Politicians are often brilliant actors. Displaying the commitment associated with any legend of theater or film, they expertly breathe life into fictional creations. Nowhere is this more evident than the “Honest Man In D.C.” character currently portrayed by one Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
According to conventional wisdom, Ryan is the fresh-faced ayatollah of fiscal discipline, steadfast in his devotion to balanced budgets and free enterprise. Enduring the partisan slings and arrows of his less earnest opponents, he responds to petty politics with hard facts and unassailable numbers. While others clamor for him to seek higher office, he plays the Shakespearean Mark Antony, refusing the crown, preferring the yeoman’s labor of policy analysis and debate. It would be damn near inspirational, were it even remotely accurate.
The truth regarding the current chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee and potential Vice Presidential candidate is much more pedestrian. Elected to Congress in 1998 with a wad of finance sector cash, Ryan has consistently performed the role of loyal bannerman for the elite and powerful.
Ryan spent the Bush era quoting Ayn Rand and voting for every single budget busting policy put forth by the White House, from the tax cuts to the Medicare prescription drug benefit. It was only when a Democrat took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that he discovered the existential threat posed by federal deficits.
Now he leads the vanguard in the conservative battle against the Obama Administration’s purported “class warfare.” In fact, it would seem the very idea of class offends him.
According to Ryan, “in societies marked by class structure, an elite class made up of rich and powerful patrons supplies the needs of a large client underclass that toils, but cannot own.” How Marxist of him. Interesting that he advocates policies that would undoubtedly serve to further stratify the American citizenry into haves and have-nots.
Depending on who you ask, Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” may or may not be a plan to destroy Medicare, among other things. The idea is to implement a “premium support” system where the government pays a specified amount directly to the insurance company for coverage selected by the recipient and to cap the expansion of that support at GDP growth plus half a percent. Of course, health care costs have grown much more rapidly than this baseline, a trend expected to continue for the foreseeable future. And Ryan’s proposal offers no guarantee that the premiums would remain within the constraints of the authorized payment amount, leaving the individual responsible for any shortfall.
Despite the well-known altruism of the private insurance industry, an argument could be made that the Ryan approach would inevitably lead to seniors unable to afford coverage equivalent to what they receive today, even with the premium support.
His response to this criticism includes the usual platitudes about the power of the “free market” and “competition” to drive down health care costs. However, the performance of Medicare Advantage—the semi-privatization policy which operates according to principles similar to those Ryan would apply to the whole of Medicare—has been a disappointment, at best. Far from demonstrating the competency of the marketplace to solve all social ills, patients covered under Medicare Advantage cost the government nearly 15 percent more than they would have under traditional Medicare.
The rest of the Ryan budget contains a hodgepodge of conservative think-tank approved policies, from tax cuts dwarfing those put into place during the Bush Administration to steep reductions in spending on social programs such as food stamps. To hear the Congressman tell it, this is designed to “promote equal opportunity by reducing barriers to growth”.
However, when challenged on the numbers and practical consequences of his budget, Ryan strangely downplays its boldness. At a town hall meeting, he referenced a reported 270 percent increase in food stamp recipients over the past few years, the implication being that the Obama Administration bore some level of responsibility for the misfortune of these citizens, by refusing to provide the kind of tough love advocated by Ryan and his allies. But when a reporter questioned whether Ryan believed that food stamps were a social necessity, he back-pedaled furiously, stating that under his plan, the increase would have been “something like 260 percent instead of 270.” Not exactly the kind of drastic change expected from the “most ambitious budget ever put forth by Congress.”
Appearing on NBC’s Meet The Press, Ryan stated “We’re not even really cutting spending. We’re simply slowing the rate of increase.” It can be assumed that the millions of Americans who would find themselves unable to afford health care and groceries under Ryan’s policies would find that claim questionable, at best.
Paul Ryan maintains that the policies he advocates are born out of tough choices that must be made by a nation on the brink of fiscal and moral decline, rather than an attempt to solidify a new form of aristocracy, based purely on wealth and systemically protected from encroachment by the unwashed masses.
One would hate to think that the good Congressman from Wisconsin was being anything less than sincere in this regard.