What's Wrong with Paul Ryan's Plan?

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As I think I may have mentioned, I am skeptical of Paul Ryan's roadmap.  Not because it's dishonest, but because it's hard.  Really hard.  As in, I-don't-see-how-it-could-possibly-survive-the-legislative-process hard.

The tax rates in his alternative tax plan would probably have to go up, just because that's the general fate of policy proposals that go through the legislative process; people with policy proposals are, almost definitionally, not pessimistic about their possibilities.  The entitlement changes would be gleefully gutted by politicians with a keen eye to their own re-election.  The discretionary spending freeze would not survive first contact with the next recession.  Even the most responsible, careful politician cannot guarantee responsibility and care in their successors.

Nonetheless, I think it's a really, really important document.  Why?  Because it is the most honest attempt I've seen by a politician to grapple with the challenges ahead of us.  Strike that; it is the only attempt that I'm aware of to grapple with what lies ahead of us.  Others have been willing to discuss things piecemeal, or delegate the nasty job of balancing a budget to a commission, but as far as I know only Paul Ryan has come forward and said, "Here's how all the moving parts are going to fit together."

And what this document shows is that it's going to be difficult.  Regardless of what you think of his tax plans, Paul Ryan has done what liberals keep asking Republicans to do:  show us what he'd cut.  No, he hasn't gone through the whole budget with a fine toothed comb and given us the exact funding level for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  If he had, it would be stupid; even the most powerful legislator cannot tie the hands of those in the future completely.  He's offered cuts to domestic discretionary spending and entitlements that would hold the line under 20% of GDP.  If Republicans want to shrink the size of government, they're going to have to sign onto Ryan's spending plan, or put forward their own, with equally dramatic trimming.

Paul Ryan has been honest enough to suggest radical changes to entitlements that we know, after the bruising rounds of health care reform, would be politically very unpopular.  He hasn't gone out of his way to point out how unpopular they would be, but he hasn't really hidden it, either.  The people complaining that he hasn't spent all his time highlighting the least popular aspects of his roadmap are making ridiculous demands that they would never deliver to their own side.  They might as well claim that true honesty demands that he campaign in his birthday suit and open every speech with his unvarnished feelings about his mother in law.

Don't get me wrong, there are fair criticisms, and I'm trying to make some of them.  But I'd love to see the people kvetching about his plan offer an alternative plan of their own.  How much tax revenue would it take to pay for the welfare state that Democrats want us to have?  How deeply are they willing to cut military spending?  What politically difficult choices are those sniping at Paul Ryan willing to make?  His plan may have flaws, but I'll take it over people who have vague plans to deal with the problem by raising taxes on the rich, "closing the loopholes", or, um, ending our wildfire epidemic of unnecessary amputations.  If Democrats are serious about the budget deficit, then they too will need to propose a set of equally dramatic changes.

Why haven't they?  Presumably, because it would be awful.  Without entitlement cuts, the necessary tax rates would be very high, and not just on the rich.  Military spending cuts would have to be deep, and still wouldn't cover the shortfall.  Government as a share of GDP would rise sharply, and right-wing pundits would not neglect to add the state and local burden up to a number that would distress many Americans.  Who vote.

Do you want to be the one to tell them that they're going to have to pay higher taxes for the same, or lower levels of services?  I've been trying to tell them that for years now, and believe me, on the fun scale it's somewhere between a root canal, and seeing Neil Diamond live . . .  at the kind of venue that doesn't serve alcohol.

But if we're going to avoid a real, ugly fiscal crisis, the sort that ends up immiserating a bunch of people, someone is going to have to tell them.  Someone in Congress, I mean.  The deficit commission is not going to accomplish anything if congress isn't willing to assess its priorities and make some hard choices.  You may think that Paul Ryan is too hopeful about some areas of his plan; you may think that it won't work.  All fair enough, and that's why any starter plan like this has to go through a lot of refining before it's ready to become legislation.  But at least Paul Ryan has a plan, no matter how incomplete or unworkable you think it may be.  That's more than the rest of us can say.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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