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Think Again: ‘Brave, Radical, and Smart’

SOURCE: AP/Susan Walsh

Slate’s Jacob Weisberg praises Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) budget as brave, radical, and smart.” The New York Times's David Brooks said it "set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion."

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A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.

- Robert Frost

It’s a truism that conservatives are tougher than liberals. It’s also true. But the odd thing about this phenomenon is that while right-wingers are, indeed, tougher, nastier, and more dedicated to achieving their appointed tasks than their liberal counterparts, they get a great deal of help from members of the so-called liberal media who are always praising their courage—which is usually mustered to find a new way to screw the poor and middle class on behalf of the wealthy.

Consider Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget plan. The New York Times‘s David Brooks, who stands anointed as the most influential pundit of the Obama era, and is frequently accepting kudos for his refusal to kowtow to conservative dogma, pronounced that the document “set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion…This budget tackles just about every politically risky issue with brio and guts…Paul Ryan has grasped reality with both hands. He’s forcing everybody else to do the same.”

Joe Scarborough treated the document similarly. Scarborough is a former Republican congressman who is treated to 15 hours of programming each week on MSNBC, the cable network that allegedly offsets the rabidly right-wing Fox. At the end of his program, his executive producer, Chris Licht, said in Scarborough’s earpiece of Ryan, "I’m in love." The New York Times’‘s Andrew Ross Sorkin was also impressed. He responded: "Give the man credit for putting out a plan, when no one else would, frankly." And Mika Brzezinski, who is supposed to be the liberal on this (liberal network) program, told Ryan, "I’ve always said, I really like him.”

Weirdest of all, perhaps, was the confused cheerleading offered up by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg under the headline “Good Plan!” followed by the adjectivesbrave, radical, and smart.” Generously granting that “Democrats are within their rights to point out the negative effects of Ryan’s proposed cuts on future retirees, working families, and the poor,” along with the fact that Ryan “was not specific about many of his cuts,” he nevertheless thinks liberals should embrace the plan because “it’s hard to make a principled liberal case for the program [Medicare] in its current form.”

To which one can only respond with: “Say what?” Does Weisberg really think that the problem with liberals these days is that they don’t pay enough attention to principle? Are Koch-backed conservatives with money flowing through a post-Citzens United political landscape like a tsunami beating liberals because the latter are insufficiently principled? Is Weisberg living on the same planet as the rest of us?

This is an old problem. Weisberg is an alumnus of The New Republic, which his old boss, Mike Kinsley, used to joke ought to have been renamed “Even the New Republic…” because it was always endorsing right-wing Reaganite programs while pretending to speak for liberals. Weisberg has done his old colleagues like Charles Krauthammer, Fred Barnes, and Morton Kondracke one better here, however, by getting on board with a plan so heartless toward the poor and indigent that even Ronald Regan and George W. Bush never dared propose anything like it.

Weisberg appears to know a bit of this. He admits that the “brave, radical, and smart” plan he so admires is full of “sleight-of-hand tricks” and would not actually come close to eliminating the deficit in the coming decade, “leaving $400 billion in annual deficits as far as the eye can see.”

Weisberg attributes this to yet another massive tax cut for the wealthy, a goal he endorses, though he does not go quite as far as Ryan in calling for a top rate of 25 percent. Apparently the fact that the United States has just experienced 40 years of purposeful transfer of wealth from working stiffs to the extremely wealthy—the share of total wealth for the top 1 percent has increased from 8 percent during the 1960s to more than 20 percent in 2011 with wages for the average worker remaining flat during that period— is insufficient.

So too, the fact, that, as Jesse Drucker reports in Bloomberg-Business Week:

For the 400 U.S. taxpayers with the highest adjusted gross income, the effective federal income tax rate fell from almost 30 percent in 1995 to just under 17 percent in 2007, according to the IRS. And for the approximately 1.4 million people who make up the top 1 percent of taxpayers, the effective federal income tax rate dropped from 29 percent to 23 percent in 2008. It may seem too fantastic to be true, but the top 400 end up paying a lower rate than the next 1,399,600 or so.

Yet for an "Even the New Republic" liberal like Slate’s Weisberg, this is insufficiently generous to the extremely wealthy. Together with Ryan, he thinks they need more.

