The Self-Delusion of Paul Ryan

The speaker’s account of his tenure in office is at odds with observable reality.

Paul Ryan
Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

In so many ways, Paul Ryan and Donald Trump have little in common. Ryan is affable and well mannered; Trump, not so much. Ryan holds strong, consistent ideological beliefs; Trump, not so much. Paul Ryan is in splendid physical shape …

But there is one thing they do share: a sense of personal achievement strangely disconnected from their real-world records.

Over the past 24 hours, the @SpeakerRyan Twitter account has blasted to 3.6 million followers a startlingly self-congratulatory sequence of images and videos, detailing his career over the past 20 years. Their theme: Ryan is a man of destiny, committed to reform, steeled in his “wilderness years” (yes, the sequence actually applies that Churchillian label), to deliver a triumphant victory for the American people over grubby-minded special interests.

It’s hard to reconcile this story with the world we see out our windows: a world of soaring deficits even at the top of the business cycle; a world of corporate tax cuts that have failed to deliver the promised investment boom; a world of trade wars and crashing financial markets—the worst December for U.S. equities since 1931, at the end of a year in which not one of the 15 asset classes measured by JP Morgan outperformed the consumer price index.

Yet that is the story Ryan is asking you to believe.

For example, on Tuesday morning, the account tweeted:

It was 2007. House Republicans had just lost the majority, and I was sitting in a deer hunting tree stand one Saturday morning. That’s when I decided to go big and put together a completely comprehensive plan to update the nation’s entitlement system and reform the tax code.

The fiscal conservatives out there will ask, “Hey, whatever happened to that update of the entitlement system?” Short answer: As soon as the Republicans regained the presidency in 2017, it was jettisoned entirely. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security continue unchanged.

Paul Ryan became speaker of the House of Representatives in October 2015, the first month of the 2016 fiscal year. In the last fiscal year before Ryan’s speakership, the federal government ran a deficit of $438 billion. In the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2018, the last of his speakership and a year of general prosperity, that deficit rose to $779 billion. In the current fiscal year, the deficit is expected to amount to $981 billion. In fiscal 2020, the deficit will exceed $1 trillion—even assuming there is no recession that year.

Later on Tuesday morning, the account tweeted:

Once in a generation, you can convince politicians that the need for reform outweighs the needs of the special interests. That’s exactly what happened when we passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, one year ago this week.

Tax reform as passed in 1986 was revenue-neutral; it replaced inefficient revenues with new sources. What passed in 2017 was not tax “reform”—it was a series of tax cuts. Perhaps investor awareness that those tax cuts cannot last in their present shape for very long explains why the corporate tax cuts in 2017 have not sparked a rise in corporate investment. Nonresidential fixed investment spiked in the immediate aftermath of the tax cut, but then promptly crashed, slipping to nearly zero growth in the third quarter of 2018.

Nearly half of recent economic growth has been driven by higher levels of government spending in the Trump years—the very opposite of the promise of Ryan’s tax reform.

You may wonder: Is it not tone-deaf to release this video while the financial markets are in the throes of their worst December since 1931, at the end of a year in which all economic indicators point to recession ahead? You may wonder: Is it not bizarrely unaware to salute yourself for an accomplishment that you manifestly failed to accomplish? Yes, you probably do wonder all that. But then you are not a man or woman of destiny. You do not have faith. You do not have vision. You have just a Google search function, a calculator on your phone, and an IRA that is worth less today than it was a year ago.