The Ryan Budget Show, Part 2

Eric Alterman notes that just like last year, so-called liberal pundits are agog over Paul Ryan’s proposal to gut social programs and balloon the deficit.

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Pundits are praising another austerity-crazy Ryan budget. Paul Krugman of <i>The</i> <i>New York Times</i> observes that “the continuing defense of Paul Ryan is a remarkable phenomenon.” (AP/Jeffrey Phelps)
Pundits are praising another austerity-crazy Ryan budget. Paul Krugman of The New York Times observes that “the continuing defense of Paul Ryan is a remarkable phenomenon.” (AP/Jeffrey Phelps)

A year ago I wrote a column here—and another in The Nation—addressing the confusing phenomenon of the odd love being shown by allegedly liberal and moderate pundits for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his shockingly regressive, budget-busting tax and spending plans. Here a few highlights:

  • The New York Times‘s David Brooks 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.”
  • Chris Licht, executive producer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” with Joe Scarborough, said in Scarborough’s earpiece: "I’m in love." The New York Times‘s Andrew Ross Sorkin, a guest on the show, 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 the program, told Rep. Ryan, "I’ve always said, I really like him.”
  • Beneath the headline “Good Plan!” followed by the adjectivesbrave, radical, and smart,” Slate’s Jacob Weisberg granted that Democrats were “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 Rep. Ryan “was not specific about many of his cuts,” and was 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.”

The New York Times’s Joe Nocera was even “disheartened” to ”read about the Democrats’ gleeful reaction to the [special election] victory in New York” that turned on Rep. Ryan’s budget. The budget was so wonderful, you see, that Democrats were supposed to lie down and die for it.

Almost all of these pundits found themselves deeply humiliated when experts had a chance to actually examine the Ryan budget and discover just how unrealistic its assumptions were and how out of line its likely results were when compared to the rhetoric employed to defend it.

Some of them apparently learned their lesson and have kept quiet this time. But not many. So we are about to repeat the entire exercise, and almost certainly with the same result, given how little has changed.

Rep. Ryan himself has noticed this, albeit in a backhanded way: “I feel like it’s Groundhog Day, except it’s April.” And he said of President Obama’s comments, “He essentially said the same thing last year" (abusing, for political reasons, one of the greatest movies of all time).

Why he should be surprised, however, is an odd question. As the conservative New York Times pundit and Ryan admirer Ross Douthat could not help pointing out, “The new House Republican budget looks a lot like last year’s House Republican budget.”

Like yours truly, Paul Krugman finds “the continuing defense of Paul Ryan is a remarkable phenomenon,” given the fact that his policy proposals are all about redistributing income upward and make no serious effort to curb debt. Should anyone doubt the truth of the latter claim, they might take a look at the data compiled by the Tax Policy Center: Rep. Ryan’s proposals, if enacted, would reduce revenue by more than 2 percent of GDP in 2023, leading to far worse deficits than anything currently contemplated in any Democratic or presidential legislation.

It’s not hard to see why. Ryan Chittum writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, “Ryan proposes tax cuts that would cost $4.6 trillion over the next decade relative to current policy — that is, relative even to making the Bush tax cuts permanent.”

Rep. Ryan insists, falsely, that his proposals are revenue neutral, but he bases this on the phoney-baloney claim that when it enacts his plan, Congress will close enough loopholes to make up the difference. He fails to mention a single one of those by name. (This is in contrast to the cuts in the plan, which are pretty clear. For instance, Chittum notes that the Urban Institute scored last year’s Ryan plan and put the number of those losing health insurance due to Medicaid cuts somewhere between 14 million and 27 million.)

Pundits who do not admit to sharing the far-right ideological assumptions that drive Rep. Ryan’s plans need to find a way around this rather significant problem; that it actually vastly expands the very deficit spending it purports to address. The New York Times‘s James Stewart does this by pretending that somehow the plan will raise taxes on the rich. In fact, this is not only nowhere to be found in the plan, but Ryan has explicitly ruled it out.

Stewart further argues that “on the spending side, the Ryan plan has many elements of the earlier bipartisan plan from a White House commission that said, ‘We must make Social Security solvent and sound, reduce the long-term growth of health care spending, and tackle the nation’s overwhelming debt burden.’”

Stewart fails to note, however, that a) that commission report was never released as it failed to receive the endorsement of its members, and b) the point of all such plans are not the stated goals but the means of achieving them. And given that the Simpson-Bowles commission contained significant raises in tax rates on the wealthy—while Ryan’s reduces them—and far smaller cuts on crucial social programs, the two plans have precious little in common at all.

Paul Krugman discerned a similar fiction-writing tendency in the pro-Ryan briefs of his colleague, David Brooks (whom he implies to be a “pseudo-reasonable apparatchik” without actually naming him, as that would be against internecine Times pundit fighting).

What’s so funny about this second-go-round on Rep. Ryan’s budget is that aside from its essential dishonesty, it’s based on fantasy: the notion that wealthy people, or really any people in the United States, carry a particularly large tax burden. In fact, taxes in the United States are lower than they have been since 1958 and they’re lower than almost all other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations.

Moreover, without admitting it the United States has essentially a flat tax system for the middle class on up, with the wealthiest benefiting the most. As Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum points out, “the richest 1% of Americans pay 21% of all taxes.” Funnily enough, they also enjoy 21 percent of national income. Overall, according to Citizens for Tax Justice (using 2011 numbers) most Americans from the middle class to the super rich pay roughly about 28 percent of their income in taxes, including state and federal.

Right-wing ideologues also pretend that corporations are taxed at a higher rate than they really are. The Heritage Foundation’s Curtis Dubay, for instance, has been on a campaign to publicize the obvious falsehood that “as of April 1, the United States now has the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world,” and goes on to complain that “Our high corporate tax rate has long made the U.S. an uncompetitive place for new investment. This has driven new jobs to other, more competitive nations and meant fewer jobs and lower wages for all Americans.”

Come now. As I noted in The Daily Beast not long ago, “barely a quarter of companies pay anything like the official rate.” Thirty major corporations made billions of dollars in profits while paying no federal income tax between 2008 and 2010. And while these are extreme (and one presumes, entirely legal) examples, the facts are that while the U.S. Treasury estimates the effective U.S. marginal tax rate at 29.2 percent for all corporations, according to the Congressional Budget Office report. 2011’s actual corporate tax rate was just 12.1 percent, which is the lowest level recorded since the CBO began measuring this data 40 years ago. This is true despite the fact that corporate profits are at a record proportion of national income.

Remember, Rep. Ryan’s plan makes no sense at all without the assumption of $5 trillion or so in loophole reductions, but he specifies none of them and pretends—what everyone knows to be false—that Congress and the president can and will simply close these loopholes whenever its members decide they feel like it—as if all those powerful lobbyists are giving them money for nothing.

The entire “Ryan budget” exercise is one in ideological masturbation. Nobody with any knowledge of either economics or politics can take Rep. Ryan’s calculations seriously.

So why do they pretend to do so? My guess is that this is yet another example of the effectiveness of the right’s critique of the “so-called liberal media.” Pundits like to think of themselves as honest brokers whose judgments are somehow “beyond” politics. But so long as the conservatives continue to rush rightward into a never-never land of magical budgets and a nearly religious refusal to accept simple science, math, and historical precedent before presenting policy proposals, these pundits must pay less and less attention both to the details and evidence that purport to underlie them.

Unfortunately for them, someone’s checking their work. Let’s hope we don’t have to do this again next year.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His newest book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, to be published in April. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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