Romney’s Creed: Ryan’s
First the good news: We don’t have to worry this year about the intellectual qualifications of the GOP vice-presidential candidate — or about the judgment of a presidential candidate who would choose an unqualified running mate. Of course, it was always highly unlikely that Mitt Romney was going to repeat that particular mistake.
Now the bad news: By putting Paul Ryan on the ticket, Romney has underlined his prior commitment to Ryan’s budget plan, which would gut Medicaid, transform Medicare into a voucher program, and reduce all federal discretionary spending — including defense spending — to 3.5 percent of GDP. We now spend more than 4 percent of GDP on the Department of Defense alone, and both Romney and Ryan have pledged to protect the military from further cuts. That would leave the federal government with less than nothing to spend on everything else except for entitlements: roads and bridges, education, food safety, you name it.
Ryan and his defenders say we have no choice. We must either behave as adults and scale back basic public programs or risk losing them altogether. They say this because they know most Americans would reject Ryan’s plan if it were presented as a choice — the choice between dismantling the federal government and raising taxes on the rich and upper middle class, whose effective tax rates are now at their lowest level in decades.
Ryan has always been in favor of scrapping or privatizing federal programs for reasons that have little to do with fiscal necessity. He was, for example, behind a 2005 plan to privatize Social Security, which went nowhere. He was also in favor of the Bush administration’s tax cuts and wars, which did as much as anything else to cause our current fiscal problems. Ryan believes, as a matter of principle, that the federal government has no business taking care of the old, the sick, and the destitute. Each state, not the United States, can deal with the needs of such people. Or, better, churches and voluntary associations can take care of them. (Food stamps? Are there no church-basement homeless shelters, no soup kitchens?). Better still, those in need can learn to take care of themselves, as the good Lord intended, because no one is free who isn’t self-sufficient. On that point, at least, the divine Author of our liberties is in complete agreement with Ayn Rand.
Ryan has carefully distanced himself from Rand, a hero of his youth. He’s never been an objectivist, he now insists. How could he be? He’s a Catholic. He just likes her novels for the way they dramatize the evil of “collectivism,” Ryan’s pejorative term for the commonweal. Still, the question remains: Would someone who knew nothing about Ryan but had studied his budget be more likely to think it had been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount or Atlas Shrugged? As I wrote here a few months ago:
I have no doubt Ryan goes to Mass every week, loves his wife and children, and is truly contrite about his recent enthusiasm for the works of Ayn Rand.The problem isn’t Ryan’s personal piety; it’s his policy priorities. Make that “priority.” For all his grim talk about our national-debt emergency, Ryan’s new budget, like his old budget, is really organized around the single imperative of reducing taxes, especially for the rich. It is very specific about this: it would bring down the top personal income-tax rate from 35 to 25 percent and reduce corporate taxes to the same rate. True, it promises to offset the effect of these lower rates by closing loopholes, but these loopholes are left unspecified (as they almost always are). Ryan has specifically promised not to close one of the most egregious loopholes, the one that allows income on capital to be taxed at 15 percent. To make up for the revenue lost because of the tax cuts, Congress would have to find $700 billion worth of other loopholes to close. But don’t worry: Ryan and the rest of the GOP congressional caucus will figure that out later.
If the national debt is really the looming catastrophe Ryan says it is — a catastrophe in which “the poor would be hit the first and the worst,” as Ryan put it in his recent speech at Georgetown — then you might expect he’d at least be willing to consider raising tax rates, which are as low as they’ve been in fifty years. You would certainly not expect him to lower them still further. But it is possible that Ryan still believes, against all the available evidence, that cutting taxes will automatically lead to economic growth, which will in turn help bring down the deficit and benefit the poor. In which case he is not a Randian (Rand hated all superstition) but a practitioner of voodoo, bent on reanimating our inert economy by bleeding the federal government.
Even if Ryan’s budget didn’t hurt the poor — indeed, even if it somehow helped them — this would be no more than a happy accident. The point is not, and never has been, to help the poor. The point is to shrink the government and lower taxes. If this helps the poor, so much the better; if it doesn’t, sauve qui peut.