Sunday, August 19, 2012

Will America Become Detroit, Part 3: Paul Ryan, Rambo, and J. Alfred Prufrock

"We fail far more often by timidity than by over-daring."
- Ray Stannard Baker
"Do I dare eat a peach?"
- From "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot
The most controversial deficit reduction plan was put forward by Wisconsin Representative and Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. In 2008, he introduced H. R. 6110, entitled "Roadmap for America's Future Act of 2008", as a plan to balance the budget and create jobs. This proposal has garnered both high praise and scathing condemnation.
  • Democratic co-chair of President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform called the Ryan plan “sensible, serious . . , and honest”.
  • In April at an Associated Press Luncheon, President Obama denounced Ryan's plan as "nothing but thinly-veiled Social Darwinism."
  • New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote "Today, Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, is scheduled to release the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes"
  • Even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have blasted the Ryan plan, writing that it fails to meet a basic moral test.
As is often the case, the truth lies between the extremes. Paul Ryan's plan would not produce a future ripped from the pages of Oliver Twist. On the other hand, the plan would also not succeed in its primary mission of eliminating the deficit. The reason why the Ryan proposal would fail is that, contrary to what both his supporters and critics contend, this plan is actually too timid to be effective. Contrary to popular rhetoric, the senator who is likened to Rambo is much closer to J. Alfred Prufrock. 

Bill Clinton, Social Darwinist?

One of the more popular attacks on the Ryan plan is that it would cut spending much too quickly, threatening our fragile economic recovery. President Obama even went so far as to call the plan a "prescription for decline". Everyone agrees that spending cuts are inevitable, but Obama asserts that these cuts must be done more gradually to preserve both the safety net for the poor and this nation's greatness.

This argument focuses its line of attack on the notion that Ryan's plan spends considerably less than recent federal budgets, a major talking point for the plan's proponents. So how does the Ryan plan compare to federal spending levels, or for that matter, how does it compare to Obama's proposal? An analysis of the numbers shows how Washington's definition of a cut differs from the rest of the nation: the only sense in which Ryan's budget for the next 10 years can be considered a "cut" is in the sense that spending will not increase a fast as politicians originally planned:
  • Even after adjusting for inflation, Ryan's plan for the each of the next ten years would be 46% higher than Bill Clinton's last budget; and
  • In this 10 year period Ryan plan spends only 5% less than Obama's proposed budget.
If Paul Ryan is a Social Darwinist, wouldn't that make Bill Clinton one as well? And if we are to believe that the Ryan plan would put us on the path to decline, why should we have any confidence in a plan that only differs from the Ryan by only 5%?

Voting for the Party That Will Throw Granny Off a Cliff

The most contentious issue with the Ryan Plan is the entitlement program reforms. As an alternative to the current defined benefit program, Ryan proposed block granting the program, and an opt-out for younger people who wish to vest in private retirement plans instead of Social Security and Medicare.

The imminent debt crisis has finally forced a senator to touch the "third rail" of American politics. And predictably, his opponents have played upon the public's fear of changes in these popular programs. The Agenda Project produced an infamous ad depicting Paul Ryan throwing an old woman off a cliff. The Romney campaign responded by producing its own ad, attacking Obama's plans to divert Medicare "savings" to pay for Obamacare. So which party will really preserve Medicare as we know it?

The honest answer is neither party: no matter who wins the elections here and in the next few decades, our entitlement programs as we know them will come to an end, period. These programs are completely and utterly unsustainable. As early as 2008, the trustees reports for Social Security and Medicare place their unfunded liability (that is, what they are obligated to pay out minus anticipated revenue) at $101 trillion. Given that our annual GDP is around $14 trillion, this is a hole that even a 100% tax rate cannot fill. A health care economist put the Medicare situation in far stronger language (warning: possibly NSFW) here.

Ryan's plan is probably insufficient to fix the entitlement crisis, but it is better than the current administrations' non-plan. In reality, the most likely outcome for the entitlement programs is that they will become means tested. But saying that is not politically popular (ask Ron Paul and Gary Johnson), so the two major party candidates will continue to argue over which one will push granny off the cliff.

Watching the Glaciers Speed By

For all the hoopla about the rapidity of the Paul Ryan's cuts, what is amazing is how agonizingly slow this plan is in terms of solving the debt crisis. CBO projections show that the plan won't even produce a balanced budget until 2040. Even this is based on optimistic assumptions, such as that no other national crises will arise in the next 28 years, and that congress will remain committed to this plan for nearly three decades. Part of the problem is that Senator Ryan has his own sacred cows: he leaves the budgets for defense and the war on terror untouched. Given the severity of the debt problem, everything should be on the table. The Pentagon and the Office of Homeland Security both have a lot of waste that could be eliminated.

To really fix the debt crisis, what is needed is a plan far more bold than the Ryan plan. But since Washington views this plan as reckless, what will actually be implemented is something weaker, and therefore even more inadequate, than the Ryan plan. This is the strongest evidence yet that no serious remedy will be attempted until it is too late, i.e. in financial terms, America will become Detroit.

What we are facing is nothing short of default of our nation. Granted, the consequences of this will be terrible: treasury bonds are frequently purchased because of their reputation for stability. Many who are depending on these bonds, including some who were dependent on them for their retirement, will be devastated. But there will be a few upsides to this crisis, as will be detailed in the next installments.


  1. Nice work, Frank.Well researched and upou make good points....probably because we agree. ; )