WASHINGTON — In 1983, the British Labor Party under the hard-left Michael Foot issued a 700-page manifesto so radical that one colleague called it “the longest suicide note in history.” House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has just released a recklessly bold, 73-page, 10-year budget plan. At 37 footnotes, it might be the most annotated suicide note in history.
That depends on whether (a) President Obama counters with a deficit-reduction plan of equal seriousness, rather than just demagoguing the Ryan plan till next Election Day, (b) there are any Republicans beyond the measured, super-wonky Ryan who can explain and defend a plan of such daunting scope and complexity, and (c) Americans are serious people.
My guesses: No. Not really. And I hope so (we will find out definitively in November 2012).
The conventional line of attack on Ryan’s plan is already taking shape: It cuts poverty programs and “privatizes” Medicare in order to cut taxes for the rich.
Major demagoguery on all three counts.
(1) The reforms of the poverty programs are meant to change an incentive structure that today perversely encourages states to inflate the number of dependents (because the states then get more “free” federal matching money) and also encourages individuals to stay on the dole. The 1996 welfare reform was similarly designed to reverse that entitlement’s powerful incentives to dependency. Ryan’s idea is to extend the same logic of rewarding work to the non-cash parts of the poverty program — from food stamps to public housing.
When you hear this being denounced as throwing the poor in the snow, remember these same charges were hurled with equal fury in 1996. President Clinton’s own assistant health and human services secretary, Peter Edelman, resigned in protest, predicting that abolishing welfare would throw a million children into poverty. On the contrary. Within five years child poverty had declined by more than 2.5 million — one of the reasons the 1996 welfare reform is considered one of the social policy successes of our time.
(2) Critics are describing Ryan’s Medicare reform as privatization, a deliberately loaded term designed to instantly discredit the idea. Yet the idea is essentially to apply to all of Medicare the system under which Medicare Part D has been such a success: a guaranteed insurance subsidy. Thus instead of paying the health provider directly (fee-for-service), Medicare would give seniors about $15,000 of “premium support,” letting the recipient choose among a menu of approved health-insurance plans.
Call this privatization if you like, but then would you call the Part D prescription benefit “privatized”? If so, there’s a lot to be said for it. Part D is both popular and successful. It actually beat its cost projections — a near miraculous exception to just about every health care program known to man.
Under Ryan’s plan, everyone 55 and over is unaffected. Younger workers get the insurance subsidy starting in 2022. By eventually ending the current fee-for-service system that drives up demand and therefore prices, this reform is far more likely to ensure the survival of Medicare than the current near-insolvent system.
(3) The final charge — cutting taxes for the rich — is the most scurrilous. That would be the same as calling the Ronald Reagan-Bill Bradley 1986 tax reform “cutting taxes for the rich.” In fact, it was designed for revenue neutrality. It cut rates — and for everyone — by eliminating loopholes, including corrupt exemptions and economically counterproductive tax expenditures, to yield what is generally considered by left and right an extraordinarily successful piece of economic legislation.
Ryan’s plan is classic tax reform — which even Obama says the country needs: It broadens the tax base by eliminating loopholes that, in turn, provide the revenues for reducing rates. Tax reform is one of those rare public policies that produce social fairness and economic efficiency at the same time. For both corporate and individual taxes, Ryan’s plan performs the desperately needed task of cleaning out the myriad of accumulated cutouts and loopholes that have choked the tax code since 1986.
Ryan’s overall plan tilts at every windmill imaginable, including corporate welfare and agricultural subsidies. The only thing left out is Social Security. Which proves only that Ryan is not completely suicidal.
But the blueprint is brave and profoundly forward-looking. It seeks nothing less than to adapt the currently unsustainable welfare state to the demographic realities of the 21st century. Will it survive the inevitable barrage of mindless, election-driven, 30-second attack ads (see above)? Alternate question: Does Obama have half of Ryan’s courage?
I think not (on both counts). But let’s hope so.