And he recognizes even more evasions in the “brave, radical, and smart” plan, including Rep. Ryan’s refusal to spell out the cuts in domestic programs he assumes will be achieved through “caps,” as well as “which deductions and tax subsidies he’d eliminate to pay for these lower rates.” What’s more, his economic projections are a “a supply-side fantasy. His anti-bailout rhetoric is silly pandering,” but, one presumes, “brave, radical, and smart” fantasizing and pandering.

Here are some more “brave, radical, and smart” details of the plan Weisberg presumably did not have room to praise:

  • The Ryan plan, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’s Robert Greenstein notes, "would get about two-thirds of its more than $4 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years from programs that serve people of limited means…Actual program cuts produce net savings of $4.322 trillion. Cuts in low-income programs appear likely to account for at least $2.9 trillion—or about two-thirds—of this amount. The $2.9 trillion includes the following three categories of cuts: $2.17 trillion in reductions from Medicaid and related health care…$350 billion in cuts in mandatory programs serving low-income Americans (other than Medicaid)…$400 billion in cuts in low-income discretionary programs.”
  • Michael Linden, Associate Director of Tax and Budget Policy at the Center for American Progress, writes, "The rate cut at the top, of course, benefits only those in the top brackets (the richest two percent of Americans), but to pay for it, Ryan says he will ‘broaden the tax base.’ Broadening the tax base means removing some tax expenditures that currently benefit the middle class.” Ryan’s vagueness is probably deliberate, "since any detailed description of his ideas for tax ‘reform’ would reveal a massive tax hike for the middle class."
  • Washington Post fact-checker columnist Glen Kessler adds that Rep. Ryan relies on the Congressional Budget Office to vouch for his plan, but he appears to ignore CBO estimates that a repeal of the health care law would lead to an increase in the deficit. A substantial part of his claimed deficit reduction—$1.4 trillion over the next 10 years—comes from repealing the health care law. Even Alice Rivlin, whose surname accounts for the “Rivlin” in “Ryan-Rivlin,” explained to Garance Franke-Ruta: “There is no way we can control medical spending at the inflation level. It’s going to rise faster than that.” Moreover, “as the Congressional Budget Office noted, a lot of what Rep. Ryan’s budget does is shift costs from the federal budget to someone else’s budget: Medicaid’s costs moves to the states, and then when the states cut it, to the people who need it, or to their families.”
  • Rep. Ryan’s budget estimates are very optimistic, report Jim Tankersley and Katy O’Donnell at the National Journal: “If Rep. Paul Ryan’s newly unveiled 2012 budget is signed into law, this is what Ryan’s economic forecasters say will happen: The unemployment rate will plunge by 2.5 percentage points. The still-sinking housing market will roar back in a brand new boom. The federal government will collect $100 billion more in income tax revenues than it otherwise would have. And that’s just in the first year. By 2015, the forecasters say, unemployment will fall to 4 percent. By 2021, it will be a nearly unprecedented 2.8 percent.”
  • Finally, seniors would pay much more for Medicare under Rep. Ryan’s proposal, report Julie Appleby, Mary Agnes Carey, and Laurie McGinley at Kaiser Health News: “Seniors and the disabled would pay sharply more for their Medicare coverage under a new plan by House Republicans aimed at curbing the nation’s growing deficit, a Congressional Budget Office analysis shows. For example, by 2030, under the plan, typical 65-year-olds would be required to pay 68 percent of the total cost of their coverage, which includes premiums, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket costs, according to CBO. That compares with the 25 percent they would pay under current law, CBO said. The GOP budget proposal also would raise the eligibility age for the politically popular program—and repeal big chunks of the health care overhaul law approved by Congress last year.”

In fact, the only real value of Rep. Ryan’s plan is that, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on the right of public workers to bargain collectively, it clarifies the long-term agenda of the conservative class war that right-wing intellectuals and operatives have been planning and waging against poor and middle-class Americans for nearly half a century now. That the mainstream media is peopled with so many influential “liberals” willing to call this agenda “brave, radical, and smart” and instruct genuine liberals to endorse it on principle tells us a great deal about why this vicious assault on what was once the American social compact has been so successful so far.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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