The Ryan Creed
Marc A. Thiessen, a Washington Post columnist and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has complained bitterly at Bishop Stephen Blaire's "attack" on Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Thiessen defends Ryan as a "a faithful Catholic who says his budget work is informed and guided by the social teaching of the Church." And yet, in a letter to the House Agriculture Committee, Bishop Blaire had the effrontery to write that just solutions to the nation's fiscal problems "require shared sacrifice by all" -- and to suggest that Ryan's budget plan was not a just solution by this measure. Not much of an attack by Washington standards, but some conservatives may have forgotten how it feels to be criticized by a Catholic bishop, and so Thiessen has responded to this pastoral nudge as if it were a below-the-belt punch.
Thiessen notes that you will not find the phrase "shared sacrifice" in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and concludes that it is nothing more than "a reelection slogan for the Democratic Party." One might as well point out that you will not find the word "pro-life" in the Cathechism and conclude that its use by a Catholic bishop is therefore nothing more than Republican Party boilerplate. The Church's teaching about the importance of "shared sacrifice," otherwise known as solidarity, is no more in doubt than its condemnation of abortion. But Thiessen has a bad habit of dodging and redacting Catholic teachings that don't fit GOP dogma. Two years ago he wrote a book arguing that, while the Church may now oppose torture, nowhere does it say anything about "enhanced interrogation," which he went on to justify by abusing the principle of double effect.
If Thiessen had bothered to look into the matter, he would have found that the Catechism has some rather provocative things to say about the responsibilities of the state. "Certainly, it is the proper function of authority to arbitrate, in the name of the common good, between various particular interests; but it should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on" (1908). Perhaps Thiessen would argue that here the phrase "make accessible" means no more than "allow people to sell," or that the term "authority" doesn't have to mean the state. But he would have to expand the scope of his imaginative re-interpretations to include other official church documents that make Catholic social teaching more explicit and harder to fudge. Some of the faculty at Georgetown University recently sent Paul Ryan the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church; maybe they still have a spare copy they could send to Thiessen.
But enough with Thiessen's argument-by-search-term. And let's pass over his stray remark that Bishop Blaire "has near-zero competence to judge what military spending is necessary or unnecessary." (If you want competence like that, you'd better talk to one of those nameless government bureaucrats Republicans are always complaining about, or at least to a former White House speechwriter.) And let's not worry about whether Ryan is, in Thiessen's words, "a good Catholic layman." 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 loopholes 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.
Orwell thought one could tell a rotten political idea by the rotten language used to sell it. Ryan's plan does no better by that standard than it does by Bishop Blaire's. Ryan's rhetoric is stuffed with risible euphemisms: he and his supporters describe deep cuts in funding for Medicaid as "modernization"; they refer to his proposal for a privatized Medicare system as "patient-centered Medicare." In a particularly telling reformulation on his website, Ryan talks about "subsidiarity, solidarity, local control," which, on Ryan's simplistic account of subsidiarity, means something like "subsidiarity, solidarity, and did I mention subsidiarity?"
For Ryan and his defenders, subsidiarity is an exclusively political idea. Concentrated political power is always a toxin, paralyzing the wills of ordinary citizens, sapping their native resourcefulness. Concentrated, unregulated economic power, on the other hand, is what the holy spirit of democratic capitalism is all about. Market success is sufficient proof of righteousness, while government regulation is never a necessary correction, always a kind of meddling. When regulation fails because of the inanition of regulatory agencies -- as it did, spectacularly, during the housing bubble -- it proves not that regulators need more support or tougher rules to enforce but that they are essentially incompetent and so should be given less power, not more. This is about as sensible as claiming that a crime wave proves the pointlessness of law enforcement or the universal stupidity of police officers (though no doubt you would find some politician making that claim if bank robbers were as generous to politicians as bankers are).
As for the claim that, like it or not, the welfare state is no longer sustainable, this is an obvious case of wishful thinking passing itself off as lament. We have to cut entitlements to save them, alas. If we don't act soon, what's happening in Europe will happen here. See how they spoiled themselves with entitlements. They must have enjoyed it, but it could never last. Ryan and his defenders spend so much time warning us about the European syndrome that you'd think they would pay a bit more attention to what's actually happening in Europe. The European countries with the worst fiscal outlook are not the countries that spend the most on social programs (see here). And Ireland and Spain, two of the countries hit hardest by the recession, got into trouble by following our example and encouraging a housing bubble. Countries such as Germany that wisely prevented such a bubble by means of rigorous regulation have fared much better. Then there's Great Britain, whose coalition government has implemented the kind of austerity plan Ryan and Mitt Romney want to see in the states, the kind that is supposed to reassure the bond market and lead to strong economic growth. Last week it was announced that the British economy had slipped back into recession. If the Republicans have noticed, they are keeping it to themselves.
About the Author
Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.