1980s, but the rate has increased among people without college degrees. This creates what he calls a "marriage gap" that denies lower-income people the advantages of marriage if they, for example, get laid off from their jobs.

"We need to appreciate that marriage is more than an emotional connection between two people," Wilcox said. "There are kids; it's a kind of economic cooperation, a form of social insurance."

Wilcox says churches, the entertainment industry and other cultural institutions would have to embrace this view of marriage, not just the government. He proposes federal funding for public-service announcements and other social marketing to promote marriage, modeled on anti-smoking campaigns.

And to discourage divorce, he says, states should change marriage laws so spouses who are being divorced against their will and have not engaged in abuse or adultery would be given preferential treatment by family courts in determining alimony, child support and custody of children.

Eyeing entitlement programs

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) wants to dramatically change Social Security and Medicare. He says that the country can't afford the scheduled increases in benefits, and he proposes remaking the system for future beneficiaries while keeping the current benefits in place for people already 55 or older.

He would turn Medicare from a government-run program to one in which people get vouchers to buy private health insurance. The amount of the vouchers would depend on the health and age of the retiree but would grow at a slower rate than health spending, which could mean voucher recipients pay more out of pocket to buy insurance. Ryan says competition among private companies would drive down costs.

For Social Security, he would change the way benefits are calculated for upper-income beneficiaries, basing increases on inflation instead of increases in wages, which in the long term would mean lower benefits than under the current structure.

For Ryan, these changes are not only about balancing the budget. By reducing some benefits, recipients of government entitlement programs would be turned into consumers while the role of the federal government would be reduced. For instance, he would allow -- as Bush proposed to much consternation from Democrats -- younger workers to put some of the money they would pay in Social Security into individual investment accounts.

"Government increasingly dictates how Americans live their lives; they are not only wards of the state but also its subjects," Ryan said. "Dependency drains individual character, which in turn weakens American society."

Democrats have attacked Ryan's plan as a shift toward privatization with which most Americans would be uncomfortable. Other conservative thinkers privately say his plans are so expansive that they would be politically toxic to propose in the near future.

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