Critics of Paul Ryan’s latest budget spent a lot of time on Tuesday scrutinizing its many asterisks and inconsistencies. But at least as worthy of attention was Ryan’s big-picture justification for why the country needs a budget that cuts deeply into anti-poverty programs and other spending in order to avoid raising any new federal revenue.
“The truth is,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “the nation’s debt is a sign of overreach.” Congress has enlarged the scope of federal activity beyond some natural, correct level. So the right response — the only response — is to roll it back. Deficits solved.
This is Ryan’s big, philosophical stand. And it’s seriously misleading.
The debt everyone is arguing about — projected to accumulate over the coming decades — is not a function of some Obama-era refashioning of the government’s scope. It’s the result of lots of baby boomers retiring in a time experts predict health-care costs will rise rapidly. As Matt Miller has repeatedly pointed out, it’s absurd for Ryan to claim that higher projected spending on Medicare and other old-age benefits reflects increasing dependence on government — that the projected debt reflects increasing government “overreach.” The programs are the same as they were in the George W. Bush administration — there will just be more people old enough to qualify for them, at a time when health-care costs will probably be going up everywhere.
Perhaps Ryan thinks that Medicare and Social Security were “overreach” when Congress established them decades ago, in which case he should say so, instead of constantly talking about how important the programs have been for his mom. He should also be willing to change them for soon-to-be seniors, which his budget doesn’t do. Instead, his solution is to spend 10 years pillaging other parts of the budget that Republicans dislike before starting Medicare reform, all justified by a misdiagnosis of the debt path the country is on.
Most galling, though, is Ryan’s implication that the only responsible way to address future deficits is his way, rather than any of the many other combinations of spending reforms and revenue raisers that outside experts agree would work better. Ryan ignores the political reality that Democrats will never buy into his vision for government — and, for that matter, most of the country probably won’t, either. And he alienates those who want to reduce future deficits but don’t want to endorse a right-wing restructuring of government.