Paul Krugman vs. Paul Ryan on Medicare

Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to balance the budget is elegant in its simplicity and startling in its implications. He would freeze non-defense discretionary spending, privatize Social Security and turn Medicare into a voucher program that depreciated against medical costs. That's intense stuff, to be sure -- I think too intense -- but I think Paul Krugman is still missing the lesson of Rep. Paul Ryan's roadmap for entitlement spending.

Eleven days ago, on February 1, Paul Krugman wrote: "Right now the GOP literally has no ideas about how the nation should actually be governed."

Today, February 12, Krugman writes: "Even as Republicans denounce modest proposals to rein in Medicare's rising costs, they are, themselves, seeking to dismantle the whole program. What I'm talking about here is the "Roadmap for America's Future," the budget plan recently released by Representative Paul Ryan."

You can see the intellectual honesty problem here. On the one hand, Krugman says the conservative movement has no ideas. Shame on them. On the other hand he says he rejects conservatives' ideas, because they're conservative. And shame on them. We have reached the point of cognitive gridlock, no?

Krugman's right that Republicans will cut Medicare when they're in power (no person who's ever seen a budget projection thinks we should leave Medicare alone). He's also right that it's an audacious act of hypocrisy for people like Newt Gingrich to reject Medicare cuts today 15 years after shutting down the federal government to force ... yup, Medicare cuts.

But hypocrisy isn't the right reaction to glean from the Ryan roadmap. Paul Ryan is under no contractual obligation to follow his party's monolithic dullness. Bruce Bartlett totally nails it: the lesson of Paul Ryan's budget is that dismantling one of the most popular programs in the country is the only way to avoid higher taxes. His plan is a conservative apotheosis (naturally, he's a conservative) but it's also a dystopian parable about what the world would look like if we never raised taxes or changed the way we pay for health care.

That should galvanize liberals, not make them cry hypocrisy.

*Update: I think parts of this post might have been unclear, as the comment section has made apparent. The commenters are right that the first Krugman quote comes from the day the Ryan proposal came out, and it's unlikely that he saw the roadmap or the CBO report at the time. In light of that, it was unfair of me to assume he wrote those words aware of the plan.

That said, I think my overall point stands. This is the simplest way to say what I meant. It seems to me that three things are true:

1. Republicans want to cut Medicare.
2. Most Republicans are saying: Shame on Democrats for wanting to cut Medicare.
3. Paul Ryan says he wants to cut Medicare.

If there is hypocrisy here, it is between points 1 and 2, not 1 and 3. Paul Ryan is one person. He is not the party. If anything, the party has distanced itself from his plan. I think Ryan's proposal does a certain service to the Medicare debate. It demonstrates that without tax increases we would have to revamp our entitlement program beyond recognition, and possibly destroy it. It is a revealing alternative to the Democrats' plan because it shows exactly how harsh serious spending cuts would have to be to avert trillion dollar deficits. By all means, let's call out Republicans for hypocrisy. But this plan provides an opportunity to have a deeper debate about the imbalance of spending and tax revenue.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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