Musing from 32,000 Feet: Why Does Rep Paul Ryan Get So Much Attention?

March 15th, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Zipping across the land with a nice internet connection, so a good time to reflect a bit (looking down on clouds from above broadens the perspective a bit, I find).

So, I’m doing a radio interview last night, and moderately impressed with myself for being able to speak coherently about four different budgets: Ryan’s, Senate’s, POTUS (not out yet, but we can guess at the mix), and the CPC.  Then I got asked a question which threw me a bit: why are Paul Ryan and his budget taken so seriously?

It wasn’t a snarky question.  It’s just that I’d been discussing the absolute non-reality of his proposal—how the numbers don’t begin to add up, the unrealistic budget cuts, the plethora of magic asterisks in the absence of actual proposals (the most egregious of which is: I’ll cuts taxes by $6-7 trillion over the next decade and offset the revenue losses with…um…sorry, gotta run).  And the interviewer was like, “OK…but if you’re right, why is his budget front page news such that he’s driving the debate?”

Here’s what I think is going on.  First, institutional reasons.  His party holds the majority and he’s the chair of the House Budget Committee.  That in itself makes his budget newsworthy.  Also, as a former VP candidate, he’s a national figure.

But that’s not the main reason.

I asked a wise, intently non-partisan friend who thought, and he admitted he was being generous, that one reason might be that Ryan’s introduced an important theme into the discussion: if you want really low taxes, you’ve got a give up Medicare as we know it.

But while that may be in there somewhere, it’s awfully muddled.  It certainly wasn’t Ryan’s position in the election, where he and Mitt attacked the President for Medicare cuts.  And his voucher program doesn’t start for ten years.

In other words, I think my friend is being too generous.  I’ve argued that we actually need our politicians to articulate this point: if we want X, we’re going to have to pay for X.  To my ears, Paul Ryan actually fits squarely in the problematic camp on this point, telling folks they can painlessly have it all.  But in his version, it takes the form of trickle down: if we cut taxes on job creators, get rid of the safety net, and inject health care delivery with competition, then we can have it all for a fraction of what we’re paying now.

That’s very different that telling the electorate straight up that if we want what we say we want—social insurance, a strong safety net, productive public goods including education—we’re going to need to raise more revenues to pay for it.

So what is the answer?  I think it’s twofold.

First, his views, positions, and rhetoric mesh very neatly with those of influential people, and those people have helped convince the media that Ryan is saying important things.  One group of those people are, of course, the fix-the-debt-shrink-the-government-fell-the-pain coalition.  Neither the numbers (the actual fiscal record or trajectory) nor the economics support their views, but they’ve been extremely effective in driving the debate.

The other group—and yes, there’s tons of overlap—are those who benefit most from tax reductions on the wealthy, and remember, many of these folks are professional investors.  When they invest in Congress, they expect a big bang for their big bucks.

All pretty depressing so far, I know.  But the second part of the answer is hopeful, and comes from the hoary old adage that you really can’t fool all the people all the time.

This may well be premature, but I believe Ryan’s popularity—his rep as someone who mustn’t be ignored—is fading and that this most recent budget will play a significant role in his decline.

My first clue was an interview he did with Larry Kudlow this week, and Larry’s on his side, especially on the supply-side stuff.  But the tone of the interview was revealing, I thought.  Kudlow expressed skepticism and disbelief that Ryan would be able to repeal Obamacare and thus didn’t think the budget stood up to even cursory scrutiny.  And Ryan basically agreed!  He spoke of his budget as symbolic and visionary, or some such stuff—I don’t remember the word salad.  But he kind of just said he’s holding up a picture of one way of looking at things, a way that he and his caucus think makes sense.

But I think they’re increasingly isolated in this regard—certainly, the election outcome suggests that to be the case—and eventually, this will move the media away from him, especially as the fiscal numbers continue to move down to more normal levels.  I could easily be wrong, of course, but I think that at the end of the day—and it’s getting toward dusk—enough people will no longer want to look at that picture he’s holding up, and as far as I can tell, he doesn’t have any other ones to show us.

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13 comments in reply to "Musing from 32,000 Feet: Why Does Rep Paul Ryan Get So Much Attention?"

  1. Steve Grube says:

    Why can’t the democratic leadership do a better job at showing the basic facts about the Ryan budget. One is the 9/14/12 Congressional Research Service report that shows there is no correlation between lowering top tax rates and increasing productivity growth. It also shows there IS a correlation between lower those rates and increasing the wealth gap. Second, why isn’t there a clearer picture being delivered that there is no data showing austerity will improve the economy. In fact the data from Europe shows austerity dramatically worsens the problem. Another point that should be driven home is that it is completely wrong to use the analogy of household budgets needing to be balanced and that so should the Federal budget. They each have separate sources of revenue, completely different time frames and completely different obligations to their groups: a family versus an entire nation. These facts should be on milk cartons!

  2. Perplexed says:

    You’re over analyzing this stuff Jared. Follow the money! Their strategy is very consistent with who they are actually representing. Who has been and continues to benefit most from the status quo and obfuscation? With a neutered and complicit media, what’s the downside of this strategy for their real “constituents”?

    And we play right into their hands by the way we measure things. You brought up tax expenditures recently but why do we accept that these “expenditures” are not reflected on both the income and expense side and shown in relation to all expenditures? How does such an accounting gimmick continue for so long with such little resistance? Obfuscation is the objective and its working quite well! Has the wealth of the Country ever been so great and so concentrated in so few hands?

