Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal 2015 budget will not become law. (Thank you, senators). It is a statement of values that is embraced this year, as it has been in the past, by virtually the entire Republican congressional caucus (the exceptions are a handful of dissenters who think it isn’t extreme enough).
This is Ryan’s fourth budget. Like an aging vaudeville act, the show has gotten tired. The tricks are aged. The patter is dated. The punch lines are retreads. The big lies no longer convince. The magic asterisks – details to come later – no longer seem clever.
Once more Ryan parades out his Orwellian doublespeak, where slashing support for the vulnerable sets them free. Once more he reveals the top end and corporate taxes he would cut, but not the taxes he would raise to meet his promise to sustain revenue. Once more he tells us what shared security programs he would protect – Social Security, veteran’s benefits, etc. – and not which ones he would savage to get $500 billion in cuts over 10 years. Once more he tells us how much he would save hundreds of billions in domestic spending, but not which programs be gutted to meet the target. What once dazzled now simply feels like an insult. He really ought to hang up the act.
Double Down on Failure
Ryan’s budget document starts with a recitation of how lousy the economy is. He then urges that we double down on the failed policies and wrong-headed assumptions that brought us to these straits. This is a plan for those who think we just need a stiffer dose of the same medicine. It is bottled as change, but it is just a more potent version of the old moonshine. Consider these central assumptions of the Ryan budget.
The rich and corporations have too little money
The wealthiest 1% has captured 95% of the income growth coming out of the Great Recession; corporate profits are at a record share of the economy. But Ryan calls for even more tax relief for the rich and corporations, lowering the top rates and abolishing the alternative minimum tax. He asserts that this reform will not lower revenues, but refuses to specify what taxes he would hike or loopholes he would close to make up the difference. He ignores the fact that his conservative Republican colleague, Rep. Dave Camp, couldn’t make the math work without retaining a 35% top bracket.
The multinationals have too few tax havens
Multinationals like General Electric use tax havens to end up paying a lower tax rate than any mom and pop store that turns a profit. Ryan thinks this isn’t enough, so he would move to a territorial tax system that will essentially make the entire world outside of America a tax haven, giving corporations even more incentive to move jobs and report profits abroad.
Austerity expands the economy
America’s budget deficits are coming down faster than any time since demobilization after World War II. This austerity has cost jobs and slowed the recovery. Ryan believes that we need a much harsher dose of it. He would drive to a balanced budget in 10 years, without raising revenue, exacting $5 trillion in cuts. Somehow this will lower interest rates that are already near record lows. Somehow laying off teachers, terminating government contracts, cutting off the unemployed will free up the economy to grow. More likely, the Ryan budget will cost jobs. The Economic Policy Institute projects the loss of over a million jobs in fiscal 2015, and 3.0 million in fiscal 2016.
The vulnerable are weakened by excess support
America’s safety net is threadbare. The repeal of aid to dependent children left single mothers adrift when the economy went bad. Cutbacks in food stamps have resulted in more children going hungry. We do less to provide a helping hand to the poor and the unemployed than any other industrial nation. Ryan argues we do too much, famously suggesting the safety net has become a “hammock,” encouraging idleness. His budget would set the poor free, cutting health care (Medicaid) by 25%, slasing food support, ending extended unemployment benefits for laid off workers who can’t find work.
The children of the working poor get too much education
America fails to provide lower income children with even the basics in public education – universal pre-K, full day kindergarten, smaller classes in the early years, after school programs, affordable college or advanced training. The savage inequality of public school funding means that the children of the working poor suffer the most crowded classrooms, the least experienced teachers, the most limited school curriculum
Ryan thinks they would fare better with less education. His budget would slash federal support for impoverished schools. It would cut and limit Pell grants, making college more expensive for children from low-income family. It would cut Head Start and make no provision to expand pre-k.
The Pentagon needs more dough
The Pentagon’s budget is 6 times that of China, the closest thing we have to a potential adversary. With our allies, we spend as much as the rest of the world combined. We maintain an empire of over 700 bases and stations across the globe. The Pentagon is also the largest source of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government. Its books are in such disarray that they cannot be audited. Yet Ryan argues that the Pentagon needs more money, not less, adding nearly $500 billion to projected military budgets over 10 years, paid for by deeper cuts in domestic programs.
Health care would benefit from more control by private insurance companies
America spends about two times per capita what other industrial nations spend
on health care with worse results. Private insurance companies and drug companies exact profits by ensuring we pay more. Ryan argues that they need even greater control over our health care. He would warns that Obamacare “will undermine the private insurance market,” and possibly lead to a single payer system like Medicare for all (if only). Ryan’s solution is to repeal Obamacare and go back to our old system of medicine, where insurance companies could deny coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, hide total care limits, charge women more than men. He would also privatize Medicare, offering seniors a voucher – of decreasing value – to use to buy private insurance. He would savage Medicaid, repealing its expansion under the Affordable Care Act, turning it over to the states in a block grant cut about 25% from current levels. Presumably, Medicaid recipients -- the poor, the disabled and seniors in need of long term care –can use their own money to purchase private insurance to make up the difference.
Big oil is our salvation
Catastrophic climate change is a real and present peril. Ryan, however, believes America will prosper by subsidizing big oil. He’d cut research and development and incentives for renewable energy to reduce competition. He’d open up more federal lands and offshore areas for big oil’s exploitation. He’d expand fracking and open up export markets for oil and gas. If extreme weather is the price, people will pick up the tab.
This is the Ryan vision: pursue more of the same policies that got us in the mess we are in. More trickle down tax cuts. More austerity. More subsidies for global corporations, private insurance, big oil. More money for the Pentagon. More severity for the vulnerable. More insecurity for seniors and the disabled.
We suffer slow growth and an economy that does not work for working people. The richest 1% is capturing virtually all the rewards of growth. The middle class is sinking, even as the cost of necessities like education and health care continue to rise. We’re policing the world, while ignoring vital investments at home, building baroque weapons while climate change exacts increasingly catastrophic costs.
For Paul Ryan and Republicans, once you get past the soft shoe routine, ignore the slights of hand, and decode the doublespeak, the remedy is clear: double down on the very policies that got us where we are. It is lucky for Republicans that most Americans will never figure out about just how callous and wrong-headed they are.