Plenty of folks have already dissected Paul Ryan's response to last night's State of The Union Address. And it's long been clear that Ryan's proposals for reducing the deficit are a joke. Not only do they fail to reduce the deficit in the long run, but they perversely increase the tax burden on 90% of Americans, while directing more tax reductions to the already super-wealthy. It's a wonder that much of the media still treats Paul Ryan seriously on policy matters, given the transparently dishonest nature of his proposals. But that doesn't mean that Ryan is ineffective in achieving his real goals. Quite the contrary. We know from his own voting record (he voted for both of Bush's major tax cuts, a primary cause of America's deficits) that he doesn't actually care about deficits. But Ryan likely has three main objectives in mind when he warns America, as he did last night, about a day of reckoning concering the national debt and his public pronouncements should be evaluated in the light of those objectives, not his stated (and obviously insincere) desire to reduce deficits.
The first objective is to shill for the one set of true interests that the GOP represents -- the super-wealthy. For thirty years, we've witnessed a staggering concentration of wealth from among the very top earners. This dynamic is spelled out in compelling detail in Jacob Hacker's and Paul Pierson's recent book, Winner Take All Politics and David Cay Johnston has been doing heavy journalistic lifting on wealth transfer for many years. To take one example, between 1979 and 2005, the top one hundredth of one percent of earners in the United States made an average after-tax income of four million dollars a year in 1979. In 2005, they made an average of twenty-four million dollars a year (the dollar amounts are all in 2007 terms to adjust for inflation). Hacker and Pierson demonstrate that politics, not larger "objective" economic forces, are primarily responsible for the truly mind-boggling transfer of wealth toward the top that America has witnessed over the past generation (and yes, the average American has suffered direct losses in their own wealth as a consequence of the concentration of wealth at the top). And while the Democrats have been a feeble force in stemming that tide, it's been the heart of the GOP agenda for thirty years to push for "trickle-up" economics. Ryan is only the latest faithful servant on behalf of the super-rich in that regard and while his plans do nothing to tackle America's deficits, they certainly facilitate the further shift of wealth toward the very top.
Ryan's second likely objective is to dog-whistle to the GOP's authoritarian/tea party base. As I have written before, in current political parlance deficits are best understood as code for tribal fears. Ryan doesn't have to say this, or even imply it. The successful demonization of government by the Reagan-era GOP as the entity that unjustly shifts wealth from hard-working "real" Americans to undeserving losers who don't look like "us," allows people like Ryan to talk in wonkish terms while signaling clearly to the party's ethnocentric and resentment-filled base what is at stake in opposing further government spending to help those in need. Ryan can even come across as a decent, serious, fair-minded guy, unless one asks why a presumably intelligent man would push proposals that, on their face, transparently fail to achieve that which they were putatively designed to accomplish.
Shilling for the GOP's real interests and dog-whistling to its authoritarian base are relatively easy to do. The third objective is a little more complicated. As Marc Hetherington has shown, when Americans trust government, they tend to be more supportive of re-distributive policies to help the less fortunate and, in the process, to support Democrats. When Americans don't trust government, they oppose such policies and oppose Democrats. Generally speaking, the GOP has every incentive to do everything in its power to undermine the effectiveness of government and public policy. With a Democrat occupying the White House, the GOP's incentive to obstruct a recovery is especially clear.
Ryan's third objective, given these realities, is likely to do his best to sow confusion among independents who are not disposed to loathe government under all circumstances, but are strongly inclined to want to rein it in when the believe it is operating ineffectively. Refusing to provide aid to states in dire fiscal need, cutting off unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, obstructing stimulus or watering it down with less effective tax cuts and otherwise hamstringing government effectiveness all serve to dampen efforts to promote recovery and all serve the GOP's clear political interests. And among the political benefits of thwarting recovery is that, with big-sounding dollar amounts being borrowed by the government, the simple math from the perspective of many independents is that the Democrats are spending a lot of money and accomplishing very little in the process. For Ryan and his ilk, lying about the sources of our economic difficulties, proposing bogus plans to address them and bashing liberals for profligate and ineffectual spending all are efforts to sow mistrust of government, to undermine its effectiveness and to reap the benefits of the dynamic that Hetherington has identified -- the less well government does, the more voters mistrust it, the more they oppose further government efforts to help the less well off, and the more likely they are to vote Republican (at least, until Republicans actually seize power and fail miserably at actually governing as happened during the Bush years).
Taking Ryan at face value when it comes to deficits is fruitless. Instead, Democrats need to confront directly and expose repeatedly the GOP's real objectives -- to make life as bad as possible for ordinary Americans so that they will become convinced that the "anti-government" party is the answer to their problems. Ryan isn't offering serious, substantive ideas for confronting America's economic challenges because he has no interest in doing so. He needs to be called on that fact.
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