So Paul Ryan’s latest budget proposal is out today, and there are no particular surprises to those familiar with earlier iterations. Yes, Ryan was forced by Tea Party pressure to produce a document projecting a balanced budget within ten years, but the task of coming up with those savings was cushioned by his ability to incorporate the new revenues from the “fiscal cliff” deal and the appropriation of Obama “Medicare cuts” he and Mitt Romney attacked regularly during the 2012 presidential campaign. Plus Ryan has not lost his talent for assuming and estimating his way out of any arithmetical challenge to his budgeting.
From a big picture point of view, the new budget’s very similar to prior iterations. It still hammers low-income programs (and defense discretionary spending generally) and lets the Pentagon state. It still has fuzzy-math treatment of revenues, with ill-defined “tax reform” measures paying for rate “simplification,” which probably means high-end tax rate cuts. It still leaves Social Security alone (almost certainly to Ryan’s private chagrin); still voucherizes Medicare for those under 55; still turns Medicaid and SNAP into block grants with radically reduced federal funding.
There’s nothing new, either, about Ryan’s central bait-and-switch tactic: shriek about debt and its threat to the economy, but focus on redistribution of resources with no real net impact of debts-and-deficits. Ezra Klein, who is kinder to Ryan than most progressive analysts, really nails him on this front. After quoting a turgid paragraph from Ryan’s budget document about the terrible economy and the burdens it’s placed on families, Ezra has this to say:
Ryan’s budget isn’t about most of these challenges. It won’t create jobs this year, and will likely cost jobs in the years to come by putting the economy on a steep austerity ramp. There’s no housing policy for the millions of families in foreclosure and no way to read Ryan’s budget without assuming massive cuts to student-loans programs. That may mean fewer families watching student loans pile up, but only because they didn’t get any in the first place.
As for medical costs, fully 59 percent of Ryan’s savings come from new cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare or other health-care programs — and that omits the $800 billion in Medicare cuts he keeps from Obamacare. So there will be less health-care bureaucracy, sure, but also less health care. The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that cuts on the order of what Ryan is proposing will mean around 35 million people lose their health-care coverage.
The real shocker is Ryan isn’t proposing these things to reduce deficits and debt, either. He considers them good and important ends in themselves:
Ryan’s budget is, at its core, a set of very distinct, very ideological, and, over the course of Ryan’s career, very consistent ideas about how to reform the relationship between the federal government and its citizens. Ryan was pushing these ideas in the late-’90s and early-2000s, too, when deficits were far less of a threat. The only item he’s dropped is Social Security privatization — but it was, remember, in the 2010 iteration of his budget….
The problem is that these ideas are not, on their own, popular. In fact, they’re deeply unpopular, and considered quite radical. That’s why Newt Gingrich rejected Ryan’s initial budget as “right-wing social engineering” — it is, in a very serious sense, an effort to use policy reform re-engineer the relationship individuals have with their governments, their communities, and their families. But presented on their own, Ryan’s plans scare people.
What Ryan has found is that the way they’ll get a hearing is if they’re presented as necessary, prudent measures to forestall an even more dramatic debt crisis.
So any debate over the Ryan budget ought to be about his actual proposals and real aims, not the packaging. The reality is that he’d be promoting the same policies even if the federal budget were in balance. His plan would just have more tax cuts. Let’s don’t let the wrangling over deficit numbers obscure that simple fact.