Cut through the Ryan hype, and there’s a bare-faced babe in arms underneath.
On the basis of Dan Hannan’s tweeted recommendation (I simply will never learn) I decided yesterday to read Paul Ryan’s ‘Roadmap’ to economic and fiscal recovery for the United States. I’m a confirmed debunker of insight-free management consultancy, so Mr Ryan gets off to a 5-point penalty for me right away with his ‘roadmap’. It goes in there with critical path analysis, outputs, deliverables, windows and the rest of the jargonised nonsense churned out by those who have nothing to say, but are getting paid by the hour for doing it.
Ryan is being punted by the GOP spin machine as a brilliant econo-fiscal philosopher, presumably with the twin aims of (a) complementing Mitt Romney’s more ‘hands on’ approach to money, and (b) highlighting the fact that Obama is economically dyslexic – and his running mate is Joe Biden. It’s par for the course these days in politics to present anyone who can string a sentence together (especially in writing) as a hyper-genius, but then the example of Louise Mensch in the UK is a timely reminder that ability may be no guide to content quality.
In fact, Ryan is little more than a central-casting neocon hardline professional politician…his personal requirement for welfare until age eighteen (after the death of his father) notwithstanding. The Ryan males tend to keel over aged about 56, so at 42 we can be reassured – or horrified – that Paul would stay the course if elected. But he wouldn’t be a good bet as a two-term President after that.
Although Mr Ryan is not a Premier-league educational achiever (Miami University is way off the Ivy League ratings) he’s smart enough to have achieved a double major (joint honours) in economics and political science. But the subjects of his degree are for me a further condemnation. I’m a history/politics graduate myself – but then I went out and got a proper job. Aside from fries-shifting at McDonalds and waiting at tables, like most hardline politcians, Paul Ryan has never had a proper job.
He accepted a congressional position as a staff economist after graduating in 1992. Ryan then became a speechwriter for a conservative advocacy group, and later worked as a speechwriter for the Republican vice presidential candidate in the 1996 bunfight, Jack Kemp. After that, he worked as a speechwriter for Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas…by which time most of the speech alternatives were probably exhausted, so he returned to Wisconsin in 1997. Briefly, he became a marketing consultant….for Ryan Incorporated Central, the family construction company. You can just imagine, after that all that political speechwriting, how much Paul knew about marketing construction services: I think David Cameron might call getting this job The Leg Up.
Two years later, Ryan was elected to Congress against less than sparkling opposition, and went on to get re-elected six times in a safe GOP district. But credit where credit’s due, Paul has over $5.4 million in his congressional campaign account – more than any other House member. So, like UK MP Jeremy Hunt, he’s good at raising funds. For himself.
Like I say, Congressman Ryan is a card-carrying technocrat politician who has spent his life in academia, Congress, and falling back on the family. His fiscal economics are thus entirely theoretical and other-directed – and it shows.
As it happens, I didn’t know any of this before consulting Rep Ryan’s Roadmap to Utopia. Reading it yesterday with an open but sceptical mind, I was at first impressed: the analysis of where previous Washington policy had veered off piste was very good indeed, and there were references to the correct use of welfare which perhaps, on reflection, chime with his personal experiences as a kid.
But several pages, diagrams, graphs and promises in, I was still looking for the directional signs beyond vague flim-flam about the evils of Obaman medicare and incontinent budget control in Washington. I mean, there’s all that taxpayers’ money wasted on speechwriters for a start, so he has a point. But by the end of the main document, the signs seemed to point me to where I’d been rather than where I might want to go.
In the Roadmap introduction – A Choice of Two Futures – there is a well-written but staggeringly naive and selective analysis of collectivism versus free markets. And when one gets into the detail of his medical provision model, it has that disturbing preference for the systemic theory over the human experience that characterises so many Believers. This for instance on the Obama model – of which, by the way, I am myself a stern critic (my emphases):
‘The entire methodology of the program must be converted away from a program that shelters providers and consumers from prices – and is therefore inefficient in restraining rising costs – into one in which beneficiaries choose the most affordable coverage that best suits their needs.’
