Every few years or so, the Republicans trot out one of these little whippersnappers, who offer proposals to hack away at the federal budget. Each successive whippersnapper inevitably tries, rhetorically, to out-mean the previous one, and their proposals are inevitably couched as the boldest and most ambitious deficit-reduction plans ever seen. Each time, we are told that these plans mark the end of the budgetary reign of terror long ago imposed by the entitlement system begun by FDR and furthered by LBJ.
Never mind that each time the Republicans actually come into power, federal deficit spending explodes and these whippersnappers somehow never get around to touching Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. The key is that for the many years before that moment of truth, before these buffoons actually get a chance to put their money where their lipless little mouths are, they will stomp their feet and scream about how entitlements are bringing us to the edge of apocalypse.
The reason for this is always the same: the Republicans, quite smartly, recognize that there is great political hay to be made in the appearance of deficit reduction, and that white middle class voters will respond with overwhelming enthusiasm to any call for reductions in the “welfare state,” a term which said voters will instantly associate with black welfare moms and Mexicans sneaking over the border to visit American emergency rooms.
The problem, of course, is that to actually make significant cuts in what is left of the “welfare state,” one has to cut Medicare and Medicaid, programs overwhelmingly patronized by white people, and particularly white seniors. So when the time comes to actually pull the trigger on the proposed reductions, the whippersnappers are quietly removed from the stage and life goes on as usual, i.e. with massive deficit spending on defense, upper-class tax cuts, bailouts, corporate subsidies, and big handouts to Pharma and the insurance industries.
This is a political game that gets played out in the media over and over again, and everyone in Washington knows how it works. Which is why it’s nauseating (but not surprising) to see so many commentators falling over themselves with praise for Ryan’s “bold” budget proposal, which is supposedly a ballsy piece of politics because it proposes backdoor cuts in Medicare and Medicaid by redounding their appropriations to the states and to block grants. Ryan is being praised for thusly taking on seniors, a traditionally untouchable political demographic . Here is how old friend David Brooks, taking a break from his authorship of breathless master-race treatises, put it in a recent column called “Moment of Truth”:
Over the past few weeks, a number of groups, including the ex-chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers and 64 prominent budget experts, have issued letters arguing that the debt situation is so dire that doing nothing is not a survivable option. What they lacked was courageous political leadership — a powerful elected official willing to issue a proposal, willing to take a stand, willing to face the political perils.Brooks sums up the Ryan proposals this way:
The country lacked that leadership until today. Today, Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, is scheduled to release the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes…
The Ryan budget will put all future arguments in the proper context: The current welfare state is simply unsustainable and anybody who is serious, on left or right, has to have a new vision of the social contract. The initial coverage will talk about Ryan’s top number — the cuts of more than $4 trillion over the next decade. But the important thing is the way Ryan would reform programs…Brooks then goes on to slobber over all of Ryan’s ostensibly daring proposals, from the Medicare block grants to the more obnoxious Medicare voucher program (replacing Medicare benefits with vouchers to buy overpriced private insurance, which Brooks calls the government “giving you a sum of money” to choose from “a regulated menu of insurance options”).
What he doesn’t mention is that Ryan’s proposal also includes dropping the top tax rate for rich people from 35 percent to 25 percent. All by itself, that one change means that the government would be collecting over $4 trillion less over the next ten years.
Since Brooks himself is talking about Ryan’s plan cutting $4 trillion over the next ten years (some say that number is higher), what we’re really talking about here is an ambitious program to cut taxes for people like… well, people like me and David Brooks, and paying for it by “consolidating job-training programs” and forcing old people to accept reduced Medicare benefits.
We are in the middle of a major national disagreement over budget priorities, and that debate is going to turn into a full-scale cultural shooting war once the 2012 presidential election season comes around. It is obvious that we have a debt problem in this country and that something needs to be done about it. But a huge part of the blame for the confusion and the national angst over our budget issues has to be laid at the feet of media assholes like Brooks, who continually misrepresent what is actually happening with national spending.
The last ten years or so have seen the government send massive amounts of money to people in the top tax brackets, mainly through two methods: huge tax cuts, and financial bailouts. The government has spent trillions of our national treasure bailing out Wall Street, which has resulted directly in enormous, record profit numbers – nearly $100 billion in the last three years (and that doesn’t even count the tens of billions more in inflated compensation and bonuses that came more or less directly from government aid). Add to that the $700 billion or so the Obama tax cuts added to the national debt over the next two years, and we’re looking at a trillion dollars of lost revenue in just a few years.
You push a policy like that in the middle of a shaky economy, of course we’re going to have debt problems. But the issue is being presented as if the debt comes entirely from growth in entitlement spending. It’s bad enough that middle-class taxpayers have been forced in the last few years to subsidize the vacations and beach houses of the idiots who caused the financial crisis, and it’s doubly insulting that they’re now being blamed for the budget mess.
But the icing on the cake comes when a guy like David Brooks – like me a coddled, overcompensated media yuppie whose idea of sacrifice is raking one’s own leaves – comes out and calls Paul Ryan courageous for having the guts to ask seniors to cut back on their health care in order to pay for our tax breaks.
The absurd thing is that Ryan’s act isn’t even politically courageous. It’s canny calculation, but courage it is not. It would be courageous if Ryan were, say, the president of the United States, and leaning on that budget with his full might. But Ryan is proposing a budget he knows would have no chance of passing in the Senate. He is simply playing out a part, a non-candidate for the presidency pushing a rhetorical flank for an out-of-power party leading into a presidential campaign year. If the budget is a hit with the public, the 2012 Republican candidate can run on it. If it isn’t, the Republican candidate can triangulate Ryan’s ass back into the obscurity from whence it came, and be done with him.
No matter what, Ryan’s gambit, ultimately, is all about trying to get middle-class voters to swallow paying for tax cuts for rich people. It takes chutzpah to try such a thing, but having a lot of balls is not the same as having courage.