Is the Paul Ryan Bubble Bursting?

For anyone who's been paying attention, it's long been obvious that Paul Ryan is a political fraud. Paul Krugman and Jonathan Chait have been on the case longer than most, noting since Ryan's initial emergence as the Republicans' go-to guy on all things budgetary that his numbers don't work at all. Somewhat encouragingly, if belatedly, lots of other folks seem finally to be noticing and not a moment too soon.

Ryan's emergence as a GOP superstar and, until very recently, a media darling, is the apotheosis of a three decades long scam being perpetrated on the American people. That scam -- supply-side economics -- has always had one preferred public face. The public face is the notion that cutting marginal tax rates at the top would spur those who are now referred to as "job creators," to really get in the game, invest, work hard and innovate. The result would be an explosion in economic growth, such that reduced taxes on the well-to-do means everyone is better off - the right-wing version of something-for-nothing public policy. Those present at the creation, like Reagan's first budget director, David Stockman, more or less admitted this was a scam from day one.

Through many fits and starts, and the inconvenient intrusions of political reality, supply side economics has, more or less, become a consensus view today among Republicans. And its partially obscured underbelly, laid out in detail by former Reagan treasury official Bruce Bartlett, was that reducing taxes on the wealthy would have a salutary goal - if one that shouldn't be uttered too loudly in public -- to starve the beast. Cut taxes on the rich, and there won't be enough revenue to fund social programs for regular folks. As Stockman pointed out in 1981, there was a politically palatable way to say this -- to insist that deficits would be stealing from our children. But Stockman made clear this was poppycock.

No one has gone as far Paul Ryan to write that dystopian vision into an actual budget blueprint. In this sense, perhaps, his critics have been unfair. It took tremendous "brass," as President Clinton would say, to actually spell out, even with all the obfuscations he could marshal, what government looks like when you slash taxes on the rich, including eliminating taxes on investment, while taking a torch to vital social programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food assistance for the needy and so on, in order to (partially) pay for those tax cuts.

Mitt Romney, of course, embraced the Ryan road map a few short months ago, before he was required by the dictates of the general election to tack one boat-length back toward the center from the utter insanity of the GOP primary season, and rhetorically qualify some of the worst excesses of Ryanism. But the Ryan plan remains the moral core of the GOP and is the reductio ad absurdum of three decades of fantasist thinking on the right about who is deserving and who isn't. In Ryan world, the deserving and undeserving are spelled out with comic book clarity by Ayn Rand, in particular, her two most famous characters -- Howard Roark and John Galt. Only a tiny elite of super-genius job creators deserve our respect and adulation (and all the concomitant rewards that ought to flow therefrom). Everyone else -- well, just be thankful for the table scraps (or that "prime movers," a la Roark, don't blow up their beautiful creations because society hasn't pay sufficient fealty to their greatness).

The challenge for Ryan and the GOP is how to sell a vision that is simply not shared by most Americans. Facing this dilemma, they are compelled to engage in a series of furious denials, feints, obfuscations and, of course, outright lies, about their plans and those of their opponents. That they, including Ryan, have gotten away with such resolute dishonesty for so long is partly due to one of the great media failings of the modern era, right up there with the WMD hoax, but longer-running and without the desultory confessions of various public editors once the hoax was definitively exposed. But perhaps, brick by brick, the extraordinary edifice of deceit constructed lo these many years is crumbling. And perhaps, unwittingly, Paul Ryan will turn out to have been a useful agent in its dismantling.

Whereas Reagan occasionally acknowledged things like the perverseness of a bus driver paying more in taxes than a millionaire, or when he compromised and agreed to raise revenues -- Paul Ryan never yields about anything of consequence. He just lies. He poses as a deficit hawk despite a voting record that makes a mockery out of that appellation. He rails at others for killing budget deals that they actually tried to salvage over his opposition. He has repeatedly refused even to acknowledge that his massive tax-cutting plans will result in any loss of revenue for the government, notably by submitting a fraudulent partial budget for scoring by the CBO (to hide the loss of government revenue that would result from his plan), and, most recently, by repeatedly changing the subject during an interview with Chris Wallace, before throwing up his hands and saying he doesn't have time to explain the math.

It turns out that Ryan doesn't do well when, as Chait says, he gets "questions about public policy that are different than those that his own press staff would have written." His numbers don't work. At all. And when you peel back the outer layer of failed and grossly incompetent policy wonk, nothing remains but an ugly social vision that, honestly stated, would be a dead-in-the-water political loser. Ryan's worldview is so toxic that focus groups earlier this year were incredulous that anyone could believe such things. Ryan seems to have believed that he could transpose Rand's benighted worldview directly onto American public policy. That he got as far as he did -- and still has the Republican Party fully on board -- is terrifying in itself. And that he was being feted, just a few short weeks ago, as the likely harbinger of a more 'serious' campaign debate when first introduced to the GOP ticket, is a dismaying sign of how far the scam has succeeded and how pathetically inept and co-opted our mainstream media tend to be. But as depressing as Paul Ryan's rise is, there are signs that he might be unable to complete the con. Basic math, it turns out, still matters, at least a little bit. Previously credulous news organizations are asking some hard questions (or, at least, any questions at all). Ryan has stumbled under the pressure, reduced to playing a four corners offense, even when he has the home court advantage, as on FOX news.

I am well aware that other ill winds are blowing out there. The seemingly unkillable zombie of Simpson-Bowles hovers over this election and its likely aftermath -- perhaps gathering for the so-called deficit-hawks' long-awaited attack on the linchpin of retirement security for middle class America, Social Security. As Krugman has argued, if Americans vote down Romney/Ryan, they will not have done so in order to endorse a less brazen but still pernicious effort to further weaken the social safety net. They will have done so because despite the hardships of the past four years and the President's mixed record in dealing with it, they've rejected the obvious malevolence of Ryanism and affirmed their belief in preserving the social safety net.

It does appear that the Ryan worldview is foundering, but not on the shoals of flawed arithmetic. It's sinking under the weight of its own fundamental dishonesty and moral depravity. Its goal is not deficit-reduction, limited government, prudent social policy or the creation of broad-based opportunity. Its goal is ensure that government intensifies its efforts to serve the interests of the deserving rich, even as it weakens government's capacity to help anyone else. I know it's probably asking too much, but here's hoping that, in five weeks, Ryan will have to blow it up and start over.