Paul Ryan, Ross Douthat, And The Dream Of An Egalitarian GOP

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JONATHAN CHAIT APRIL 11, 2011

Paul Ryan, Ross Douthat, And The Dream Of An Egalitarian GOP

I have a Newsweek column on the philosophical underpinnings of Paul Ryan's "Road to Prosperity." Basically, Ryan is an Ayn Rand nut who thinks the Obama administration's agenda is an eerie reprise of "Atlas Shrugged" and is precipitating a total collapse, and he proposes to address that by slashing tax burdens on the rich and benefits for the poor and sick. Obviously, this is not the interpretation of Paul Ryan that's being conveyed in most of the mainstream media, but I do think it's the one that best fits the available facts.

I notice that Ross Douthat today expresses some frustration with the Ryan plan while pining for a more egalitarian GOP:

As Republicans refine their proposals, though, they need to focus more on economic mobility than the Ryan budget does. Public policy is going to be made from inside a fiscal straitjacket for the foreseeable future. But within that straitjacket, Washington can favor policies that enhance working-class opportunity, while ruthlessly paring back those that subsidize the affluent. The goal shouldn’t just be small government, but what the economist Edward Glaeser calls “small-government egalitarianism.”

There are elements of this vision woven into the Ryan budget — cuts to farm subsidies, means-testing for Medicare, and promises to go after tax expenditures that primarily benefit the rich. But at least in its initial draft, too much of the budget’s austerity is borne by downscale Americans.

The Ryan proposal would repeal the Obama health care plan without replacing it, throwing the uninsured back into a broken insurance marketplace. It would trim Medicaid more enthusiastically than corporate welfare. And its central economic premise — that lowering marginal tax rates guarantees widely shared prosperity — was tested and found wanting during the Bush era.

A budget more completely informed by small-government egalitarianism might try to make the recent payroll tax cut permanent, rather than just cutting income tax rates. It might attack handouts for oil and natural gas companies as well as those for alternative energy, and slash agricultural subsidies more dramatically than the Ryan budget does. While thinning out the maze of tax deductions, it might expand the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit, both of which make it easier to earn a decent living and form a stable family. While trying to repeal Barack Obama’s health care plan, it would insist on replacing it with the kind of universal tax credit that Ryan himself has previously championed.

I like Douthat a lot. He's smart, interesting, well-informed and an excellent writer. But he insists on inhabiting a world in which the Republican Party bears little relation to its actual incarnation. From the time of Gingrich to the present day, the Republican Party has been single-mindedly pursuing an agenda that advances the interests of the rich. I'm not saying that's the sole conscious goal of every member of the conservative coalition, but I am saying that this is the end result. And for quite a while Douthat has been naively expressing his hope that the party can move in a different direction without showing any grasp of the unlikelihood of this happening any time soon.

We've debated before about Ryan and his devotion to Rand, which Douthat has minimized as Ryan having "said kind words about Rand." That was after Ryan had appeared at a conference devoted to Rand and described her as the single thinker who motivated (and continues to motivate) his behavior as a public official, but before Chris Beam reported that Ryan requires his staff to read Rand. If this was just some kind of Ryan office book club -- maybe next month Ryan will have his staff pouring over "Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants" -- I apologize. But I suspect that once again, Douthat has invested time in hoping a Republican official will craft an egalitarian agenda when in fact that official is deeply committed to anti-egalitarianism.

Douthat's ideal is very pleasant. I would very much like it to come true. But it's sort of like supporting la Cosa Nostra because you like the concept of a group dedicated to helping down-on-their-luck Italian-Americans. You can find bits and pieces of this behavior here and there, but it's fundamentally not what la Cosa Nostra does. And yet here we have Douthat once again reviewing the Gambino family's fiscal year 2012 business plan and hoping that maybe they can tone down the racketeering and the extortion and perhaps concentrate more on helping poor Italian widows pay their rent.

Look, Ryan's plan goes after programs for the poor with a laser-focus. It eliminates health insurance for 30 million people without even waving at an alternate solution. Yes, it offsets its large rate reductions for the rich by closing unspecified deductions, but at this point, the conservatives who want to believe Ryan plans to go after benefits for the rich instead of, oh, the EITC are flying in the face of the man's entire career and philosophy. I think it's a good and vital thing that people within the conservative coalition are pushing for more egalitarian policies. But the competing demands of supporting egalitarianism and still maintaining a non-hostile stance toward actually-existing Republican policies makes the task of describing reality accurately very difficult.

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posted in: jonathan chait, washington, newsweek, the ryan, atlas shrugged, edward glaeser, paul ryan, ross douthat, medicare, republican party, washington

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