Wayne O'Leary

Paul Ryan's Dreamtime

To hear segments of the mainstream media tell it, it’s morning in America again — or, at least, our deliverance from the darkness is nearly at hand. The same journalistic front-runners who legitimized the wacky tea-party movement have a new political celebrity to fawn over and dote upon. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), head of the House Budget Committee, is the latest object of their adoration.

Ryan has the right stuff for a media-created matinee idol. He’s youthful (40 years old), tolerably handsome, dark-haired and blue-eyed, and the possessor (according to breathless reports) of washboard abs as a result of his strenuous daily workout routine. He’s also a family-oriented workaholic who labors late into the night on budgetary minutiae. A veritable Renaissance nerd.

What makes this guy cause Beltway hearts to flutter? Personality-wise, he comes across as actually having a discernable pulse in a congressional party dominated by such charter members of the living dead as Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. Substantively, he’s jazzed up the conventional wisdom about the economy and given it a certain right-wing cachet that fits the consensus austerity narrative arising from last November’s election. This post-pubescent Reagan makes cold-blooded budget cuts and their attendant suffering seem downright adventurous to those fortunate enough not to be in the path of the impending tsunami. “Bold” and “courageous” are among the superlatives being bandied about.

There’s another way to view Ryan, however; he represents a state in the midst of a tumultuous power struggle and identity crisis. Wisconsin has at various times produced stalwart progressives like Russ Feingold and Bob LaFollette, but also archreactionaries like Scott Walker and the troglodyte Joseph R. McCarthy. Ryan, a personification of the latter tradition, is the premier Washington symbol of the hard-right cohort that has temporarily seized his state and the rest of the Upper Midwest in an iron grip.

The boy wonder from Wisconsin is trying to transfer to the nation’s capital the harsh philosophy that presently rules Madison, Lansing, and Columbus. It’s a philosophy gleaned from Ryan’s reading of the prescribed right-wing literary canon of novelist Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead) and economists Friedrich von Hayek (The Road to Serfdom) and Milton Friedman (Free to Choose). Their paeans to selfishness, extreme individualism, and pure laissez-faire form the intellectual backdrop to Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future,” itself the basis for the 2012 budget plan of the GOP House majority. William F. Buckley, Jr. would be proud.

What’s clear is that the little, red Republican book of Chairman Ryan is based solely on ideology; it conjures up a conservative dreamtime vision of how a perfectly ordered world should work.

In Ryan’s world, there is no government or community of any account; we are all free, independent agents pursuing our own individual self-interest for the ultimate good of all.

The Ryan dogma sets forth a secular religion conservatives subscribe to on faith alone. Chief among the articles of faith is belief in an infallible priesthood called “job creators.” These secular priests, otherwise known as CEOs and investors, will bring unto us jobs, if we obediently cut their taxes, restrict government spending, and balance the budget forevermore. Another name for this (courtesy Howard Dean) is “lunacy.”

Although it’s being billed as something new, exciting, and revolutionary, the Ryan dispensation is really an amalgam of various barnacle-encrusted Republican doctrines of the past. Reaganomics is there, with its supply-side, trickle-down, and Laffer-curve nostrums. So is Friedmanesque monetarism, with its tight money, fiscal retrenchment, and fixed exchange rates; so, too, is Bushism, with its grandiose theories of entitlement privatization; and bringing up the rear is libertarianism, with its sanctification of government hatred. It’s all been tried before — in the 1920s, 1980s, and 2000s — and the results have not been pretty.

Ryan’s long-term goal is to entirely eliminate the federal budget deficit, while lowering the top tax rate for the so-called job creators from 35 to 25 percent. This would be accomplished by turning Medicare into a privatized voucher program financed by seniors themselves and by reducing Medicaid to a shrunken block-grant program run by the states without any niggling federal standards or requirements. Over time, the Ryan plan would theoretically cut federal spending by $6 trillion, pare Medicare outlays by two-thirds and Medicaid by one-half, decrease unemployment to 2.8%, and practically end progressive taxation.

The congressman also has a bridge for sale in Brooklyn.

A few inconvenient facts: First, if Medicare has a potential budgetary shortfall in the out years, it’s because of the semi-privatized programs attached to it in the last decade by Republicans; namely, Medicare Advantage (Part C) and the Bush prescription-drug benefit (Part D), both wasteful, money-making rackets administered on a government-subsidized basis by private health-insurance companies.

Second, the Ryan scheme to privatize the entire Medicare system is financial cover for a vast transfer of wealth from average seniors to the upper-income brackets; the paltry “premium-support” payments envisioned to replace defined Medicare benefits would leave seniors (according to the Congressional Budget Office) $6,400 in the hole annually, pushing many into outright poverty.

Third, there is no evidence that further tax reductions for the purported job creators funded by disemboweling Medicare and Medicaid will produce private-sector jobs; the existing Bush tax cuts have resulted in no net job gains for 10 years, because the hollowed-out middle class can’t provide the demand required to stimulate actual business expansion.

And, finally, the notion that we must achieve absolute federal budget balance, something rarely seen for a century, is premised on a false household analogy: Washington should balance its budget like you do. In reality, everyone who maintains car payments and a home mortgage is living in deficit, and there’s no logical reason the federal government can’t do the same; that is, make sensible borrowed investments for the future.

Unfortunately, logic has little to do with the faith-based Ryan budget plan. Its true-believing author has followed his vision quest to the mountaintop and looked over the other side. They’re all there, the conservative fantasists who preceded him: Andrew Mellon, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, the Liberty Leaguers, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Hayek and Friedman, Buckley and Rand. The American people, sadly, have been left at the bottom of the hill.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2011


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