From MICHAEL KINSLEY
The fiscal savior of this country will be the person who persuades us to bite the bullet: Accept some pain now to remain prosperous later. That person will not be Rep. Paul Ryan.
The reviewers agree: The Path to Prosperity, aka the Republican budget proposal for 2012… by the House Budget Committee — which Ryan chairs — is one helluva read. To liberals, it’s the nightmare of a madman with an ax chasing you down a long hallway. To conservatives, it’s a sweet dream of wonderland, where angels dine on Heritage Foundation press releases. Right or wrong, it is said, Ryan has at last set the stage for an honest debate about government spending and the federal deficit.
But he hasn’t. The Path to Prosperity purports to be something that’s been missing since Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address in 1981. For 30 years, Republicans have demanded a balanced budget without producing one, even on paper. What would it look like? Whose ox would be gored? Whose chickens would come home to roost? Whose goose would be cooked? Ryan continues the long GOP tradition of evading these unpleasant questions. You would think, reading the document, that the only reason we have fiscal problems is the willful perversity or ignorance of everybody but Ryan. He admits to no ordeal or challenge. In effect, he claims he can painlessly cut $5.8 trillion from federal spending in the next decade. How has Ryan built his reputation as a hero of fiscal discipline? Here are some of his techniques. Watch closely.
1. Say you’ve done it. They’ll probably believe you. If you boiled all the self-congratulations out of Ryan’s 60-page document, you’d save a lot of paper, which is important to him. He calls on the government to “eliminate excessive printing” of congressional bills and resolutions. OK, I’m for that. But that is one of a remarkably few specifics.
2. Waste, fraud and abuse. These are old friends — introduced to us by Reagan himself — which have survived years of ridicule and are still in Ryan’s “Path.” There is no budget line called “waste, fraud and abuse.” No doubt, there is plenty of all three in the federal government — just as in the private sector. But Ryan offers us no reason to think that there are easy pickings that five presidents since Reagan, most of them Republican, have overlooked.
3. “Caps” and “across-the-board cuts.” Ryan says there should be a “binding cap on total spending as a percentage of the economy” with “caps on the total size of government … enforced by sequester.” He also favors a seemingly redundant cap on “discretionary spending” — basically everything except Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which is not much — “enforced by automatic across-the-board cuts if spending exceeds these caps.” An order to cut without guidance on what to cut or why is more like an aspiration than a decision. You might as well pass a law saying that “there shall be a balanced budget,” and if there isn’t, “the president and Congress shall get together and produce one” — then claim that they’ve solved the puzzle. A cap is a restatement of the problem; it’s not a solution.
4. Block grants. The cost of Medicaid is shared between the federal government and the states. Ryan wants to turn the federal money into “block grants” for the states. Ryan does not say how he thinks the states might run the program more efficiently. He merely asserts that they would. Does he read the newspapers? Every day’s news offers evidence that state governments are not likely to improve on the federal record for efficiency and thrift. Block grants are like spinach sliced into fifty-one tiny bits and scattered about a plate by a child who wants to make it look as if he’s eaten some.
The only advantage of a block grant is that it can always be cut without having to explicitly reduce benefits. Ryan is at his most unctuous about the plight of future Medicaid beneficiaries, whose benefits are threatened by soaring costs, and at his most evasive about how those costs can be controlled without cutting benefits. He’s at his most absurd in suggesting that the problem is the “onerous, one-size-fits-all” federal approach to medical care, as if there were dramatic differences in the physiology of people in Nebraska and New Jersey. Of course, there are gross anomalies in health care across the country. But that is a problem, not the solution.
5. Cuts that are supposed to be good for you don’t count. Ryan laments, “The welfare reformers of the 1990s were not able to extend their work beyond cash welfare.” He proposes to take care of that and to “ensure that [the safety net] does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” Maybe Ryan is right that programs for the poor and unemployed are too generous. But isn’t there something Orwellian about classifying cuts in these programs under the label “Strengthening the Social Safety Net”?
6. Freezes and attrition. One group of people Ryan makes no bones about gunning for is federal employees — or “bureaucrats.” Even here, though, he avoids the tough decisions and hides how much he’s really asking. He wants to lower spending on “nonsecurity government bureaucracies” to “below 2008 levels” and then freeze it for five years. In addition, he wants to reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent “by attrition” over the next three years. And for good measure, he wants to cut government workers’ benefits.
A five-year freeze amounts to a pay cut of more than 15 percent, and the reversion to 2008 and the cut in benefits increase the proposed pay cut to more than 20 percent. Maybe federal workers deserve no better, and maybe all the shirkers and incompetents will leave while the good ones will stay. But that’s not how attrition tends to work. It’s the good ones who leave.
7. Grandfathering. Ryan’s solution for Medicare is to replace the current system with block grants — this time to individuals rather than states — plus insurance exchanges that look suspiciously like the ones in Obamacare that Ryan and other Republicans allegedly find so horrifying. Everyone could then buy insurance from an array of choices, just like members of Congress. This might work if everyone on Medicare were the same age as the typical member of Congress. Since they aren’t, it won’t.
Ryan characteristically insists that, even while saving money, his revised Medicare will be vastly superior to the current model. And yet he repeatedly emphasizes that those over 55 may keep their current arrangements if they prefer. People under 55 would have no option but the new system. It’s like the Berlin Wall, with guards on only one side, guns pointed inward. (Or like a roach motel: You can get in, but you can’t get out.) Chances are, that’s not the side you want to be on.
8. Punt. I was eager to see how Ryan would handle farm price supports, an expensive program and an obvious target for those who purport to believe in the free market. And Ryan deserves a strong B+ on this one. He starts out strong by correctly classifying farm programs as “corporate welfare” and noting the “reality of record-high farm income.” But instead of calling for an end to farm subsidies, he says cautiously that it’s “time to adjust” them. Although “to maintain flexibility for the Agriculture Committee,” all reforms would be put off until “the next farm bill,” which comes once every five years. Still, for a representative from Wisconsin, not bad.
And what about the infamous “third rail,” Social Security? On this, even the pretense of courage deserts our hero. Ryan wants to “force policymakers to come to the table and enact common-sense reforms.” Then he wants to “set in motion the process of reforming Social Security” so that, “in the event that the Social Security program is not sustainable,” the president and the board of trustees must “submit a plan” to fix things. He also wants to require by law that “congressional leaders … put forward their best ideas as well.” (Can’t you just see House Speaker John Boehner being hauled off to prison for secretly hoarding his best ideas for reforming Social Security?) Finally, Ryan proposes: “Move the conversation to solutions that save Social Security, thus providing the space to forge a bipartisan path forward.”
In other words, he’s not going to touch it.
Not all of Ryan’s ideas are terrible. But our problem is not a lack of ideas; it’s a lack of resolve. About this, Ryan has nothing to say.