The emphases highlight my belief that Paul Ryan is just another Andrew Lansley: no concept at all of the reality that most people in this life – even in the wealthy West – are anything from of limited means to dirt poor. It’s hard for any beneficiary to choose affordable coverage if he or she has little or no money….and the cost of straightforward anaesthesia is $6,700. It’s also hard to feel reassured about medical fees when every ounce of your experience gives you bad feelings about the wriggle-skills of insurance companies.
Choice is fine if you’re middle class and pensioned like me. But neocon economics have ensured that, since 1988, the average American worker has been offered a smaller and smaller slice of the economic apple pie – thanks to a super-rich 3%, and jobs moved offshore. Mitt Romney hasn’t moved every last job offshore, but let’s face it – the guy is implicated. As indeed is his wealth…after a level of taxation we have yet to be allowed to examine.
Ryan is, in outline, good on how to make medicare a better bet. But you’re left asking why his Party had never lifted a finger to tackle the issue at all before Obama enacted his recipe for fiscal disaster. He’s excellent on thrift, and the need for balanced budgets…but in that context, the box marked ‘Reaganomics’ is left blank. President Reagan (a fine man in arms-control foreign policy, and a well-meaning leader) left behind the biggest debt in US history. His Republican successors since that time have been building on that mountain of fiscal thrift. For all his myriad faults and empty gestures, President Obama inherited a level of deficit unthinkable for Americans even a decade ago.
Paul Ryan’s roadmap, in fact, is largely significant for the two things it leaves out: practical detail, and any realistic appreciation of what 2008 was really all about. It is 90% a description of the fiscal geography of America, and 10% Roadmap. Basically, the actual route is in the Appendix.
The heading for the Roadmap comes well before that – ‘Description of the Legislation’ – but what follows is some desperate self-justification of the flim flam –
‘…this proposal is a comprehensive plan for restructuring health care, the Federal health entitlements, retirement security, and Federal taxation to put the Federal budget and the U.S. economy on a sustainable path….The proposal should not be viewed as a rigid, absolute plan. It has flexibility built into it so that it can adapt to conditions that surely will change over the course of the century. Nevertheless, it is a complete and comprehensive approach.’
– and then just a load more bromides about ‘every American should be free from fear of medical bills’ and ‘putting the consumer back in control’ – in other words, the same old same old that sounds great in print, but gets perverted by the first insurance accountant let near it. It is an enduring fault of most neocon ‘thinkers’ that they are naive about the ethics of private business, and paint a picture of ‘consumers’ as if they might be sophisticated, discerning purchasers of financial services. Let’s get real: if they were, Lloyd Blankfein would be two-bit theatre producer.
The Roadmap steps (Appendix I) are based on the assumption that the US is a fundamentally healthy economy, and the only nation on the planet. Like all cod futurology, no allowance is made for technological change, foreign recession, Asian slowdown or China’s ownership of most American debt. No recognition is made of relative Asian/Western wages. No mention appears at all of the growing inequities of wealth in American society.
On healthcare, the ‘idea’ is a classic, complicated Gordon Brownesque tax credit. Washington gives you some money to get insured, you get insured with your insurer of choice. Everyone lives happily ever after. It isn’t costed. That’s it. But there’s a lulu under the heading ‘transparency': a one-liner….’See medical component of this legislation’. I’m sorry, but I laughed out loud at that point.
On social welfare, the first ‘idea’ is a remake of the old ‘opt-out’ Thatcher scam from which some folks in the UK are still suffering: ‘…provides workers under 55 the option of dedicating portions of their FICA payroll taxes toward personal accounts, or remaining in the current Social Security system.’
It envisages four ‘phase-in’ stages that are complete by 2042, when Paul will be 72 and, given his genes, very probably extinct. Only an ivory-tower Washington wonk could seriously suggest that one can plan a social security system change over…oh sorry, I forgot: it’s flexible. Ah, right.
