The Brave and Serious Mr. Ryan

I mentioned earlier that if asked to choose an adjective to describe the budget plan presented by Rep. Paul Ryan, I would suggest "partisan" or "gimmicky," as opposed to "serious" or "brave." Most budget proposals are both partisan and gimmicky, so this is no particular knock against Rep. Ryan. But it's worth mentioning because so much of the pundit-sphere (excluding the Atlantic's Derek Thompson) has received the plan as a dramatic step forward in clear thinking about our fiscal future.

Paul-Ryan-Budget.jpgI think this view is wrong, and that we'll look back on this episode mainly to marvel at what it shows about pundit-world swoon (Paul Krugman's mot juste today), and about clever policy marketing by Ryan, rather than for what it clarifies about budgetary realities.

The plan is getting such thorough coverage elsewhere, and I am beset enough with other projects, that it's neither necessary nor possible for me to try to work through it in detail. But I said I'd offer more reasons, and in a "for the record" spirit here they are in summary form:

1) A plan to deal with budget problems that says virtually nothing about military spending is neither brave nor serious. That would be enough to disqualify it from the "serious" bracket, but there's more.

2) A plan that proposes to eliminate tax loopholes and deductions, but doesn't say what any of those are, is neither brave nor serious. It is, instead canny -- or cynical, take your pick. The reality is that many of these deductions, notably for home-mortgage interest payments, are popular and therefore risky to talk about eliminating.

3) A plan that exempts from future Medicare cuts anyone born before 1957 -- about a quarter of the population, which includes me -- is neither brave nor serious. See "canny or cynical: take your pick" above.

4) A plan to reconcile revenue and spending, which rules out axiomatically any conceivable increase in tax rates, is neither brave nor serious. Rather, it is exactly as brave and serious as some opposite-extreme proposal that ruled out axiomatically any conceivable cut in entitlement spending or discretionary accounts.

5) A plan to reduce the federal deficit by granting big tax reductions to the highest-income Americans, at a time when their tax rates are very low by historic standards and and their share of the national income is extremely high, and when middle-class job creation is our main economic challenge, is neither brave nor serious. See "cynical," above.

6) A plan that identifies rising health-care costs as the main problem in public spending, but avoids altogether the question of how to contain those costs, is neither brave nor serious. This is a longer and more complicated discussion (see below*); but I submit that the more closely anyone looks at the Ryan plan, the less "serious" it will seem on this extremely important front.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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