The Brave and Serious Mr. Ryan

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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.

7) A plan that reduces, among other things, research on future energy sources and technologies by about 85% may be "brave," but it's also crazy and short-sighted.

Ryan's budget plan is no worse than some other partisan proposals, and it has the virtue of being more detailed than most. Let me hasten to say that it is more comprehensive and convincing than one I could draw up myself. But it's also no big intellectual or conceptual improvement on other partisan proposals. The wonder is that Ryan has managed to convince some people that it is.
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* On health costs and Medicare. For decades any "serious" approach to medical spending has had to cope with various tangled economic/technological/moral realities. This is a different kind of "market" from almost any other, as David Goldhill so vividly described in our magazine. You can shop around for houses or used cars, but you don't have the same kind of comparison-shopping opportunities when you go to the emergency room or when a doctor recommends one drug versus another. Technology has the opposite effect on medical costs from many other parts of the economy: more and more miracles become available, but at higher and higher cost. And the "insurance" aspect of our current system is skewed in many ways: You can pay fire insurance year after year and never have a fire, whereas all of us are going to die, and the great majority of us will require expensive treatment at some point before we do. "Insurance" therefore is a matter both of spreading risks across a general population, as with fire insurance; but also of spreading risks across the stages of each person's life cycle, from the lower-cost early years to the higher-cost later ones. This creates markets forces and distortions unique to the health-care world.

I could go on, but I'll just say that Ryan's plan utterly avoids the challenge of "bending the curve" of medical costs, which "serious" people have struggled with for years. Instead it relies on two nostrums: (a) The myth that letting people comparison shop for health-insurance policies will hold costs down, despite exactly zero evidence from the real world that this has worked; and (b) The idea that decreeing lower spending for older people will hold down overall cost growth, rather than just apportioning it on economic grounds and denying it, "death panel" style, to people who run out of money.

Medicare costs and health spending generally have to come down. But this is not a "serious" step toward controlling them.

There is more to say, but for now I give my proxy to William Galston, Ezra Klein, and Alice Rivlin (via Klein here and Jonathan Cohn here).


Drop-down bar thumbnail credit: Micah Walter/Reuters

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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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