Ryan Budget: Cui Bono?

Here’s Ezra Klein’s initial take on the new Paul Ryan budget blueprint. I think Ezra’s emphasizing exactly the right points in sorting through the mass of details and numbers:

Here’s the basic outline of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget in one sentence: Ryan’s budget funds trillions of dollars in tax cuts, defense spending and deficit reduction by cutting deeply into health-care programs and income supports for the poor.

At the end of his initial release, Ryan posts a table comparing his budget to the president’s budget. The single largest difference is in the tax section: Ryan raises $2 trillion less in revenue than the White House does. In the president’s budget, those revenues come mostly from increasing taxes on the wealthy. So that’s the first big gap between the two proposals: Under Ryan’s budget, revenue would be lower, and the distribution of taxes more regressive, than under Obama’s budget.

On the spending side, Ryan’s biggest cuts come from health-care programs. He eliminates the $1.5 trillion that the Affordable Care Act uses to purchase health insurance for 30 million Americans. Then he cuts Medicaid and related health programs by $770 billion — which is to say, by about a third. Medicare takes $200 billion in cuts on top of that….

It would be very interesting to see an estimate of the uninsured population under Ryan’s budget.

Ryan’s next significant source of cuts is so-called “other mandatory.” Compared to the president’s budget, Ryan cuts $1.8 trillion from this category. Some of that might simply be an accounting difference: The president’s budget proposes to move infrastructure spending from the “discretionary” side of the budget to the “mandatory” side. Ryan might be moving that back, which isn’t, in and of itself, a spending cut. But beyond that, the main programs in “other mandatory” are low-income supports like refundable tax credits for the poor and food stamps. Ryan is cutting these quite substantially.

On a first pass, then, it appears that Ryan is offering a large tax cut, leaving seniors mostly alone for the next 10 years, increasing defense spending and cutting spending on programs for the poor.

It’s important to look at Ryan’s proposal from the perspective of who benefits. Thanks to all of the attention paid last year to Ryan’s proposed structural changes in Medicare, it will be natural to focus on them again. But it’s entirely possible that between softening the blow to near-seniors by maintaining a traditional Medicare “option” and more aggressively marketing the proposal’s grandfathering feature (no changes, supposedly, will affect the Medicare benefits of anyone over 55), Ryan and his supporters will succeed in making the overall package much less threatening to seniors. There is no way, however, to make it less threatening to poorer or younger people–in other words, people more likely not to vote or to vote Democratic.

If so, then you might well conclude that Ryan did indeed listen to those nervous Republicans who told him his original budget concepts were politically unrealistic and perhaps diastrous, as too frontal an assault on the New Deal legacy–at a time when white seniors and near-seniors have become the electoral base of the GOP. So instead, he’s doubling down on the aspects of his blueprint that shred the safety net created during and since the Great Society, culminating in the effort to cover the uninsured by the Affordable Care Act.

Thus, if you want to know how Ryan’s proposal is likely to affect you without looking at a lot of charts or believing a lot of phony assurances, just ask yourself: are you part of a demographic or economic category that tends to vote Republican? You’ll probably do okay, and you’ll do much better the wealthier and/or the more dependent you are on robust defense spending. Otherwise, look out!

And part of the reason you’ll have to look out is that Ryan’s proposal provides a lot more austerity than is necessary to fund its tasty tax treats for the wealthy or to keep defense spending realtively high: that’s his big concession to the Tea Folk. As Ezra puts it:

Ryan’s budget ultimately poses two questions: First, whether this amount of deficit reduction is actually necessary. It’s more substantial, I believe, than what’s called for in Simpson-Bowles. And second, if you do consider this amount of deficit reduction necessary, whether the right way to achieve it is almost solely by cutting programs for the poor.

There you have it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is all about wrecking Medicare or Ryan’s ultimate intentions towards Social Security. That’s another election away.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.