With the Republican ticket complete and Romney and Ryan out on the State Fair circuit, there is a growing narrative that, of all the things we could talk about, this election may well end up being a referendum on the spending priorities we reflect in our budgets. There are many people who think this is a bad idea, and I would agree with them if not for the fact that such a discussion might well be the beginning of a different discussion on national priorities. Unless we get bogged down in Beltway-speak about the horrors of river of red ink in which we are drowning, talking about spending can be a way to talk about what kind of nation we want to be. The trick, of course, is maneuvering around the Ryan Legend, that he is an intellectual, that he has some kind of economics mojo that blinds the opposition, that any discussion that includes Paul Ryan will actually be a meta-discourse, a talk about talk, rather than a talk about the nuts and bolts of governing and policy. That the many economists who have taken a look at Ryan's "plan" and cried foul have disappeared from too much of our talk will be part of the problem; the reality that his numbers do not and cannot add up needs to be introduced early, repeated often, and hung around his neck like an albatross.
The line from the Republicans seems to be that Ryan's "budget" reflects a fundamental philosophical choice and distinction from the priorities of the Democrats; thus, we are told, we need to consider these meta-points rather than such silly things as whether or not Ryan's numbers add up. My preference for dealing with this position is simply to acknowledge it, and move on. After all, the airy precincts of political philosophy may make David Brooks' heart flutter, but most folks - myself included - are far more concerned with that most American of philosophical questions: What does this mean for me/us?
At the heart of Ryan's budget - the link to his "Roadmap to Prosperity" is a couple posts below, if you're interested in checking it out for yourself - is the firm belief that "entitlement reform" is the philosopher's stone of fiscal probity. Well, that and reducing federal spending on everything from national parks and recreation through education to health and science research. Because Ryan just doesn't believe the federal government should be in the business of spending money on things like this - for reasons that boil down, in the end, to "just because!" - he would drastically reduce such outlays with the goal or complete elimination at some point in the mid-term.
Ryan's original plan from two years ago took aim at Medicare. During the Bush years, Ryan was the architect of a plan to partially privatize Social Security, a plan the died in no small part to the tireless and courageous defense by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Discovering that it was Medicare that represented explosive future growth, Ryan proposed something similar: turning what had been a federally-managed health insurance program in to vouchers participants could use to purchase health insurance on the open market.
The problem with Ryan's plan was that the Affordable Care Act, in one of its many virtues as policy, already attacked the potential explosive growth of Medicare head on. Now, Republicans had a field day claiming Pres. Obama was "gutting" Medicare. Romney and Ryan have been out and about in recent days claiming that Obama has "raided" Medicare to "pay for" other policies. Technically, this is true. Provisions in the Affordable Care Act use Medicare funds to reduce health care costs over all, in particular for participants in Medicare's prescription drug program, an unfunded mandate passed during the Bush years. In other words, by tossing more money and participants in the pool, ACA reduces not just the growth of the expense of Medicare, but in so doing reduces health care costs, which will further slow the growth of Medicare spending.
What Ryan proposed, and continues to claim, does nothing to address our overpriced health care system. He has yet to utter a word about how to reduce health care costs over all, let alone how reducing such costs would reduce the growth in Medicare outlays in the long run. What ACA does, surely imperfectly and not without limitations, is cut spending by the clever use of federal health care policy while working toward the goal of better, more comprehensive care for all Americans.
Rather than airy realms of philosophy, we see what's in it for us - for all of us - because, unlike Ryan's "plan", Congress passed a law that has been given the President's name that is actually doing something about the deficit, about the growth in federal spending, and addressing the nearly criminal lack of health insurance. All in one fell swoop. When Americans are asked their opinion of the various parts of the Affordable Care Act, there is overwhelming support for them; when Americans are asked their opinion of "Obamacare", they are overwhelmingly negative. When Americans are told the stuff they like is Obamacare . . . they say, "Really? Wow!" Because reality trumps political theory every single day.
So, I say, let Ryan talk about the budget and deficits and all sorts of things he thinks are his strengths.
Tomorrow, the real third rail of American politics: The Budget for the Department of Defense.