I met Paul Ryan when I debated him over President Bush's Social Security privatization plan back in 2005. He seemed like a nice, reasonably intelligent guy.
However this has nothing to do with the time of day when we are talking about his budget, the budget that NYT columnist James B. Stewart assured us is a good starting point in his column on Saturday. What Stewart tells us is reasonable is that the budget calls for cuts in entitlements and tax reform. He then asks who could disagree with this.
One has to wonder whether Stewart has looked at the Ryan budget. First, on taxes the only specifics are cuts in the tax rates paid by rich people and corporations. None of the offsetting tax increases are specified.
If this sounds like a sensible opening gambit, let's imagine the equivalent on the opposite side. Suppose that we proposed to increase Social Security benefits for the bottom two income quintiles of retirees. Suppose that we also proposed increased spending on infrastructure, research and development, and education.
Suppose the left-wing Ryan budget wrote down that these spending increases would be offset by unspecified reductions in government waste. We then told CBO to score it accordingly. Is this a good starting point for further discussion?
In terms of the other parts, if Stewart read the CBO analysis of Ryan's proposal from last year he would find that his "reform" hugely increases the cost of providing health care to seniors. The point of Medicare was to make health care affordable to workers in their old age. Of course we can save money by reducing what the government pays, but the point is to do so in a way that still leaves retirees able to pay for care. Ryan's plan is a huge step in the opposite direction according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The Ryan plan also hugely cuts non-entitlement spending. By 2050 it essentially eliminates all spending on items other than Social Security, health care and defense. By the end of the 10-year budget horizon most of the areas that we think of as the domain of the federal government (e.g. federal highways and airports, federal courts and law enforcement, drug research and safety, the State Department and Justice Department) will be cut by around 50 percent under the Ryan plan. How could Stewart have missed this?
Stewart has one other egregious error in this column. He refers to the Bowles-Simpson Commission report. Sorry folks, there was no commission report. According to the commission's by-laws a report required the support of 14 of the 18 commission members. The report being touted as a report of the commission only had the support of 11 commissioners. Arithmetic lesson for policy pundits number 28,742: 11 is less than 14.
The Ryan budget is proving to be a wonderful Rorschach test. We have people who want to be part of the inside Washington conversation who praise the budget's courage and integrity. Then we have people who believe in arithmetic who call it what it is: a piece of trash.
By the way, Paul Ryan is a very nice guy.