We’ve written a lot about Rep. Paul Ryan in this space, well before this weekend’s announcement that Mitt Romney would select him as the vice presidential nominee. The reason we spend so much time on Ryan is that his worldview and his proposals are the official agenda of the Republican Party—confirmed by the House Republicans passing his budget earlier this year. Ryan has spent his life in politics and is the model of the big ideological shift in Republican economic policy over that time. Romney’s pick only cements how important a player Ryan is in the debate over what kind of country we’ll have.
A quick look through the things Ryan has proposed show where his priorities lie. There are big benefits for the richest, and nothing but pain for middle-class and working-class people. In Ryan’s America, you’re on your own.
The centerpiece of the Ryan agenda is his plan to end—yes, end—Medicare. Ryan calls it a plan to “save” Medicare. Back in the real world, you can ice a pile of dirt and stick candles in it, but you can’t do that and say you’ve “saved birthday cake.”
Here’s the simple explanation: right now, Medicare is a guarantee—a program that offers coverage to every senior citizen, regardless of their economic background. It’s popular, it’s effective, and it keeps seniors out of poverty. Ryan claims his plan “protects” Medicare, but what it actually does is replace the guarantee with a voucher that seniors will use to buy their own insurance in the private market. Older people require more care and face higher health risks, so they’re more expensive to insure, especially in the individual market—the reason Medicare works is that it’s social insurance, which everyone pays into, and where a huge pool of beneficiaries helps distribute costs. Additionally, the value of the vouchers declines relative to health care costs over time, so that more and more will be paid out of retirees’ pockets.
Anyone who has ever had to deal with the private insurance market, raise your hand if you would like to rely on it—using a voucher of ever-decreasing value—when you’re no longer employed and most in need of health care? Yup, I thought so.
Last night on “60 Minutes,” Romney and Ryan sat together for an interview, and Romney said two things about Medicare that, taken together, are a pretty clear tell: he said that on the one hand, their plan would just mean “more choices,” and on the other hand, he insisted that people over 55 wouldn’t be affected. Which leads us to an important question: if all their Medicare plan represents is “more choices” and it saves Medicare, why wait? If it’s really going to be a good thing, why not give current retires and those near retirement the benefit of the change? Why reassure older people that Medicare won’t change if the plan really “protects” Medicare? The answer, of course, is that the plan means less care and more costs for beneficiaries, and they don’t want to take the political risk of imposing more cost and less care right away.
Speaking of eroding guarantees, Ryan is also one of the architects of Social Security privatization. His plan was the model for the proposal that President Bush tried, and failed, to push through in 2005. It would have diverted funds out of Social Security and into the stock market.
Anyone who lived through 2008, and saw what the market crash did to your 401k or your home value, raise your hand if you thought to yourself, “Gee, if only my Social Security had been invested in the market, too.” Anyone?
Let’s move on to taxes. Another major part of Ryan’s budget is a plan to completely eliminate taxes on investments, meaning that only work would be subject to income tax. That’s a huge boon to the very richest—CEOs, wealthy heirs, and financial industry executives especially. Let’s take Mitt Romney as an example: under a Ryan-style tax plan, Romney would pay a tax rate of less than 1 percent. The Joint Economic Committee of Congress estimates that the richest 1 percent would get a $238,000 tax cut under Ryan’s plan, while the top 0.1 percent would get a tax cut of more than $1.1 million. That’s where the savings from Ryan’s changes to Medicare would go—higher costs for seniors on fixed incomes, lower taxes for multi-millionaires.
Going beyond Medicare and taxes, Ryan’s budget is pretty hard on all the other stuff the federal government does, too. And by “all the other stuff” I mean things like schools, roads, Pell Grants for college, food inspection, and food stamps, to name a few. Those are programs that employ people, put money in working-class people’s pockets, and help keep America growing over the long term.
It’s no wonder that the Ryan budget has been described as “the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history,” one that would cause “an even wider gap between the very well-off and everyone else.”
Raise your hand if you think that solves any of the problems America faces. Anyone?