Friday, August 17, 2012

The Ryan Nomination, Part I: Deflating the Myth

I realize that I’m late to this party, but I wanted to spend a little time discussing the imminent nomination of Paul Ryan as Vice President. The main reason for this, apart from the writing process itself and the accompanying necessity of organizing one’s thoughts, is to argue that yet again the corporate media is too lazy to do its collective job. Instead, we get warmed-over platitudes first uttered over cocktails by a “source.” Actual analysis? Forget it. Facts? Are you kidding? Anyway, today’s piece is on Ryan as man and myth.

True, much of what I’m about to say has already been written or spoken by the independent press and/or left-leaning commentators, but the folks at the networks, the news magazines, and the major newspapers haven’t necessarily caught on. The standard mantra was, à la CBS, “Romney surprises with Ryan as VP nominee.” There are also literally dozens of variations on the theme of “Mitt Romney Goes Bold” (Boston Globe). Charlie Mahtesian of Politico parrots with apparent approbation Representative Ted Poe’s remark that “The vice presidential debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden will be like Einstein debating Forrest Gump.” (That would be Biden as Forrest Gump, a role he apparently usurped from the last GOP veep nominee.) Even the Daily Kos credit Ryan with “conviction and raw intelligence.” He’s a “deficit warrior” (The Hill). Romney even earned “Ethics Hero” status from the usually astute Jack Marshall for the Ryan selection “because it makes an unequivocal statement about the priorities in the election and the years ahead: close the deficit, reduce the debt, and take the United States off the road to Greece and inevitable insolvency.”

OK, I’m saying this once. BULLSHIT.

Anyone really surprised by selection of Ryan should be required to STFU until after the election. Plutocrats stick together. My money was on Ryan all along. Nor was this anything like a bold choice. Any other potential candidate—I mean among the legitimate contenders, not the Michelle Bachmann types—would have brought an equivalent though not identical package of assets and weaknesses. Yes, selecting Ryan foregrounds the economy as the central issue for the Romney/Ryan campaign, but where else were they going to look? The trajectory of the economy may be a whole lot better than it was when President Obama took office, but both unemployment and substantial deficit spending remain serious problems.

Remember, too, that the announcement followed closely on Governor Romney’s disastrous foreign tour in which he managed to piss off the English, the Palestinians, and a fair number of Israelis (he didn’t, however, alienate the Poles; an aide did that). And there’s not a lot to run against: there are some legitimate questions about Mr. Obama’s prosecution of the War Powers Act, but those aren’t likely to be raised by a Republican without sounding shrill and partisan. Beyond that, the Iraq War is winding down, there has been a steady and relatively uncontroversial (whether it should be so or not) policy with respect to Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and—whether he deserves the credit or not—Mr. Obama oversaw the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Moreover, whereas the Bush administration did considerable chest-thumping about how there were no terrorist attacks on the United States (except, you know, that one) the Obama administration has no need of the qualifier: there have been no successful attacks, period. So, there’s not a lot of room for Mr. Romney—not a specialist in foreign policy—to mount a campaign in those terms. It’s much easier to complain about the deficits that no Republican cared a whit about while George W. Bush was in the White House.

Paul Ryan is a corrupt, prevaricating, hypocrite. He thinks rules are made for other people, and he smirks about his self-perceived superiority. In this way, of course, he is essentially indistinguishable from virtually any politician of either party, especially his own. But Ryan has a reputation: as an intellectual, a policy wonk, a deficit hawk. He is, of course, none of these things. He is, to use a term that has apparently been trotted out by Senator Chuck Schumer since I started working on this piece (Schumer wasn’t the first, of course), a fraud.

I’m not saying that Ryan is an idiot. He isn’t. He’s certainly got a lot more on the ball than Sarah Palin, and let’s be real: Joe Biden isn’t exactly a genius. Ryan is smart enough and amoral enough (he learned those Ayn Rand lessons well) to be scary. But he’s no intellectual giant, either, even if he has long been touted as such by the right-wing punditocracy. I was reading a blog piece the other day by Dan Bauer, the managing editor of the school newspaper at Allegheny College. In analyzing the methodology employed by Newsweek to determine its list of “most rigorous schools,” Bauer points out that the “rigor” in question amounts to a ratio of self-perceived workload to student aptitude. In other words, “The ranking isn’t saying that Allegheny is rigorous because it’s difficult; it’s rigorous because the Daily Beast thinks it’s too much for your low test scores to handle. In short, according to Newsweek, we’re nothing but whiners of average intelligence.”

