Dueling Budgets

That Rep. Paul Ryan sure is an awful, horrible, low-down, mean person, at least to hear President Barack Obama tell it.

Speaking before an adoring audience of editors and reporters at an Associated Press luncheon on Tuesday, Obama said that the Wisconsin congressman’s recently proposed budget plan was “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” He further stated that the Ryan plan is “so far to the right that it makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal.”

The latter charge was presumably meant as a disparagement, although it is unclear which of the two programs is being disparaged. The New Deal failed to lower the unemployment rate below 14.6 percent until World War II, and burdened future generations with such fiscal calamities as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Social Security, while the Contract with America included a welfare reform bill that is widely regarded as one of the more successful laws of the past generation, as well as tax cuts for small businesses such as the president now claims to champion. It also had some rather unexceptional reforms that were never passed into law, such as term limits and an independent audit of Congress, and some ideas that weren’t passed, such as a balanced budget amendment, that might have saved us from a number of current problems. Few Americans will remember anything that was included in the Contract with America way back in 1994, much less be able to name anything extremely right-wing in it, but Obama seems hopeful that many will vaguely recall the bad press it got from his adoring audience of editors and reporters.

The “thinly veiled social Darwinism” line is a more unambiguous insult. While Darwinism as a biological theory is so fashionable that to question any aspect of it marks one as a hopeless rube, Darwinism as a social theory is universally despised. Obama elaborated on the charge by claiming that the Ryan budget would “end Medicare as we know it,” deny mothers and children healthy food, dirty the water and air, and generally impose widespread misery on the populace. Hearing Obama describe the plan, one can imagine Ryan twirling his moustache and cackling a maniacal laugh as he ties the poor mothers and children to the train tracks, his murderous scheme thwarted only because the Amtrak subsidies have been slashed and no train is coming.

The Medicare trustees concede that the program as we know it will end with insolvency in 2024 anyway, so Ryan’s plan to replace it with a voucher system doesn’t seem very socially Darwinian, but the other charges do sound quite dreadful. Looking at the actual Ryan proposal, however, reveals that it would actually increase government spending, doesn’t actually balance the ledgers for decades, and that by 2022 the government’s budget as a share of gross domestic product would actually be higher than in the last two years of President Bill Clinton’s administration. Those years were the good old days, according to Democratic legend, and even Clinton’s most bitters foes don’t recall them as an era of starving mothers and children, dirty air and water, widespread misery, and survival of the fittest.

Ryan’s plan is undeniably stingy when compared with Obama’s budget proposal, however. The Obama plan is to rack up another $6.4 trillion in debt between 2013 and 2022, or nearly $11 trillion under the more realistic “alternative fiscal scenario,” and hope that it all works out in the end. Just for yucks the House actually voted on the proposal, and it failed by a rather lopsided vote of 0-414. When even Nancy Pelosi can’t bring herself to vote for such a budget, it might be considered, well, so extreme that it makes the New Deal look like the Contract with America.

— Bud Norman

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