Conservatives are very excited about Paul Ryan and his budget roadmap. Liberals are also excited, for very different reasons, about Ryan and his roadmap. This tells you that the roadmap is a highly clarifying document.
Ryan and his conservative allies believe that the roadmap clarifies the fact that they have laid out a plan to put the United States on sound fiscal footing, and the Democrats have not. I find this claim highly unconvincing, as does the well-respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has a report showing that Ryan's plan would dramatically increase the budget deficit. Ryan disputes the some of the claims in the report. CBPP stands by its report and plans to issue a response to Ryan's response tomorrow.
I'm going to return to the question of whether Ryan's plan increases or decreases the deficit in some future postings. It's an interesting question, but I don't think it's the most interesting thing about Ryan's plan. What I want to focus on is the ideological character of his plan.
The roadmap clarifies the essence of the Republican Party's approach to domestic policy issues. The essence is opposition to the downward redistribution of income. The principle first emerged under Ronald Reagan, but only in fits and starts--Republican presidents agreed to a tax reform in 1986 and a deficit reduction in 1990 that did redistribute income from rich to poor. Over the last twenty years, though, opposition to downward redistribution has hardened into the sacred tenet of Republican policymaking. Ryan's plan both codifies this principle and shows just how far the party is willing to go in its service.
Every major element of Ryan's plan reflects this commitment. Begin with his proposed tax changes. Ryan would not only retain the Bush tax cuts for the highest earners, he would further lower the top tax rate to 25%. On top of that, he would repeal all taxes on corporate income, inherited estates, capital gains, and dividends. In other words, he would completely eliminate the most progressive elements of the tax code, and slash the next most progressive element. In their place he would impose a value-added tax, which would not bring in nearly enough revenue to replace the revenue lost from his tax cuts, but would fall much more heavily on the poor and middle class.
It's worth keeping in mind that the current tax system in this country is only very slightly progressive. State and local taxes are regressive, federal taxes are somewhat progressive, and the net effect redistributes income, very slightly, from the rich to the not-rich:
Ryan's plan would make the federal tax code regressive, especially at the top, on top of an already-regressive state and local tax base. According to the Tax Policy Center, the richest 1% of all taxpayers, who earn more than 21% of the national income and currently pay about 25% of federal taxes, would pay 13% of federal taxes under Ryan's plan. (Ryan's response argues that the corporate income tax he'd eliminate is already born by consumers anyway, a contention most economists including the CBO reject, and even if true would only chip away slightly at the overall critique of his plan's regressive nature.) Ryan's tax plan alone would amount to the greatest shift of resources from the non-rich to the rich in the history of the United States, by far.
And that is just the beginning. Ryan would impose a series of dramatic social policy changes that would all push in the same direction. He would blow up the employer-based health care system, pushing workers into an under-regulated individual market. Instead of sharing medical risk with their fellow employees, they'd bear it entirely by themselves, which would be good for the healthy but bad for the sick. He would convert Social Security into primarily a network of individual investment accounts--meaning that some workers would do well and others poorly. And he would convert Medicare into a voucher system, capping the value of each voucher at well below the rate of medical inflation, which would make the elderly bear a far greater share of medical risk.
All these changes push in the same direction. The basic thrust of liberal public policy over the last century is to keep in places the market system but use government to slightly mitigate against risk--the risk of getting sick, the risk of outliving your savings, the risk that you just won't make much money in the first place. The downside of these policies is that, in order to mitigate the downside risk, you also have to mitigate the upside benefit. If you're unusually rich, you have to pay a somewhat higher tax rate than most people. If you're unusually healthy, you have to subsidize medical care for people who aren't. If you were able to invest well enough to cover your entire retirement, some of your good fortune will be siphoned off to those who weren't. The rewards for getting rich, or merely being born rich, will remain enormous, just slightly less so than in a completely free market.
Republicans want to eliminate these mitigations of risk. Ryan would retain some bare-bones subsidies for the poorest, but the overwhelming thrust in every way is to liberate the lucky and successful to enjoy their good fortune without burdening them with any responsibility for the welfare of their fellow citizens. This is the core of Ryan's moral philosophy:
"The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand," Ryan said at a D.C. gathering four years ago honoring the author of "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead." ...
At the Rand celebration he spoke at in 2005, Ryan invoked the central theme of Rand's writings when he told his audience that, "Almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill ... is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict--individualism versus collectivism."
The core of the Randian worldview, as absorbed by the modern GOP, is a belief that the natural market distribution of income is inherently moral, and the central struggle of politics is to free the successful from having the fruits of their superiority redistributed by looters and moochers. What's telling about Ryan's program is not so much that a hard-core ideologue like him would advocate it. It's that virtually the whole of the conservative movement has embraced him. (Even someone like Ross Douthat, one of the very few conservatives not implacably hostile to redistribution, has mostly praise for Ryan's plan.)
The rise of Ryan is a sign that the possibilities for bipartisan cooperation on domestic issues are, at the moment, essentially nil. This point is obscured by the figure of Ryan, a cheerful and courteous man who gives every sense of wanting to deal in good faith. But his goals, which are now fully the goals of the conservative movement and the Republican Party, are diametrically opposed to the liberal vision of capitalism shorn of its cruelest edges. His basic moral premises are foreign, even abhorrent, to liberals. He seems like a person you'd like to negotiate with, but there's nothing to negotiate over. Ryan is waging a zero sum fight over resources on behalf of the most fortunate members of society and against everybody else.