Friday, August 24, 2012

Paul Ryan and his Chainsaw

Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, is commonly described as the thinking man’s Republican, the antidote to the foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalists who spout bile and hatred, but no numbers.  The implication is that Ryan, unlike other inhabitants of the remote political right, is somehow reasonable.  But all that’s really different is his tone.  The outcomes of the policies he proposes are no different.

The hype about Ryan, it seems, is that he uses numbers.  Apparently, if you can demonstrate mathematically that it makes sense to turn the provision of social services into a profit-making industry, to remove control over the provision of essential services from public control, to cut the weak, the poor, the young, and the elderly adrift from the safe harbours that our collective endeavours provide, then that negates the immorality of the act. 

What’s Ryan’s formula?

Ryan, we hear, makes tough choices.  Choices which, conveniently enough for a party that hoovers up corporate cash like it’s going out of style, ignore the moral and social consequences for the less affluent.  Choices which, it’s sad to say, ignore the manner in which drastically scaling back defence spending might not only save us a pile of cash but prove the best national security move we’ve ever made.  Choices which are designed to fracture our already battered society, and to drive wedges between people.  Austerity, after all, isn’t just about making the numbers match up: in the guise being pushed by the Republican Party, it’s about choosing constituencies for social and economic punishment.  And enacting austerity on the scale proposed by Romney and Ryan in the midst of our economic crisis is like kicking people when they’re down. 

Sometimes it’s hard to understand just why commentators swoon over Ryan.  But a common explanation, in line with the storyline that positions Ryan as the Serious Adult in the Room, goes something like this: “He actually has told the American people that they’ll have to give something up—unrestrained entitlement spending—to fix what ails Washington”.  That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve heard, given that the Party he represents has told Americans (depending on which state you live in) that they should give up expecting the state to invest in their physical health, in the education of their children, in research which improves the length, quality, and character of our lives, in the agencies which safeguard our air, water and food, in those which maintain our recreational areas, in those which provide temporary support for the unemployed, and in those which invest in the development of infrastructure projects.  As far as I can see, the sole redeeming feature of the Republican Party is that it announces—in a booming voice—that it’s going to kick you in the slats before it actually does.  It just lies about how much it’s going to hurt.

It is disingenuous of Ryan’s defenders to suggest that his critics are ignoring the need for some kind of reform.  By all means...make social security reform part of the conversation.  Point out for example, that unlike most social welfare programs, it is directed not just to those who need it, but to those who have done very well for themselves and for whom its role as a retaining-wall is redundant.  We should point out that if people are unhappy with Ryan’s proposal for means-testing where medicare is concerned, the affluent should either consider paying higher taxes so that the programme can be properly funded, or we should resort to a single, national healthcare system in the United States, which would similarly rely on a more equitable distribution of the tax burden.  In this sole element (if you left out privatisation), Ryan’s plan is at least fair, although the point of programmes like Medicare was that they were universal and that people should chip into the broader pot according to their means to do so.  But let’s not pretend that the Ryan Budget taken as a whole isn’t exactly what New Gingrich called it: ‘right wing social engineering’.  It takes, in the form of cuts to social programs, trillions of dollars from people on the lower end of the scale, and gives much of that, nearly $400,000 apiece to those making $1 million and over, to those at the top. 

Ryan’s plan, we’re told, is Bold and Serious because it focuses on The Real Problem: Budget Reduction.  But if the Ryan plan was purely about deficit reduction, it wouldn’t be cutting personal income and corporate taxes.  It’s in its fiddling of the tax code where it shows its true colours.  The Congressional Budget Office, hardly a bastion of socialism, suggests that it would be 30 years before we’d see a surplus under the Ryan Plan.  It’s also important to point out that if the task of government institutions is to serve as anything other than a kind of glorified accounting agency, Ryan’s version falls dismally short.  Most of us believe that the people’s welfare should be the primary preoccupation of government.  But under the Romney and Ryan regime, the federal government would become a fanatical, obsessive, manic set of institutions, caught up in ideological anxieties whilst shirking its responsibility to look after its masters—the people—whatever the cost might be.

Ryan’s reform of Medicare and Medicaid are supposed to be so praiseworthy because they are workmanlike and unhindered by ideology (besides, of course, that ideology which seeks to cut citizens adrift from the government elected to serve their interests).  But his plans bear more than a few hallmarks of the Rove-ian Republican Party in the sense that they’ve been cobbled together to create a coalition of voters.  In exempting current seniors and people entering the programmes in the near future, Ryan and his party are shamelessly encouraging one group of people—those who are or will shortly be benefiting from an historically-honoured social contract—to vote its own interests in the knowledge that they’re simultaneously breaking a contract and damaging the future of younger generations.  Ryan’s plan is as cynical and mercenary as anything the Republican Party has ever come up with, designed as it is to pick off select populations of voters with the express aim of harming other populations.

Ryan wants to do to medicare what voters have repeatedly rejected when Republicans attempt to do it to schools—transform it into a voucher system.  It’ll be great.  You’ll get a set amount of money that will almost certainly not cover healthcare costs as the insurance industry (you know...the companies that have your best interests at heart) makes record profits.  Instead of addressing and regulating spectacularly inflated healthcare costs (now that might be a bold solution), Ryan’s plan simply asks you, as an individual, to pick those up.  It’s about the laziest approach to the problem imaginable. 

It also exacerbates the conflict between generations, and ups the stakes in the war on young Americans that elderly voters have launched in their attempts to void the social contract and weasel out of their responsibilities.  This is not uniformly the case, but middle class older voters are notorious for seeking to lighten their tax burden at the stage in their lives when they are best able to shoulder that burden, thereby breaking the cycle of mutual support that our social compact comprises. 

There is more than a whiff of the archaic ‘Protestant work ethic’ mantra about Ryan and Romney’s approach: poverty is a sign of divine disfavour, cast on the weak because of the feebleness of their efforts to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Do these social Darwinist hacks really believe in their hearts that you help people by punishing them?  Or do they simply not care?  Are they really unaware of how powerless people can become when caught up in a regional, national, or world-wide economic crisis?  Or do they see this crisis as an opportunity to launch a corporate coup?

Romney and Ryan have nothing to offer besides disinvestment from the public sector and the wanton dismantling of the public machinery of governance.  These actions will mean that our government loses all power to undertake either social or infrastructural projects.  They are seeking to bind the hands of future governments, to prevent them from repairing the safety net that took so many generations to weave in the first place.

However “clever” Ryan might be, I suspect that we’ll see that even he will be at a loss when asked to explain just how the mechanisms of the market will do what it has taken years of public thought, investment, and reasoned consideration to achieve.  The creation of our social fabric was the product of a moral equation rather than the result of some budgetary calculation, and Ryan and Romney would inflict untold harm on our country through their heartless assault on our social infrastructure. 

The market is, by its very nature, insecure, particularly for those of us—the majority—who are in the grand economic scheme of things virtual nonentities.  We’ll be in for the roller-coaster ride of our lives if Ryan and Romney have their way and our economic security is handed over to a set of imperfectly-understood, morally un-regulated, undemocratic, and rigged-toward-the-wealthy mechanisms. 

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