Paul Ryan is a true believer in right-wing economics, but his reputation as a courageous truth-teller doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
Mitt Romney’s choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as a vice presidential candidate has raised the decibel level of the anti-government movement dramatically. We started Rediscovering Government at the Roosevelt Institute to balance such ahistorical and destructive views, and Ryan’s is among the most extreme. If we are to think the best of Ryan, it is this: He believes in what he says. But what he says is a matter of faith, not of evidence.
Ryan’s budget proposal, which propelled him to the headlines a couple of years ago, would return government spending to 16 percent of GDP, the same the size it was in 1950, before Medicare or Medicaid were created or Social Security expanded enough to lift the majority of the elderly out of poverty. He would basically privatize Medicare, providing an inadequate subsidy to enable the elderly to purchase plans on the open market. He once proposed to change Social Security in a similar way, but that is now apparently on the back burner. He will deeply gut Medicaid and would almost entirely cut out all other government spending in coming decades, except for defense, which he seems to adore. This includes students loans, veteran programs, infrastructure spending, R&D, and so on.
Despite all this, he would not balance the budget, because the tax cuts he proposes are so extreme that even his social spending cuts won’t pay for them for a generation. Indeed, the size of his tax cuts seems to get lost in some analyses. They are bigger than Romney’s, really whoppers. There was a casual promise that they would be partly financed by closing tax loopholes, but as with Romney, we have yet to see details.
Most Democrats seem to be rejoicing. They are probably right. Romney’s choice shows just how lost he really is. Unable to ignite his campaign merely by citing the unemployment numbers against Obama while hiding all kinds of secrets about his own life, he threw up his hands and chose Ryan, who one presumes he thinks will energize the base. Now that the race is about Medicare and tax cuts—and not jobs so much anymore—the Democrats believe they’ve got Romney.
But it’s worth thinking about why Ryan is so popular with many Republicans. He is thought of as honest, willing to tell difficult truths, and courageous. These are qualities few politicians exhibit today. He is genial. He promises major change, not just incremental change. Could this perception create a groundswell of support? I think there is reason to be wary of overconfidence.
But there's reason to question Ryan's supposed honesty. Sharply lower tax rates will not create renewed prosperity and jobs. Under George W. Bush, America experienced the slowest rate of job creation in the postwar period. Under Ronald Reagan, whom the conservatives revere as a great success, unemployment and deficits remained high, and wages stopped growing for the next 20 years. George H.W. Bush had to live with Reagan’s broken promises for his difficult four years in office. Republicans are promoting a myth, and Ryan pretends with the best of them.
His honesty is suspect for other reasons than that it is so destructively naive. Ryan has to know how easy it is rile up some people by playing to their prejudices. His tax cuts, which will help the rich more than the rest, will be paid for by the poor through cuts to such programs as food stamps and Medicaid. These are Ronald Reagan’s famous takers, not givers. It is code for people of color, for lazy good-for-nothings, for the welfare recipients who supposedly almost singlehandedly brought down America in the 1980s and much of the 1990s. Ryan appeals to the angry, the bitter, and the vindictive. Is this honest?
Finally, he is taking the easy road, not the hard road. Is it courageous to give huge tax cuts to the well-off? Is it honest to claim that tax cuts will reignite prosperity in America? He is promising painless growth. Sound familiar? Shades of the 1980s and Reagonomics? He leaves the tough stuff for the gym, where he apparently works out religiously.
Like Ayn Rand, his philosophical idol who believed in the individualist superman, Ryan believes faith is fact. Philosophy is easier when it doesn’t come down to earth and stays among the fictitious supermen. Ryan isn’t even close to earth. He cites Jefferson, of course, but Jefferson was an arch regulator of land sales by the government, a guarantor of education, a violator of the Constitution when he (thankfully) bought the Louisiana Territories, and a skeptic of manufacturing. He used government to end the British leftovers of primogeniture, which entailed that estates could not be broken up and the eldest heir would inherit all. His party members at the state level built the canals and developed free primary education, all before 1850. Jefferson believed in ordinary people, which is why he wanted them to have their own parcel of land at affordable prices. Land for Jefferon is Amartya Sen’s capability guarantee in our modern world. Today that means education, a minimum wage, and a minimum amount of health care.
Not so for Ryan. He wants to let the poor fend for themselves, trusting that the rich will create jobs for them. Forced responsibility will save the day. Can such nasty over-simplification work? I don’t think so, but I worry. How does one effectively respond to airy promises based on bitter feelings and easy scapegoats? He is promising faith, not facts. Let’s as a people at least demand some evidence and expose that fantasy as a lie.