Does that description sound like Paul Ryan to anyone but me? Did he go to Allegheny? (Actually, he went to Miami of Ohio, considerably larger than Allegheny, but very much like it in history, orientation, and—dare I say—academic rigor.) There is, in fact, nothing in Ryan record that suggests extraordinary intellect. Even the thoroughness with which he is routinely credited is an illusion, as I’ll discuss in a moment. For now, let’s just admit that if you spend your time surrounded by the likes of Jon Kyl and Louis Gohmert, the average guy on a barstool is going to look pretty smart by comparison. Hell, my money’s on the stool itself in a battle of wits against those guys.

Let’s face it: there are few really smart Republican elected officials. ‘Twas not always thus: in my youth there were Everett Dirksen, Barry Goldwater, John Lindsay, Jacob Javits, Mark Hatfield, and James Buckley. Lamar Alexander, John Sununu and John McCain qualified before they, to quote the sage political guru Charles Barkley, “lost their damned minds.” I didn’t agree with those guys all the time (or, even often), but you knew you were dealing with a grownup with some savvy that extended beyond the merely political. Who’s left? Dick Lugar, who was defeated in a primary run this year. And… um… uh… Seriously, I have trouble naming another Republican currently in office (and Lugar is about to not be) whom I’d describe as both sane and intelligent. Maybe Marco Rubio? Chris Christie?

Importantly, Ryan’s budget, his signature piece of work, is deeply flawed. I’m not talking about its priorities, which I think are dead wrong (even Fox News admits it would result in a tax increase for the poor and a huge windfall for the rich), but which for the moment are beside the point. I’m not even talking about the fact that it doesn’t actually cut the deficit: Howard Gleckman of Forbes (Forbes!) writes that “CBO’s March, 2012 baseline projects a deficit in 2022 of about 1.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Ryan’s ‘Path to Prosperity,’ which became the framework for the House budget, brought the 2022 deficit down to exactly the same 1.2 percent.” (Note also that Ryan himself “hasn’t run the numbers” to predict when there might be a balanced budget.)
No, I’m really talking about the Ryan plan’s gaps, its assumptions, its unspecified new revenues totaling $5 trillion (!), its projections based on the wildest of speculation. I’m no economist, but I do know something about methodology, and to say that this document is grounded in fairy dust is probably to give it too much credit. Paul Krugman is an economist. Here’s his analysis: “None of this has any basis in reality; Ryan’s much-touted plan, far from being a real solution, relies crucially on stuff that is just pulled out of thin air — huge revenue increases from closing unspecified loopholes, huge spending cuts achieved in ways not mentioned.” In short, I suspect the famous cartoon by Sidney Harris (at left) may well have been drawn with the Paul Ryan budget in mind.

There’s the reduction of non-Social Security and non-Medicare spending as a percentage of GDP to a point below that of current military spending, which Ryan pledges to actually increase. There’s the projection of ridiculously low unemployment: 2.8%! For his numbers to work at all, in other words, Ryan must assume an unemployment rate lower than it’s been in half a century… lower, indeed, than the 3% “optimal” rate I learned about in Economics 1. But, hey, that wasn’t Ryan’s personal number: Rachel Maddow reported when the budget was first released that the unemployment projection came from the Heritage Foundation, the fun folks who projected enormous job growth as a result of the Bush tax cuts. Yeah, that worked out great. The projection, of course, suggests two fabulous if illusory advantages: more workers means more taxable income, fewer unemployed means fewer expenditures on unemployment compensation, welfare, etc. Maddow derisively but, alas, accurately, described the Ryan plan 18 months ago as “this magic Republican budget” founded on one essential principle: “belieeeeeeeeve.” She added that:
I doubt that actual numerically-based, fact-based information will penetrate the smoochie-smoochie love bubble surrounding Paul Ryan right now. He has done a remarkable job of romancing the Beltway media. There’s this little cult of him being brave and bold, and doing a very difficult workout every morning. But what Paul Ryan has just introduced is not a feature on “Grit vs. Glamor” in today’s GOP. It’s the official Republican Party Budget for 2012. And the numbers in it are so wrong they are occasionally funny. The Beltway media says Paul Ryan should be taken very seriously. Since this is the official Republican Party budget for 2012, taking him seriously should also include taking seriously his numbers, which in many cases make no sense.
I hate it when she’s right.

