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Ron Radosh

Ryan’s Hope and Change

April 12th, 2011 - 5:59 pm

Except that most self-proclaimed liberals don’t get it, with the exception of Jacob Weisberg, whose article I cited in an earlier blog post, and Zakaria. Zakaria even faults Ryan for not going far enough, for refusing to touch Social Security reform, and for not specifying what actual programs he would cut. He argues that the Ryan play as he sees it is “actually quite weak at outlining reductions in government spending.”

Zakaria, of course, is no Tea Party conservative. He argues that CBO estimates show that the Ryan plan would not actually lower health care prices for the poor or elderly, and he thinks that the Ryan voucher plan would not work. But Zakaria, unlike the liberal establishment, is not a reactionary. He goes on to write that “[i]n health care, a huge part of the expense relates to a small percentage of sick patients and to the last year of life (and those two categories overlap). Eighty-five percent of Medicare costs are generated by just 25% of patients. Even in the most conservative health care plan, the health savings account, people buy catastrophic insurance. Well, that sick 25% of the patient population would have catastrophic insurance, which would still explode the Medicare budget.”

Zakaria fully understands that people have to take Ryan and his proposals seriously, because, as he writes, “The Government Accountability Office concludes that America faces a “‘fiscal gap’ of $99.4 trillion over the next 75 years, which would mean we would have to increase taxes by 50% or reduce spending by 35% simply to stop accumulating more debt. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will together make up 50% of the federal budget by 2021.” In anyone’s eyes, these shocking figures reveal a very serious looming fiscal crisis.

Zakaria does not understand why “liberals” don’t get this. He argues that they should understand that if nothing is done, there will not be any funds whatsoever left for the kind of government programs they love — those for developing infrastructure and doing something about economic inequality, poverty, education and the like. He argues: “Liberals fear an attack on the welfare state, so they have become unthinking defenders of every aspect of that state. Consider Social Security. The left doesn’t seem to understand that it has won the war. Conservatives long tried to turn Social Security into a set of individual retirement accounts. That failed, and now they propose means testing and other changes that are highly progressive. This is a deal worth making.”

Possibly. The only problem is that the reactionaries — those Zakaria still calls liberals — cannot accept any such deal, because they have one simple solution they scream over and over: “Tax the rich,” take their money and redistribute it to the poor, and so forth. Of course, their concept of rich includes many hard working middle-class Americans, and they do not seem to realize that even if they did tax the highest end rich to the maximum amount possible, it would hardly make a dent in the kind of looming fiscal crisis facing us down the pike.

The reactionaries are those who, and here I use Zakaria’s own words, seek “to turn every item in Ryan’s plan into an attack ad, scare the elderly and ride to victory in 2012,” thereby pushing off entitlement reform to the far future, when it will be far too late.

Writing in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, my favorite commentator on social policy issues, Yuval Levin, calls Ryan’s plan “radical gradualism.” Levin writes: “[Ryan’s plan is] a choice between a vision and a nonvision. Opposed to the House Republicans’ agenda is not a different set of solutions to our deepening fiscal problems proposed by the left, or even a defense of our existing welfare state. What the Democrats offer instead is complaisance that amounts to a knowing acquiescence in a preventable disaster. The Democratic party now has no discernible policy agenda whatsoever. It offers only a reflexive defense of an indefensible status quo.”

Levin is exactly right — which is why we must continually point out that when these Democrats and radicals make their arguments, they are looking back to failed proposals from the New Deal era, and arguing against any changes that will address today’s problems. Hence, again, they are classic reactionaries.

Ryan does not want to abolish the welfare state in a radical direction, but reform it and save social programs that provide a necessary safety net for those who need it. As Levin points out, it is meant to balance the budget slowly, in over two decades! This is Burkean reform at its best; not radical change. The transformation of Medicare that Ryan proposes is to begin in ten years — hardly tomorrow.

I have written this before President Obama speaks tomorrow. The president has this one chance to break from the back of his “liberal” colleagues and his leftist base, and seek to meet Ryan’s proposals in a serious fashion. Will he do this, or will he too prove that he is just another one of the reactionary pack of average Democrats? We will soon find out. Will he, like old TR, decide to be the kind of progressive who really cares about the future, and seeks to meet serious conservatives more than half way?

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