Friday, June 17, 2011

Paul Ryan Isn't as Smart or as Honest as We Thought: And That's Saying Rather a Lot

Paul Ryan is in the news again: twice, in fact. Neither of the stories casts him in a good light, although one seems to want to do so. Let’s go there first.

On Thursday, Congressman Ryan signaled his willingness to make optional his controversial (to say the least) proposal to shift Medicare from a fee-for-services system to a voucher system. Indeed, Ryan aides pointed to an April interview in the Weekly Standard in which he seems to have been saying that even then. Except, of course, that he wasn’t.

Let’s face it: the argument in favor of the Ryan plan is that it saves the government money. How? By shifting some of the burden of seniors’ health care away from the taxpayers in general and onto the individual recipients. This is a defensible position in pragmatic if not political terms. But, just as the benefits of “Obamacare” rely on the participation of everyone—including those less likely to require high-cost services—so does Ryan’s plan only reach its goal of reducing costs if a significant number of people subscribe.

But no sane individual retiree would choose Ryan’s plan over the status quo for the precise reason that the scheme is appealing to deficit-cutters: the government would pay less towards the health care needs of the elderly. Given the choice, then, between Ryan’s voucher plan and the current structure of Medicare, not even Ryan’s own mother would choose Ryancare. Be it noted: this doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea (I think it’s an abomination, but that’s not the point). It means that for Ryan’s proposition to work, it cannot be voluntary.

Rep. Ryan himself, of course, wants to have it both ways. He seems quite reasonable if allows an option, but of course he has to understand that doing so completely destroys whatever efficacy his plan may have going for it. So, back in April, to a fawning John McCormack at the Weekly Standard, Ryan argued that an optional system could still achieve the budgetary goals of the program:
because it wouldn’t be an open-ended fee for service system, like the current one for the under-55 plan. They would get a set amount of money to go toward the traditional fee for service and then, like current Medicare they’d probably buy coverage to supplement it. I would think a person would prefer a comprehensive plan like Medicare Advantage is today, but you can do this in a way that doesn’t have a budgetary effect, that it doesn’t bankrupt the program.
In other words, people would be free to choose the current system, except that it wouldn’t be the current system.

Thus, Ryan is being disingenuous in two different ways, completely apart from the Panglossian predictions on which his whole schema is founded. What Ryan is proposing as an option, then, is neither what he pretends it is (i.e., the current system) nor a source for any appreciable deficit reduction. And, of course, any movement towards making Medicare less universal ultimately increases per capita costs by reducing Medicare’s ability to use its incredible purchasing power to negotiate better rates on behalf of all of us—Medicare recipients and taxpayers alike.

I understand the impulse of Democrats to accuse Ryan of walking away from his own proposal, and to try to concentrate attention on it, given its capacity to be a bigger albatross for the Republicans than Watergate, which could at least be blamed on a handful of rogues. No, the entire GOP political class has quaffed deep of this particular Kool-Aid, and no one—not even the Tea Party—thinks they’re on the right track. Still, the Dems are making the wrong argument: the problem isn’t a lack of conviction on Ryan’s part. It’s the fundamental fact that his underlying logic is even less logical, less consistent, and less honest than we’d previously believed.

Speaking of less honest, the other Ryan headline comes in the form of an article by Daniel Stone of The Daily Beast. Stone alleges, and provides no little evidence, that those tax cuts to energy companies proposed in the Ryan budget aren’t simply crass, counter-productive and inane: they’re also self-serving.

Importantly, I don’t mean self-serving in the “helping out my campaign contributors” sense that, alas, is pervasive on both sides of the aisle. In the absence of a smoking gun in the quid pro quo department, it’s always difficult to determine whether Corporation X or Union Y supports a candidate because they like the way he votes, or whether he votes that way because that’s how his biggest financial backers (not to be confused with his constituents) want him to. No, this is much more obvious: Ryan gets well into six-figures a year in income from two kinds of companies: those that lease land to energy companies and the energy companies themselves.

Or course, it’s mere coincidence that the companies like these are precisely those which, for reasons never made entirely clear, get ginormous tax breaks under the Ryan plan. After all, one of his minions said it was all on the up-and-up:
Ryan’s office says the congressman wasn’t thinking about himself or the oil companies that lease his land when he drafted the budget blueprint that extended the energy tax breaks. “These are properties that Congressman Ryan married into,” spokesman Kevin Seifert said. “It’s not something he has a lot of control over.”
Seriously, where do they find these people? Is Representative Ryan so stupid that he doesn’t know what these investments are in? Or so arrogant that he thinks he’s above getting called out on what is at the very least the appearance of a conflict of interest? He lacks the intellectual or financial wherewithal to put his assets in a blind trust? Or what?

Here’s Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington director Melanie Sloan: “Sure, senior citizens should have to pay more for health care, but landholders like [Ryan] who lease property to big oil companies, well, their government subsidies must be protected at all costs. It smacks of hypocrisy.” (Be it noted that I don’t implicitly trust edicts from CREW… it’s just that this time, they’re right.)

Not long ago, Ryan was being touted by the right as some sort of budgetary genius. Of course, that was before the people at large actually heard his ideas, which have been roundly rejected by voters of every stripe. Democrats unquestionably have Ryan to thank for their victory in the supposedly safe GOP stronghold of the New York 26th in last month’s special election: even if you buy into the Republican mantra that the presence of a third-party candidate swung that election for Kathy Hochul, it’s difficult to see how to spin the disintegration of Republican Jane Corwin’s double-digit lead at precisely the time Hochul started hammering Corwin on the latter’s support of Ryan. Even Tea Party enthusiasts think Ryan’s gutting of social programs is extreme. I think we can take as given that the Democrats will find a way to screw this up, but making Paul Ryan the face of Republican over-reach is both good policy and good politics.

Ryan, of course, claims to be misunderstood, poor lamb. He’s not really the heartless asshat we perceive him to be. No, apparently, he’s stupider than that. And more corrupt.

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