A New Kind of Robber Barron in Washington

Rahm Emmanuel once famously said that he would never let a good crisis go to waste. Only in an emergency can the American people be convinced to allow some kind of drastic change; otherwise, the majority prefers change to plod along at a more manageable pace. So, how does a politician convince his constituents that their unemployment problem is less important than the debt problem? He manufactures a crisis, or blows a temporary problem out of proportion. That’s what Republican governors are doing across the country as they force workers to abandon half a century of labor protections. That’s also what Paul Ryan, the new and eager chairman of the House Budget Committee, is doing right now with his morally repugnant long-term plan to allegedly solve our looming debt crisis.

As I wrote in my last column, we do not have a debt crisis. We do have a massive budget deficit and our debt has skyrocketed, but the slow recovery from the recession should take precedence. A strong and growing economy will get us out of that mess far more quickly than the kinds of massive cuts that Ryan and other extremists salivate over on their way to work every morning.

Even if you accept that we need to act quickly to reduce long-term government spending, one look at Ryan’s plan reveals that it will address no such issue. By turning Medicaid into a series of block grants, by completely dismantling Medicare so that seniors have to buy far more expensive private insurance, by gutting the Pell grants that help poor students afford a first-class education, by cutting back on the food stamps used by an ever-growing segment of the population and through a draconian series of other cuts, he would indeed cut $5.8 trillion in long-term spending.

In Ryan’s eyes, the money from those cuts can have only one destination: the wealthy. His plan would use the vast majority of the $5.8 trillion that he allegedly intended to subtract from the debt and instead use it to fund the GOP’s out-of-control fetish for tax cuts. These tax cuts would make the Bush tax cuts look tiny in comparison. The top income tax rate — once 91 percent under our secretly Socialist President Eisenhower — will fall from 35 to 25 percent. Corporations will receive greater tax cuts. The total amount of Ryan’s savings that will go to tax cuts is $5 trillion, meaning that a proposal that’s pitched as solving our deficit could actually only diminish long-term deficits by $800 billion at the cost of restructuring the American economy in one of the worst possible ways.

There’s ample reason to doubt even this figure. It turns out that to reach these savings, government discretionary spending must magically shrink from 12 percent to 3.5 percent of GDP after all of the other cuts. Ryan does not say how this will be achieved, but significant decreases in defense spending are of course not part of the proposal. Even more bizarrely, he also relies on a projected unemployment rate in 2021 of less than three percent. As the rate is currently hovering under nine percent, this would require a literally unprecedented boom in the American economy. Although his proposal is short on details, I can only imagine he reaches this number either by assuming that the people who can no longer afford health care will simply die off or he plans to toss the unemployed into prison.

That such a proposal would make its way into the highest levels of the American government is a sad testament to the success of the far right. Soon, thinking Republicans like Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins will have vanished from the ranks of the GOP. The party of Michele Bachmann, John Boehner and Paul Ryan would dismiss Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and even Reagan as “liberal.”

It is uniquely depressing, disgusting and shameful that men like Paul Ryan can look at this country and decide that, in a time when the wealthiest one percent of Americans receive nearly a quarter of the nation’s income, the rich are not rich enough and the poor are too well off. I can only hope that the next election cycle will sweep this new generation of political robber barons from power.