Something, something, Paul Ryan

It was a seven-ounce sirloin (medium-well), garlic mashed potatoes, and one of those hot fudge chocolate bun cakes with a side of vanilla bean ice cream. That was my meal late Friday night – part of nice, little, outing with my wife. I’ve been getting better at leaving the phone in my pocket during meals, and that night I was better than most. Thus I was late to the outbreak of leaks pointing towards Rep. Paul Ryan as Vice-Presidential running mate to Mitt Romney. Leaving the restaurant I was, like many I read on Twitter, initially surprised at the near-certainty that it would indeed be Ryan – not Pawlenty, Portman, Rubio or even someone like a Susana Martinez.

Nope. Romney chose 42 year old Paul Davis Ryan. A member of the House of Representatives from the first congressional district in Wisconsin, Ryan was first elected in 1998. He is a co-founder of the Young Guns Program, a congressional organization dedicated to electing Republicans, as well as co-author of “Young Guns” (Kindle Edition $11.99). His first experience with politics came as a junior, where he became class president and earned an automatic spot on the local school board. During summers in college (Miami University at Oxford, Ohio) he worked for Oscar Meyer, even once getting to drive the Wienermobile. Ryan is into “the health thing,” a careful omnivore and avid participator in the popular P90X workout program. He additionally enjoys hunting and fishing, as well as occasionally skinning and butchering his way to a proper Polish sausage. Lastly, like any fine American, he occasionally gets a kick out of pushing elderly women in wheelchairs off cliffs.

Okay, maybe not so much that last part. Welcome to the world of politics, where public policy is debated via mythical theatrics to a semi-ignorant audience. Where only 46 percent of Democrats understand that Republicans are “generally more supportive of reducing the size of federal government,” and ten percent of Republicans don’t understand that their party is “considered to be more conservative on most issues.” Sigh. It is as Thomas Jefferson once wrote to Charles Yancey; “”If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.” Except that’s not quite right either. Such quotes are best understood as guideposts and not goals, so let’s get back to to Paul Ryan.

There has been much written about him already in the last 24 hours – his name brings up about 27,800,000 results in Google as of this writing. Yesterday was a punditry free-for-all given how much has been written Ryan previously. Being an amateur policy pundit (and according to the Pundit Responsibility Act of 1989) I am of course obligated to comment. However, as it goes with so much of the world as well as in this subject ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ Here is my curated list of Paul Ryan commentary:

He is not primarily interested in reducing the deficit or cutting federal spending. He has voted to increase deficits and expand government spending too many times for that to be the case. Rather, the common thread throughout his career is his desire to remake the basic architecture of the the federal government.

But the confusion persists because, while Ryan’s policy chops are well known, the specifics of his policies are not. [Me: And in that regard, he and Mitt Romney have much in common.]

In my view, Mitt Romney’s announcement of Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate is a good thing. The pick makes explicit the deep substantive differences between the two parties.

You’ll hear a lot about the Ryan budget, Medicare premium support, and House Republicans’ fiscal policies. TIE has been all over these issues. [Me: Austin Frakt has been all over the ‘premium support’ idea. This post has links to all that.]

Looking through the Library of Congress’s records, I counted 71 bills or amendments that Ryan has sponsored 71 bills or amendments and 971 bills that he has co-sponsored. That’s a lot of legislation, and some of it is pretty interesting. As Ezra noted, Ryan sponsored a Social Security privatization scheme that went so far the George W. Bush administration rejected it. So let’s dig a little deeper in the Ryan archives.


In 2008, Ryan sponsored a bill repealing the requirement that the Federal Reserve act to reduce unemployment, and specifying that it should determine a specific definition of “price stability” and then act to promote that. In the wake of the Asian financial crisis in 1999, he proposed a bill directing the Federal Reserve to never serve as lender of last resort for emerging countries’ central banks if those banks peg their country’s currency to the dollar, and to not take those countries’ interests into account when formulating a monetary policy.

Under Paul Ryan’s plan, Mitt Romney wouldn’t pay any taxes for the next ten years — or any of the years after that. Now, do I know that that’s true. Yes, I’m certain. 