The second ‘idea’ is an extraordinarily complex and bureaucrat-intensive system designed to protect workers as they save for retirement, by ‘indexing’ their wage and price exposure at 2018. That’s basically an inflation-proof pension, almost non-existent these days in the private sector because nobody can afford to provide it. Not surprisingly, this isn’t costed either.
Look: I could go on, but it is going to get boring. The point I’m making is that the content is recycled, busted-flush bollocks, and there is no evidence provided that it will save any money for the State. Frankly, in the context of a $3trillion deficit growing daily, this is less than useless as a roadmap to anything except the cliff-face of national insolvency. And we have about as much chance of Ryan showing us the numbers as we do of seeing the balance in Mitt’s Bahamian bank account.
So let me instead close this critique by focusing on Paul Ryan’s at best gullible omission of the events that got us to where we are today. The Unmentionables are, chiefly:
1. Hank Paulson and $870bn. On toxic asset relief (TARP) Ryan hilariously offers this judgement:
‘The Troubled Asset Relief Program was intended to thaw credit markets that seized up during the financial crisis – and it succeeded in its short-term objective’.
It didn’t thaw anything Paul, it stopped Lehman turning into a whole row of over-leveraged dominoes within the month. That was indeed its short-term objective, but we have yet to see an audit of where the money went. (Can we also have a little more detail on the seizing-up thing, or was this a spontaneous, celestial event similar to the Second Coming in which Romney so passionately believes?)
2. Lack of banking reform. Not a single substantive change was enacted to create a Glass-Steagall firewall, calm the bonus culture, write off derivative lunacy, or prosecute malfeasance.
3. Trickle-down wealth. Rather than trickling down, it’s spouting upwards like a Texas Tea gusher. Funny how nobody from Dan Hannan via George Osborne to Angela Merkel ever wants to discuss that side of Friedmanite thought.
4. Congressional self-abuse on the subject of deficit action, and Ryan’s personal role in the mass onanism. The Republican capture of the House in the November 2010 elections set the stage for a series of budget confrontations in 2011 between President Obama and his Democratic allies in the Senate, and conservatives who campaigned on making steep cuts to government spending. Fair enough. But The Republican response in April of that year starred none other than Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin. Unveiling his party’s 2012 budget, he said the plan would reduce the deficit by $5.8 trillion over the next decade, mainly by making deep cuts in discretionary spending programs, and turning Medicare into a “defined benefit’’. Is that what it says in the Roadmap Paul? (And we still don’t have the costs: maybe they’re in a Bahamian account too.)
5. Flagrant criminality on the part of everyone in Wall Street from Goldman Sachs to Barcap. Fines handed out like confetti. Fines paid by banks in return for not admitting their obvious guilt. Not one culprit of the 2008 disaster doing time. Speaking less than clearly from within this herd of roomed Elephants, wide eyed Paul Ryan merely makes the following contradictory observation:
‘In a single stroke late last year, the House passed the most significant overhaul of the Nation’s financial system since the creation of Depression-era banking and securities laws….The new legislation expands the role of government in the financial arena on multiple levels for institutions and individuals….The financial bill creates a new government agency designed to safeguard consumers from risk-taking for a broad array of products, from mortgages to credit cards. But ironically, the new bureaucracy will harm the very consumers it seeks to protect: by writing far-reaching rules and restricting risk, it will limit consumer choices, ration credit, and hamper individuals’ ability to make investment decisions.’
Where to start on this one? The GOP had the House majority for all of the period, so I’m not clear what point Mr Ryan is making. Calling it a ‘significant overhaul’ is a bit like saying that the European EFSF is overfunded. Despite the $23trillion global write-off of crazy investment bank risk since 2008, Ryan doesn’t like restricting risk. And ration credit? Is he kidding? What does he call what the banks are doing now, the Marshall Plan? And once again, per-leeeze…most people don’t make individual investment decisions: it’s all they can do to work the remote control. Naive folks are sold investment products they usually don’t need by snake-oil salesmen like Bob Diamond.
This is the bottom line: the roadmap is dated August, 1979. What we need is new roads, not an old roadmap.