Reading the Ryan Budget as a Liberal

In his new column about the presidential race, Josh Fischel delves into the austere budget proposal from vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

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By how much should a 99-page budget proposal raise a good liberal’s blood pressure? Plenty, apparently, if it is Paul Ryan’s budget and I am the good liberal. (I didn’t actually measure my blood pressure, but the screechiness of the first draft of this piece was a good indication of my ire.) I wondered if I was merely seeing his budget through my own blue-colored glasses, choosing — as is increasingly our wont — to view it through media that tends to lean toward my own ideology. So I thought I would read the thing, the Ryan Budget. It’s actually called “The Path to Prosperity,” and it’s available here, if you’re similarly inclined.

There are several things that jumped out to me about the budget. There is a surprising lack of numbers in the document: seven tables spread across two appendices, and an array of USA Today graphs made to look as dire as charts of rising global temperature. Instead, there is a lot of pablum, as any political document must contain. Ryan describes America as “exceptional” four times in the first fifteen pages. He brings up the wisdom of the Founders three times in his foreword. He spends most of the time articulating what we already know is an extremely conservative fiscal policy: limited government, lower taxes, and fewer pesky social programs.

In the past, I’ve sided with the Democrats largely over social issues. I believed much more strongly in a woman’s right to choose, marriage equality, and equal pay than I did in… whatever a liberal fiscal policy entailed. (spending lots of money?). Here, however, Paul Ryan has more clearly articulated where his party is, and where, now, their presidential ticket is, and he has made me care way more than I thought I would, though probably in the opposite way he intended — it incensed me.

To some extent, the best way to read “The Path to Prosperity” is to keep in mind Americans you know and places in this country where you’ve been, and try to superimpose the ideas laid out here on them.

For instance, the theme throughout is that the federal government is separate from us, somehow un-American, as though it isn’t constituted by human beings, elected and hired alike, and as though it is incapable of creating economic opportunities for so many. He calls for “slowing the growth of the public sector, achieving a 10 percent reduction over the next three years in the federal workforce through attrition, coupled with a pay freeze until 2015 and reforms to government workers’ fringe benefits.” Why does he assume that government agencies have only cushy jobs for the chronically overpaid and that the private sector does not? I earned a master’s in public policy alongside plenty of people who work in either federal or state government. They work tirelessly for institutions like the Government Accountability Office and the National Science Foundation and the Office of Management and Budget and the Wisconsin Office of Educational Accountability. I don’t think any of them got into it for the money or the prestige of being labeled a bureaucrat, conservatives’ latest four-letter word. (If Paul Ryan really means what he says about the size of government, by the way, he might look at cutting back on his own staff, which totaled 22 in the first quarter of this year, and for which he spends nearly $1 million each year of taxpayer money.)

The tax code is another target of the Ryan Budget. Basically, it’s too complicated. If I were to amend that sentiment, I would say this: it’s complicated, but necessarily so. When my wife and I bought our first home in 2008, we were able to do so in part because of Obama’s first-time homebuyer tax credit. Others have been able to buy more efficient appliances and cars because of similar tax credits. The tax code tries to do exactly what Ryan wants: it aims to treat people as individuals instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach. To do that, though, the code has to be complicated. One small solution to Ryan’s problem is to employ a crack team of graphic designers and plain language experts to make the forms and processes easier to navigate. Nothing will make it easier to, say, get audited, but we can at least give taxpayers the opportunity to understand what is on each form and why it is asked of us.

I spent the last few years working largely with low-income families. As part of my job, I reviewed their taxes with them to help them qualify for financial aid so they could afford to send their children to independent schools. The most consistent number during those dozens of meetings was the amount that families had saved for retirement: zero. Many families simply did not have the luxury of saving up excess income to use down the road on necessities that would sustain them in their old age and ill health. They had to rely on the government for exactly the kind of help that the government ought to provide. I do not believe that Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney truly have any understanding at all of what it is like to live like that or how difficult it is to “pull yourself up” out of that kind of situation, and that angered me, too, when I read “The Path to Prosperity.” There is an assumption that, because America must be great, hard work will guarantee you the opportunity to pole vault out of poverty. Tell that to the parents I know who immigrated here, who gave up jobs in their home country like doctor and lawyer to pour concrete foundations and work nights at 7-Eleven that what they need to do is just work a little harder. Government must do better than just chucking them on the shoulder and saying, “Atta boy, sport.”

The best thing the federal government can do, when the private sector is reluctant to hire in a down economy, is to create more jobs itself. That is one of the chief aims of the stimulus. If you are operating under the assumption that the government can do much, policy-wise, to create jobs outside of hiring people itself, then you really ought to listen to this This American Life episode. Private sector jobs depend on the whims of the economy, which depends on all sorts of factors around the world, but probably does not depend a ton on the size of the deficit or the debt. There are plenty of tax policy experts out there who don’t see the evidence that economic growth follows from deficit or debt reduction. To the contrary, it seems that the opposite is more logically true. A paper by the late economist F. Gerard Adams concluded in 1988 that it’s possible to eliminate the deficit without causing a recession through tax increases. He pointed out that “the deficit began to shoot up as a result of the dual pressures of the Kemp-Roth supply-side tax reductions and the expansion of defense expenditure.” The Kemp in that hyphenated partnership is, of course, Jack Kemp, who mentored Paul Ryan when Ryan first arrived in Washington.

Funny thing about defense expenditures, too — it’s the only untouchable part of the budget in “The Path to Prosperity.” He wants military spending funded “based on strategic, not merely budgetary, calculations.” In other words, Paul Ryan, the most aggressive voice behind deficit reduction in America today, does not believe the Department of Defense should have to adhere to a budget, even though his plan calls for the military to receive $554 billion from the federal government, and even though the US already spends five times more on its military than the next country, China. We’re told that the Romney-Ryan ticket is willing to be the grown-ups, the ones making the tough choices. What kind of a tough choice is it to tell the military, “Here’s a blank check”?

Interestingly, Ryan does not mention using those funds to help re-train veterans for the workforce, to make it easier for them to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees, or to cover the increased costs of their medical bills — the sort of things that I know will matter to those in the military as they return home.

Paul Ryan writes in “The Path to Prosperity” that the government’s most important responsibilities are (a) the safety and security of all Americans, (b) safeguarding free enterprise, and (c) providing a strong social safety net to the most vulnerable citizens. He ignores what I think is government’s actual top priority: providing regulations that balance appropriate economic growth with the long-term health and welfare of our people, our infrastructure, and our resources. Well, that’s not entirely fair. He mentions the word “regulations” 19 times in “The Path to Prosperity,” and here are the adjectives with any connotations that describe said regulations: punitive, heavy-handed, unnecessary, flawed, and one-size-fits-all.

I appreciate Paul Ryan for giving me an even clearer choice than I’d thought I would have in November. Here I’d thought I was just going to have to vote for the party that thinks contraception should be a part of health care, or that wants to grant gay couples the same rights as my wife and I have, or that will nominate awesome Supreme Court justices. Thanks to Congressman Ryan, I have so many more reasons to be vigilant at the ballot box in November.

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.