Well, maybe not quite nothing. In 2010 — the only year we have seen a full return from him — Romney would have paid an effective tax rate of around 0.82 percent under the Ryan plan, rather than the 13.9 percent he actually did. How would someone with more than $21 million in taxable income pay so little? Well, the vast majority of Romney’s income came from capital gains, interest, and dividends. And Ryan wants to eliminate all taxes on capital gains, interest and dividends. 
Of course, Romney criticized this idea back in January when Newt Gingrich proposed it by pointing out that zeroing out taxes on savings and investment would mean zeroing out his own taxes.

By picking Ryan, Romney acknowledged that he can’t force the election to be a pure referendum on Barack Obama’s bad economy. It’s a choice between a state with more benefits and top-down wealth redistribution, and a state with leaner benefits and tax rates that favor the “makers” over the “takers,” to crib Ayn Rand. And Republicans have absolute confidence that the second choice is already winning, because Paul Ryan made it so.

Ryan upends Romney’s whole strategy. Until now, Romney’s play has been very simple: Don’t get specific. In picking Ryan, he has yoked himself to each and every one of Ryan’s specifics. And some of those specifics are quite…surprising. For instance: Ryan has told the Congressional Budget Office that his budget will bring all federal spending outside Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to 3.75 percent of GDP by 2050. That means defense, infrastructure, education, food safety, basic research, and food stamps — to name just a few — will be less than four percent of GDP in 2050. To get a sense for how unrealistic that is, Congress has never permitted defense spending to fall below three percent of GDP, and Romney has pledged that he’ll never let defense spending fall beneath four percent of GDP. It will be interesting to hear him explain away the difference.

I hope that when reporters are writing or talking about Paul Ryan’s budget plans and his overall approach, they will rig up some electro-shock device to zap themselves each time they say that Ryan and his thoughts are unusually “serious” or “brave.” Clear-edged they are, and useful in defining the issues in the campaign. But they have no edge in “seriousness” over, say, proposals from Ryan’s VP counterpart Joe Biden. [Me: In other words, there’s nothing ‘serious’ or ‘brave’ about a conservative proposing policies that first and foremost reduce the size and scope of federal government. That’s just being a Republican.]

What makes Ryan so extraordinary is that he is not just a handsome slickster skilled at conveying sincerity with a winsome heartland affect. Pols like that come along every year. He is also (as Rich Yeselson put it) the chief party theoretician. Far more than even Ronald Reagan, he is deeply grounded is the ideological precepts of the conservative movement — a longtime Ayn Rand devotee who imbibed deeply from the lunatic supply-side tracts of Jude Wanniski and George Gilder. He has not merely formed an alliance with the movement, he is a product of it.

The key question is, would Ryan be a good fiscal czar? The answer isn’t obvious. Ryan’s brilliance, and the soundness of his fiscal plans, is vastly overrated on the right. But it’s become fashionable on the left to say he’s a charlatan, which isn’t right either.

The various incarnations of Ryan’s plans for fiscal reform suffer from a lot of the same problems as Romney’s fiscal plans: excessive vagueness and blanks left in the hard parts.

I saw a reference to (US Representative) Paul Ryan’s plan to kill Social Security and Medicare, but only for people currently under 55 (he doesn’t say “kill” of course, but if it was going to make things better he wouldn’t need to exempt everyone likely to care directly about the issue) and it reminded me to post this.

A policy like this has what economists like to call a time-inconsistency problem. To get the policy approved, Ryan needs the votes of people currently over 55 (hence the exemption) and in the current US situation, any Republican majority has to rely heavily on older voters.

One other thing I’d like to add: remember this anecdote?

I was speaking with one of these business owners who owns a couple of restaurants in town. And he said You know I’d like to change the Constitution, I’m not sure I can do it,’ he said. ‘I’d like to have a provision in the Constitution that in addition to the age of the president and the citizenship of the president and the birthplace of the president being set by the Constitution, I’d like it also to say that the president has to spend at least three years working in business before he could become president of the United States.‘” 

It perhaps says something about Romney’s commitment to the idea that someone with business experience is required to be an effective president when he chooses a life-long public servant to be a step away from the Oval Office. Surely it wouldn’t be churlish of me to think such a sentiment was cynically political after all?


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