The chair of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, has performed a great service to the nation in putting forth a budget for 2012 that is also a comprehensive plan for reducing the federal budget deficit over time. No other politician has been bold enough to make concrete proposals for cutting back Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security for fear of committing political suicide by angering voters. These popular entitlements already consume a large chunk of the federal budget and will devour even more if left unchecked. The Republican from Wisconsin has been widely praised for actually producing a plan, even though no one agrees with every one of its provisions. Best of all, Ryan’s proposals have stimulated debate on both sides of the aisle and are beginning to elicit alternative solutions to the budget deficit crisis.
Nevertheless, an examination of the assumptions underlying the plan and a comparison of Ryan’s projections with those of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office regarding the fiscal effect of its provisions in the coming decades show that Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” is more a political document than a realistic budget. Ryan doesn’t explain, for example, why he assumes that federal revenue will return to the historical average of 19 percent of Gross Domestic Product, considering that his plan provides for no revenue enhancements but rather for reductions. It eliminates or slashes financing for programs favored by Democrats while indulging Republicans by retaining the Bush tax cuts and further reducing taxes for the wealthy and corporations.
The level of employment is key in any discussion of deficits. If today, 64 percent of Americans age 16 or older were employed—instead of the approximately 56 percent that are currently working—it has been conjectured that we would have no budget deficit. Employed people pay taxes and don’t need federal aid in the form of unemployment insurance, food stamps and Medicaid. Raising the level of employment increases revenue and cuts expenses. Ryan’s budget blueprint includes no provisions for job creation, yet assumes that unemployment will nosedive immediately under the plan, reaching three percent by 2021, a low we haven’t seen since the 1950s. If we are to grapple successfully with the federal deficit, we must deal with three crises facing us that demand immediate attention. The most pressing is the economic one, which has led to widespread and chronic unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression, exacerbated by the housing crash. It will take more spending, not cutting, in the short term to create jobs.
We also have a demographic crisis, because the proportion of retirees in the population is growing. As Baby Boomers retire, they (or in some cases, we) are reducing the number of workers who pay into Social Security and Medicare. At the same time, they are increasing the number of people who draw benefits from these programs. Compounding the fiscal problem and implicitly posing a philosophical one, seniors not only have the highest medical costs, but also live longer than previous generations. The nation will have to cut the Gordian knot of determining how large a share of national resources to apportion to its oldest citizens and how much to allocate to its youngest. (In 2004, the federal government spent more than seven times as much on seniors as on children, though total public spending was closer to 2.5 times as much.) There is a solution that we as a nation are willfully blind to: by restricting immigration, we are depriving ourselves of the younger workers we so desperately need.
The third crisis is the ballooning cost of health care delivery. There is no point in eviscerating Medicare and Medicaid without reforming the entire health care industry. Why should seniors pay much more for less care while the insurance and pharmaceutical industries benefit from sky-high profits? The Affordable Care Act of 2010 does bring down some of the costs, though not so much as it could if both political parties weren’t beholden to health care industry behemoths. The CBO has estimated that repealing Obama’s health care would put us $230 billion further into the hole over the next 10 years, but Ryan proposes to do just that for a savings of $1.4 trillion. Clearly, the two figures proceed from very different assumptions.
Strangely, Ryan’s plan doesn’t deliver a viable solution to the deficit-reduction problem. Since the tax cuts would be effective immediately but the cuts in health-care spending would phase in slowly, Ryan’s plan would actually increase the deficit over the short term, even more than President Obama’s plan would.
Almost half the Ryan plan’s spending cuts would pay for tax cuts rather than reduce the deficit. Pay for tax cuts for the wealthy by gutting Medicare and Medicaid? Two-thirds of the plan’s proposed cuts are taken from programs that benefit people of low income. Is that what we as a nation want? Is that moral?
There has to be a better way. The pain must be spread around. Everyone will have to give up something. Taxes will have to rise and spending will have to be reduced. Now that there is a comprehensive plan on the table, our lawmakers must finally set aside their pouting and posturing and come to terms with the problems that are threatening to overwhelm us. The President and Democratic legislators must come forth with viable counterproposals. The American public deserves nothing less.