11 August, 2012
A tale of two flags
Well, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc) is Mitt Romney's running-mate. And the Greek flag looks a bit like the American one. How are these two facts related? Bear with me.
Bob Schieffer of CBS said that partisans of both parties are delighted- Republicans because Paul Ryan's proposals on Medicare and the budget give viable specifics to the GOP economic program, and Democrats because they can paint Ryan as an extreme ideologue.
Like Barack Obama isn't?
Schieffer also pointed out the gaffe Romney committed in introducing Ryan: he referred to him as "the next president of the United States," not the next vice-president. This is, of course, the kind of thing the MSM probably wouldn't have even noticed if Barack Obama had said it. And there might well be a bit of unintentional sooth-saying in Romney's gaffe. If- heaven forefend- President Obama is re-elected, Ryan will be the odds-on favorite for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. And my guess is that the odds would be considerably better than even that he would be elected.
For those who are not long-time followers of this blog, I'm something of a political curiosity. I meet Irving Kristol's classic definition of a Neo-Conservative: "A liberal who has bee mugged by reality." Left to my druthers, I'd still be a liberal Democrat. But reality just won't let me.
I am un-Democratic enough to distinguish between what ought, in an ideal world, to be the case, and what is in fact is the case. In an unfallen world there would not, of course, be sickness. But if there were, ideally I would advocate universal, government-sponsored health care. People should not have to pay for that- or, for that matter, for legal representation (equal in every respect, regardless of income), adequate shelter, and enough calories to sustain life. Beyond that, let the free market rule.
The problem is that we don't live in an unfallen world, and it's not practical for the government to provide that stuff (that- along with the increasing radicalism of the Democrats on social issues, is why I'm an ex-liberal). Right now, we're facing a $15 trillion deficit, most of which was inflicted on us by President Obama (I really hope the Romney-Ryan campaign does a commercial or two on the fact that in its first term alone the Obama administration has exceeded the red ink the Bush administration spilled in two).
Contrary to the Democrat party line, the rich are paying their fair share in taxes. The much-demonized top one percent in income pays 14% of the government's total take in income taxes, the loopholes everybody agrees should go aside. The top 20% in income pays a whopping 94% of the total take. Now, where I differ from the Republican party line- and differ strongly- is that the deficit is simply too big to be eliminated by spending cuts alone. Tax hikes will be necessary- and the burden of them should be borne by the wealthiest Americans, not because they aren't already paying their fair share- they are- but because they're the only ones who can afford it.
Once again, practicality has to trump idealism.
President Obama talks a good game about a "balanced approach" to deficit reduction, including both spending cuts and tax increases. The problem is, first, that I simply don't trust the Democrats- and especially the Obama Democrats- not to increase the budget in other places more than they reduce it. They are already talking about reprising that wasteful and totally ineffective first term stimulus, most of which was spent overseas and might have stimulated other countries' economies, but had little effect on ours. A party that accepts as a matter of principle that the way to reduce unemployment and grow the economy is by prodigal and untargeted government spending is not a party I would trust to reduce the deficit.
The second reason I don't trust the Obama Democrats to deal with the deficit is that the four percent reduction Mr. Obama has set as his goal is chickenfeed. We need to do a great deal better than that. And we've known for years that if government spending was going to be controlled and programs like Social Security and Medicare even continue to exist in the long term, something was going to have to be done to drastically change the nature of these and other entitlements.
Entitlements like Medicare have traditionally been called the "third rail" of presidential politics, something that really should be dealt with but would be fatal for a candidate to touch. Well, the selection of Paul Ryan means that it's going to be touched. And it's about time.
True enough, there's enough money in the trust fund to keep Social Security functioning a great deal longer than anybody expected a few years ago. But the unpalatable fact is that in the long term, we're going to have to overhaul our entire entitlement structure. The reason has become all too apparent in the state of the economies of European countries like Greece and Italy and Spain, which have discovered to their dismay that once their economies stop growing the huge deficits run up by extensive social welfare programs stop being merely theoretical problems. The issue becomes whether to cut or even eliminate some benefits, or end up not having the money to pay any of them.
It seems that, like a teenager who doesn't quite understand how credit cards work, the populations of Greece and Italy and Spain want their benefits even though the money isn't there to pay for them, and even though it means driving the national debt into territory so bleak that their nations may never be able to afford them again. Our own situation isn't quite that desperate. Yet. But it's the paradigm for the campaign we are about to fight, and the outcome of this election will depend on whether or not modern Americans are more sophisticated about these things than modern Greeks are.
In fact, our nation's future in large measure depends on it.
Erskine Bowles, the Democrat co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles Commission that set out just what America is going to have to do to deal with the unprecedented crisis this deficit represents, quipped a while back that Mitt Romney is no Bowles or Simpson. The reference was to Romney's claim that his tax reform plan was similar to the Commission's. But the plan, Bowles said, left too many loopholes in place, and as a result would do little to reduce the deficit through tax reform. Well, Paul Ryan was a member of the Simpson-Bowles Commission. True, his own deficit reduction plan fails to recognize the necessity of increasing taxes- probably on the wealthy- as part of any realistic paying down of the deficit. But he's built a career out of taking the deficit seriously, which is pretty much the opposite of what Barack Obama has done.
Not, alas, that any Romney-Ryan plan would go as far as it should. In that non-existent ideal world I referred to earlier, somebody would do what, say, Jon Huntsman probably would have ended up doing, and advocated a realistic deficit-reduction plan involving both realistic cuts in spending (which by definition will have to hit entitlements hard), and comprehensive tax reform that would close the loopholes the president and his supporters make such an issue out of Romney benefiting from. In fact, there would probably be actual increases in the tax rates for the wealthiest Americans- again, not because as a group they aren't already paying their fair share, but because the money will have to come from someplace and they can best bear the burden.
Growing the economy will help a great deal more than the Democrats and Obama are willing to admit in raising tax revenues. It's worth mentioning that the dire predictions those Obama commercials make about the impact of the Romney economic plan on the deficit are based on deliberately minimizing the impact of economic growth Romney and his people factor into the equation.
But the Romney plan isn't ideal by any means. But it's something. The Obama plan- a token deficit reduction in theory while spending- and almost certainly wasting once again- enormous sums on a second stimulus- is worth than nothing.
But the selection of Paul Ryan guarantees that the real issue will be foremost in the campaign: whether American is going to bite the bullet and do whatever it takes to get the deficit down, or whether we're going to become another Greece. It's whether entitlements are going to be cut, or whether they're eventually going to disappear because we no longer have the money to pay for them.
It's whether we're going to elect a president who is committed to token deficit reduction at best, coupled with overspending as his preferred way of stimulating employment, or one who has just picked Paul Ryan to be his running-mate.
Ryan's economic plays are more draconian than mine would be, and they don't recognize the necessity of addressing the tax side of the equation. Just as the Democrats run the risk of negating whatever spending cuts they might make through prodigal stimulus programs, Republicans' faith in growing the economy through tax cuts runs the risk of short-changing their ambitions to reduce the deficit on the income side.
But the selection of Paul Ryan guarantees that the real issue of the 2012 campaign- whether or not Americans are really Greeks- will be front and center. Whatever fault a reasonable person would have to find with the Republican plans to deal with the deficit, the selection of Ryan leaves one thing absolutely clear; unlike Barack Obam and the Democrats, they take it seriously.
When all is said and done, the defining issue of the 2012 presidental election is whether we are Americans or Greeks. I guess we'll know the first Wednesday after the first Monday in November.