Hard-Working 'Wonk' Can Do a Lot of Damage


If Paul Ryan didn’t exist the media would have had to invent him, which is exactly what it did. There are rules for journalists, the kind that report the news rather than comment on it – there must be a perceived neutrality and objectivity. This is currently under debate: if a candidate makes a false statement, should it be noted in the body of a news report, or relegated to a side bar or a fact checking column.

Since there are no clear standards, the “he said, she said” style of reporting prevails, where all that’s called for is an accurate quote, without an ethical obligation to say whether the line being quoted is true or would rate a “pants on fire” from PolitiFact. Paul Krugman wrote, “To stray from this pose of even-handedness is to be labeled a partisan — and to admit that the parties aren’t the same, after all, would mean admitting that you’ve been wrong about the most basic features of the situation for years.”

Actually, for a professional reporter, telling the truth could be career suicide since it would mean loss of access to important sources, if not of news then at least of quotes. Prof. Krugman’s column is headed “The Conscience of a Liberal” – he has other sources of income and nothing to lose.

And so Congressman Ryan has been able to position himself as the responsible conservative, one who makes the hard decisions. According to an article in New York magazine, “The Paul Ryan that has been introduced to America is a figure of cinematic rectitude—a Jimmy Stewart character, but brainier.” According to Time magazine, “Through a combination of hard work, good timing, and possibly suicidal guts the Wisconsin Republican managed to harness his party to a dramatic plan for dealing with America’s rapidly rising public debt.” Even the New York Times Magazine, which has somewhat different standards than the daily paper, presented Congressman Ryan as a hard-working wonk.

Where other members of Congress distinguished themselves with colorful quotes and rigid support of improbable positions, Mr. Ryan carried with him a his own draft Federal Budget, something which, properly crafted, is more difficult to achieve than placing a model of the HMS Victory in a Mountain Dew bottle.

A budget, after all, is a projection of both income and expenses and an expression of public policies. Given the conflicting demands of members of congress, not only between parties but within the Republican party, it represents an incredible challenge, and with responsible projections of increased expenses in coming years demands either a high growth rate or reduced expenses on a broad scale. Reading a budget is almost as difficult, which is why most people don’t even try. Conveniently, Mr. Ryan submitted his budget to the Congressional Budget Office for Review. The Director of the CBO wrote, “In response to your request, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has conducted a long-term analysis of your proposal to substantially change federal payments under the Medicare and Medicaid programs, eliminate the subsidies to be provided through new insurance exchanges under last year’s major health care legislation, leave Social Security as it would be under current law, and set paths for all other federal spending (excluding interest) and federal tax revenues at specified growth rates or percentages of gross domestic product (GDP).”

What Mr. Ryan proposes to do is raise the Medicare age from 65 to 67 and, in place of the guarantee of health coverage, convert Medicare to block grants to the states to be used to help the elderly buy commercial insurance. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “The Ryan budget would cut Medicare spending by $129 billion over the 2015-2024 period, relative to the Congressional Budget Office’s current-law baseline, by raising Medicare’s income-tested premiums, increasing cost sharing, limiting medical malpractice awards, and apparently repealing the benefit improvements in health reform.” This is analogous to the switch from a guaranteed pension to a 401(k) – it saves money by simply announcing what the government is prepared to pay, and leaving it to the beneficiary to make up the balance. If the premium support is inadequate, it might be possible to buy a policy with inferior benefits or a higher deductible or co-pay. Under Mr. Ryan’s plan, the dual eligible, those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid, the poor elderly, would be covered only by Medicare, which would substantially increase out-of-pocket costs.

The CBPP analysis of this portion of Mr. Ryan’s goes into much greater detail, but the bottom line is simple – the elderly would not only be two years older, but would pay more and get less. Those who are old, poor and sick would be the hardest hit of all.

And one more thing – the rest of Mr. Ryan’s budget con job perpetuates the fiction that more tax cuts for the rich will lead to unprecedented levels of growth which will cover everything. The budget simply assumes that the government can survive with budget cuts that seem impossible, while specifying income increases that aren’t explained. It didn’t work for Reagan and it isn’t working for Brownback in Kansas. We really gotta watch out for this guy.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email sdu01@outlook.com.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2015


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