    All this skewness just creates so many problems! If we only had a normal distribution all of this stuff would make so much more sense! What exactly is the meaning of “median income” in a country with a Gini coefficient of over .84? How should we describe in words what this is telling us about the Country’s wealth distribution? When the range of those below the median is from 0 to $57,000 (ok, slightly less than 0 for those 22% with actual negative net worth), and a range of the median to the top from $57,000 to over $5 billion? Does this statistic add to our understanding of the wealth distribution in the Country or simply provide cover for the concentration and obscure our understanding? Shouldn’t we be using mode to better describe what the reality is for most Americans (less than $5,000 based on Edward Wolff’s research)? Or should we be using Gini and trying to get people to understand what it means and how it better describes what is going on? Or is it possible that clarity and understanding are not what we’re really after?

    If we don’t change our campaign finance laws to public only financing of political campaigns with the dollars distributed by the voters, we don’t have a democracy where the voters hold the power. So what is it we really have instead and how much damage do we have to endure before we recognize it, expose it, and change it?

    • Perplexed says:

      Correction: The Gini coefficient is (as of 2010) .87, not .84. Fortunately, it can’t easily go much higher, when it reaches 1.0, one person will have all of the wealth and the limit will have been reached.

    • Perplexed says:

      Correction 2: “median income” should read “median wealth.” Its Friday; reading and hearing all week about the ridiculous “Ryan budget” tends to make one a little trigger happy with the submit button.

  3. wendy beck says:

    To highlight the ridiculousness of the Ryan budget in which he has magically repealed the Accountable Care Act and included the savings from it, I think a Democrat should come up with an analogy. It’s as if the Democrats came up with a budget that had all the Bush tax cuts on the rich (200K plus) repealed and all the loopholes fixed. It’s as much a fantasy as that!

    • wendy beck says:

      Whoops! The Dems did include a budget with loopholes fixed. Why don’t they call budgets “fantasies” or “wish lists”. That’s more like it.

  4. citizenme says:

    Marine Corps Manual: “The 1st step in solving a problem is to identify the problem.”

    The problem is CONCENTRATION OF WEALTH. Only way to solve it is:
    Reverse concentration of wealth.

    PROOF that Republican economic policies CAUSED Both Great Depressions:
    1929 & 2008 = highest concentration of wealth in U.S. history.

    Republican Policy=low taxes for wealthy…which creates concentration of wealth.

    Given 70% consumer economy, geometric progression of wealth accumulation- what else could sane people expect to happen?

    • perplexed says:

      What a coincidence! The same problem was identified more than 70 years ago:

      “Whilst, therefore, the enlargement of the functions of government, involved in the task of adjusting to one another the propensity to consume and the inducement to invest, would seem to a nineteenth-century publicist or to a contemporary American financier to be a terrific encroachment on individualism. I defend it, on the contrary, both as the only practicable means of avoiding the destruction of existing economic forms in their entirety and as the condition of the successful functioning of individual initiative.

      For if effective demand is deficient, not only is the public scandal of wasted resources intolerable, but the individual enterpriser who seeks to bring these resources into action is operating with the odds loaded against him. The game of hazard which he plays is furnished with many zeros, so that the players as a whole will lose if they have the energy and hope to deal all the cards. Hitherto the increment of the world’s wealth has fallen short of the aggregate of positive individual savings; and the difference has been made up by the losses of those whose courage and initiative have not been supplemented by exceptional skill or unusual good fortune. But if effective demand is adequate, average skill and average good fortune will be enough.

      The authoritarian state systems of today seem to solve the problem of unemployment at the expense of efficiency and of freedom. It is certain that the world will not much longer tolerate the unemployment which, apart from brief intervals of excitement, is associated and in my opinion, inevitably associated with present-day capitalistic individualism. But it may be possible by a right analysis of the problem to cure the disease whilst preserving efficiency and freedom.” -Keynes.

  5. R. Nemo says:

    Ryan BUDGET? It is just a libertarian wish list. It isn’t a budget. Like Krugman says: Ryan is a cruel hoax…

    As for the media. Please! They are basically anchor bimbos! Brain dead drones that fill the space between commercials. Such is the sad state of American Media.

    American politics has become Mad Magazine on steroids. A total farce…

  6. Mark Jamison says:

    Can we please stop using the phrase job creators? At least put scare quotes around the phrase whenever it is used.
    In a primarily consumer economy the job creators are the folks who buy stuff. I know that’s a bit simplistic but the reality is that American business, at least as currently constituted, works to shed jobs. Job creation becomes a secondary if not tertiary response to demand.
    Progressives are terrible at ceding language to the Right. For example, the response to The Death Tax is not a paragraph of explanation but to respond with, perhaps, Tax on Plutocracy or Aristocrats Tax. Yes, we would like people to think in a sort of thoughtful and expansive prose but the reality of today’s marketing and media environment is that inane brevity and phrase turning wins.
    Long term? Make George Orwell required reading in school so people innately understand the perverse uses language is put to.

  7. jo6pac says:

    mesh very neatly with those of influential people

    These same people own the media so only their message is the one every one hears.

  8. Jill SH says:

    Let’s not dismiss the “Young Guns” effect. It’s a corollary to Beautiful People who are Famous for Being Famous.

    It’s the Policy Wonk as stud, and we know how America and its media love cowboys: those of the chiseled chin, steely blue eyes, and thick mop of unruly hair, reputed to have a strict regimen of physical work-out. They are so serious and earnest, we must take them Seriously.

    It takes a while to realize what is coming out of their mouths and minds just does not add up. We’ve been dazzled by the persona.

    I hate to reduce economic issues and hard-core politics to this, but I’ve just seen it too many times.