Who’s afraid of Paul Ryan?
posted at 5:59 pm on February 13, 2010 by CK MacLeod
In the process of responding to Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future (2.0),” veteran economics writer Robert J Samuelson provides a useful summary for those who don’t have the time or inclination to read the proposal in all its generous detail. Along the way, Samuelson summarizes his own views on the subject, while taking it as a given, along with almost everyone in American politics to the right of Paul Krugman, that we have already gone way too far into deficit spending and money-printing, and that existing debt and unfunded future obligations threaten the economic and financial system as we know it.
The by-word is “unsustainable,” though even those who use it most frequently, from the President to Senator Judd Gregg, seem to have a hard time explaining what it means in concrete terms. Maybe it’s because no one really knows. Maybe that should make it scarier.
Left unspoken but strongly implied in Samuelson’s response is that political paralysis is making that worst case scenario seem more and more like the most likely scenario. It’s hard to interpret his harsh critique of the Democrats’ reaction to Ryan in any other way:
Ryan is trying to start a conversation on the desirable role and limits of government. He’s trying to make it possible to talk about sensitive issues — mainly Social Security and Medicare — without being vilified. President Obama recognized that when he called Ryan’s plan a “serious proposal.” But since then, Democrats have resorted to ritualistic denunciations of him as pillaging Social Security and Medicare. Legitimate debate becomes impossible. If Democrats don’t like Ryan’s vision, the proper response is to design and defend their own plan. The fact that they don’t have one is a national embarrassment.
Samuelson doesn’t spell things out, but the implications of that paragraph are stark. Since the Democrats remain in power, if not exactly in “control,” an inability to engage in a “legitimate debate” seems rather worse than embarrassing. It would suggest that no coherent and meaningful response to looming national bankruptcy will be possible anytime soon. It further suggests that, at best, we’ll continue to get posturing, positioning, empty talk, and tinkering around the edges – until the day (the weeks, the months, the years) that financial chaos forces us to act in desperation.
Kim Strassel is even more critical of the Democrats for how they’ve responded to Ryan, but she stresses that other Republicans can’t afford to stand aside, figuratively holding his coat:
Should Republicans take back the House this year, or the White House in 2012, they will own giant deficits and runaway entitlements. Reality will force choices. They will either have to embrace politically tough ideas like those included in Mr. Ryan’s plan, or flail through, doing nothing or succumbing to bigger government.
The longer the GOP hides or runs from those reforms, the harder it will be to embrace them later. Instead of spending so much time telling the press that Mr. Ryan’s road map is not the “official” GOP plan, the party would be better off asking themselves why it isn’t. If Mr. Obama is so eager for a debate about who is more serious about the country’s future, they should give it to him.
If only they were ready to do so.
Samuelson believes that the solution will eventually require both sides to give on the positions that have defined them for a generation or more. “Any sound proposal,” he asserts, “would include greater tax increases than conservatives like and greater spending cuts than liberals like.” It’s of course no coincidence that the two positions also define the dysfunctional consensus that many believe has brought us to this point: More services and ever-rising disbursements, but relatively low taxes, hence structural deficits, alongside a hope that economic growth or clever financing (or clever financing made to look like economic growth) can make up the difference – ’til kingdom come.
If Samuelson, Strassel, and all of the other unsustainable-ists are right, then kingdom’s just about here. Yet conservatives seem set to resist any “taxes for cuts” compromise. As long as they perceive themselves already on the way back to power, they have little political reason to accept the Samuelson alternative. Even Ryan’s audacity – not just touching the famous “Third Rail” of American politics but hopping up and down on it – doesn’t extend to any open embrace of revenue enhancements except very quietly through the backdoor – via a radically simpler and presumably less loophole-ridden tax code.
Many conservatives will continue to insist that there is a classic “supply side” exit ramp from fiscal crisis (lower taxes and restored high growth quickly leading to higher revenues). I’m not here to declare that position wrong, but perhaps we can acknowledge that Samuelson might still be right about the politically easiest and, on current terms, most likely path: A typical high level, bipartisan, commission-adjudicated compromise that merely requires cooperation from the left, rather than total victory. This path of least resistance is probably what waiting for a worsening crisis or banking on business-as-usual implies (which isn’t to say that it will work very well). On the other hand, if conservatives reject this middle way, yet also expect to re-gain and hold credibility on debt and deficits – or, if worse comes to worst, cope with ahead-of-schedule financial collapse – then the alternatives to Ryan’s Roadmap generally consist of even more radical measures, leaving even less excuse to be afraid of the discussion.
If the rise of the Tea Party – whose key national advocate Sarah Palin has been unrestrained in her praise of Ryan – is any indication, the people may be a lot readier to think and act anew than most of our politicians, in either party. The perceived failure of the Democrats to lead may be handing the Republicans an epochal opportunity not just to win elections, but to change the terms of our national discussion. In that sense, making it possible to look at Ryan’s Roadmap in the political light of day, to face its implications squarely and even think beyond them, might be a greater and more important accomplishment than taking back congress and even the White House.
cross-posted at Zombie Contentions