What the meteoric career of Paul Ryan demonstrates is how easily impressed we are whenever a politician purports to restore solvency by punishing the poor and the elderly [while coddling the rich]. The Wisconsin Republican congressman’s fiscal plan has won rave reviews from both the usual right-wing suspects and some self-styled centrists, who have praised him and his proposals as “serious,” “courageous” and even “uplifting.”
By now, however, those who have actually examined the Ryan plan with care and competence know that those acclamations are highly exaggerated, which is probably a far too polite description.
If a serious budget is a budget that eventually curtails deficits and reduces the national debt within the foreseeable future, the Ryan plan is a joke – as the most casual reader ought to be able to understand. His own published version of the plan doesn’t offer any real estimates past a decade from now, when he still anticipates a substantial deficit. Beyond that, he cites Congressional Budget Office numbers that indicate the budget will at last achieve balance in the year 2040 – or more than a quarter-century from today.
To accept that projection, unfortunately, requires us to simultaneously accept Ryan’s utterly preposterous prediction that unemployment during the next 10 years will drop to 2.8%. As the economic sages at the Motley Fool point out, that is a fantastic claim, far below the normal unemployment rate of roughly 6%.
Should that kind of meteoric growth indeed occur over the coming decade, there would probably be no need to contemplate the cuts in spending and entitlements now contemplated by both Democrats and Republicans. Happy days would truly be here again. But the conservative Heritage Foundation, whose economists first calculated those wildly optimistic numbers for Ryan, has not been able to substantiate them – and in fact have now erased the figure from its website.
In other words, the same economists who formulated the numbers behind the Ryan budget have withdrawn their fundamental assertion, undermining his entire proposal.
For a budget to be serious, it would also have to finance basic national needs that must be met for us to remain economically competitive. At a minimum, those include massive repairs and rebuilding of the crumbling infrastructure – from roads, bridges, ports, and airports to the communications and electrical grids – as well as education and the environment.
But the Ryan plan envisions devastating reductions in infrastructure, education and environmental spending, with cuts as high as 70%. Robert Greenstein, of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities – a respected expert who would never dream of fraudulently projecting 2.8% unemployment – says that Ryan’s budget would ultimately defund all government functions except for defense [and drastically diminished Medicare and Social Security payments]. In what sense is that a serious or responsible plan?
So the Ryan plan isn’t really serious, but is it courageous and uplifting? Only if slashing services for low-income Americans and denying Medicare to tens of millions of older people is somehow brave and inspirational – and only if courage is defined by doling out still more tax cuts to the country’s wealthiest families [like the construction magnates in the Ryan family].
Greenstein calculates that at least two-thirds of the cuts proposed by Ryan would have to come from programs for people with low and moderate incomes, including food stamps, Pell grants, housing and Medicaid. Meanwhile, he would literally ask nothing from the rich or corporate special interests, except perhaps to cash their enormous tax refund checks with a smile. Moreover, he would exempt one group from his scheme to abolish Medicare, which just happens to be the voters now over 55 years old who are the most reliable Republicans.
What might be truly courageous for a Republican politician, of course, would be to urge sacrifice from his party’s rich contributors as well as from the poor and the middle class. That would be the start of serious budgeting, too.
– Joe Conason’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer