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The Muddy Middle

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I was struck by the juxtaposition of this unfortunate analysis of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget by New York Times columnist James Stewart and Paul Krugman's op-ed today.

The Stewart column begins by assuming that since both the president and the most strident right wingers are going after the Ryan budget, it must be carving out the reasonable center. Paul points out that a) this betrays a lack of understanding of what's in the budget, and b) it's precisely the way the center drifts to the right.

Essentially, the president carves out the center-left; Rep. Ryan, Romney, and the Republicans carve out the far right, and the middle becomes the slightly-not-so-far right.

Just look at Stewart's summary of the Ryan budget:

The plan stands on two pillars: tax reform and reducing the long-term deficit by reining in entitlement spending.

Are you kidding? Those are some awfully shaky pillars. Without the assumed loophole closers that Ryan asserts but does not name, this plan adds almost $10 trillion to the deficit (that combines the Bush tax cuts that he makes permanent and his $4.6 trillion of new cuts on top of that). Since when did "assume loophole closures" become tax reform?

It gets worse. Stewart argues that:

Mr. Ryan's tax plan...could actually raise taxes on the ultrarich, since on average they, like the wealthy presidential candidate Mitt Romney, pay substantially less than an effective tax rate of 25 percent, and nowhere near the current tax code's top marginal rate of 35 percent. The question is what would happen to the big break that the wealthy now get -- the lower rate on capital gains.

That's not a question at all. The Republicans, including Ryan, have consistently insisted that capital gains and other asset income get preferential treatment in the tax code. That's off the table from the start, which is another good reason not to take this "tax reform" seriously.

And reining in entitlement spending? The Ryan plan doesn't touch Social Security, its Medicare "reform" just shifts costs onto seniors (and shifting isn't saving), and as Krugman emphasizes, it cuts at least 14 million people off of Medicaid. If you're willing to shift costs onto the elderly -- and remember, the median income of Medicare-recipient households is $25,000 -- and cut health care for the poor, then I guess you could say you're reining in costs, but shouldn't the article explain what this means on the ground? And how it squares with trillions in tax cuts favoring the wealthy?

The only way that kind of upward redistribution could become the "middle-way" is if the middle had been captured and redefined by the far right. Dragging it back to the true center must be the work of the rest of us and that work becomes a lot harder when highly placed articles fail to recognize what's really going on here.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.