There’s another myth that Representative Ryan is, unlike the guy at the top of the ticket, consistent. That may be true, but not in the way the fawning Beltway types mean. He is indeed consistent: not in terms of real fiscal conservatism, balanced budgets and such, but in terms of advocating for the corporatocracy. It’s not just the Ryan budget that’s as phony as a three-dollar bill: it’s the pretense that he gives a damn about the deficit. He does not. A charitable description would be to say that he became a born-again deficit hawk on January 20, 2009. A more cynical one would be to suggest that his personal chance for advancement is predicated on the gimmick of debt control. This is the guy, remember, who voted for unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, voted for the prescription drug mandate, voted against allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire. His proposal to privatize Social Security would have cost $2.4 trillion over ten years, and even the Bush administration called it “irresponsible.”

Ryan’s goal isn’t a balanced budget. His “holy grail,” as Gleckman describes it, is “low taxes and small government, not fiscal balance.” That is, of course, an intellectually honest position—one with which I disagree, but it’s honest—or, rather, it would be if Ryan believed in even that. He doesn’t. It’s not “small government” to increase military spending. (This is the guy, you may recall, Gentle Reader, who accused the military brass of lying when they agreed that their budget could be cut by a little less than half a trillion dollars over ten years.) It’s not “small government” to intrude into personal, legal, medical decisions, as he has often advocated. It’s not “small government” to increase taxes on those who can afford it least without concomitant increases on the more well-to-do.

Paul Ryan is, in short, neither a deficit hawk nor a libertarian. He is, as Nate Silver’s analysis points out, a partisan hack, plain and simple. He is, by Silver’s calculus, the single most ideological vice presidential nominee of either party since (at least) the beginning of the 20th century: he’s more conservative than Dick Cheney or Dan Quayle, far more conservative than the most left-leaning Democratic nominee, John Garner, was liberal. By contrast, Joe Biden is only the 11th most liberal candidate of the 18 Democrats on the list, and the 17th most ideological of the 31 candidates. (Not all candidates are listed for either party, by the way. My suspicion is that those listed served in the House or Senate, those not listed were governors, mayors, etc., but I’m not sure of that explanation.) The DW-Nominate scale puts Ryan well into the conservative wing, even relative to other Republicans: more conservative, in other words, than Louis Gohmert, Darrell Issa, and Eric Cantor, and in the same general ideological position as Michelle Bachmann.

Having a budget is an accomplishment. Having one that doesn’t make sense is not. Again, I’m not arguing its priorities; I’m arguing its math. If Paul Ryan were an academic, there’d be a word for him: sloppy. His positions are so abstracted by a presumed faith in unsupported (if not unsupportable) hypotheses that his conclusions are meaningless at best. He is the pseudo-scholar, the one who starts with a conclusion and searches frantically for supporting evidence. He’s the guy whose infomercial shows up on the cable stations at 2:00 a.m. (or perhaps on public television during pledge week). To say that he is all smoke and mirrors is to give him too much credit.

The choice of Paul Ryan as vice presidential candidate, in other words, is crass, cynical, and absolutely what we would expect from a supercilious jackass like Mitt Romney. The pretense of a solution is far worse than no solution at all, whether we’re talking about cyber-bullying or the ballooning national debt. Ryan may, however, be the best available Republican for the job. That tells you all you need to know about today’s GOP.

Next up (well, maybe not next, but soon): how the Ryan candidacy will affect the election. Hint: not much.

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