Paul Ryan’s new fiscal blueprint doesn’t balance the budget until sometime between 2030 and 2040, and racks up more than $14 trillion in new debt by then. By Ryan’s own reckoning, his plan adds $5.7 trillion to the debt in the next decade alone, while more than tripling interest payments, from $212 billion this year to nearly $700 billion in 2021. The only way such a profligate plan can be called “fiscally conservative” is by comparison to Barack Obama’s budget, which never comes close to balance and loads on more debt even faster. Meanwhile, both the House budget chairman and the president shortchange needed investments in America’s future. The question sane citizens should ask in the face of these dueling disappointments is: Why are these the only choices?
There will be plenty of overheated reactions to Ryan’s budget, declaring him to be either a savior or the devil incarnate. Since neither is the case I want to give folks who are amenable to reason a few facts and perspectives to make sense of it all:
A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the host of the new podcast “This...Is Interesting,” Miller writes a weekly column for The Post.
Paul Ryan proposes that the federal government spend $40 trillion over the next 10 years, as opposed to Barack Obama’s $46 trillion. The first thing to note is that there is thus about a 15 percent difference in the size of government envisioned by our two major parties. This difference matters greatly, of course, but shouting aside, this is a fight taking place between the 40-yard lines on either side.
If, in addition, you assume, as I do, based on private- and public-sector experience, that there’s rarely been a budget that couldn’t stand an aggregate 10 percent cut, then the real gap between the parties may be smaller still. Ryan’s choices within these totals are unwise and deeply unfair for reasons I’ll explain. But this overall magnitude of change can’t be called “radical.” Doing so is just a way of underscoring how timid and incremental the debate usually is.
Ryan wants the federal government to spend about 20 percent of gross domestic product. Obama wants it to spend 23 to 24 percent. (One percent of GDP is worth about $150 billion today.) For context, recall that Ronald Reagan ran the federal government at 22 percent of GDP, when America’s population was much younger, when we weren’t about to double the number of seniors on Social Security and Medicare, and when per capita health costs for all age groups were much lower.
To run government at smaller levels than Reagan did with an older population in an era of higher per capita health costs, Ryan’s plan would thus substantially shrink the portion of federal spending devoted to things besides senior citizens. For example, while Ryan’s budget increases spending on Social Security and Medicare by $929 billion a year by 2021 (an increase of 72 percent over today’s levels), it would cut nonsecurity discretionary spending (from which funding for such things as research and development, infrastructure, and recruiting and retaining better teaching talent would come) by $143 billion, or 25 percent, in that year. Ryan would thus exacerbate the already dramatic tilt in federal spending toward current consumption for seniors and away from investment in the future. If you’re under 40, and especially if you’re under 25, these (bipartisan) priorities should be a call to arms.