April 30, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
The front page of today’s New York Times features a biographical sketch of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the Chairman of the House budget committee and perhaps the most influential Republican in the country. The article, by Jonathan Weisman, paints a positive picture of Ryan, emphasizing his athleticism and personal likeability as much as his one-man control over Republican fiscal policy. Indeed, the only negative comment about Ryan in the piece is framed in the context of Ryan’s good nature:
‘I’m stunned by how oblivious he is to the pain his policies would cause people,’ said David R. Obey, a Democrat from Wisconsin who jousted often with his downstate colleague before retiring from the House at the end of 2010. ‘What amazes me is that someone that nice personally has such a cold, almost academic view of what the impact of his policies would be on people.’
Even this “balance” Weisman tosses into his portrait of Ryan adds nothing; Weisman effectively shoots down Obey’s credibility by identifying him – accurately – as a vigorous political opponent. In fact, to counter the views of that grumpy old geezer Obey, Weisman lets Ryan emphasize how bipartisan he actually is: “Mr. Ryan pointed to his work with Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, and Alice M. Rivlin, a Clinton administration economist, on a Medicare overhaul….” And how principled: “… but on the broader question of whether spending cuts need to be twinned with tax increases, he does not give an inch.”
Weisman does describe Ryan’s latest budget (which Republicans in the House passed in March) as vague:
So far, he has offered major parts of his budget only in broad brush strokes, without specifying all the spending cuts he would make or which popular tax breaks he would eliminate. He has proposed collapsing today’s six personal income tax rates into two, 10 percent and 25 percent, and lowering the corporate rate to 25 percent from 35 percent, all while maintaining the same flow of revenue by closing loopholes.
And Weisman notes that Ryan’s vision for health care would not “provide coverage to nearly as many people” as does the current Affordable Care Act, which Ryan “strongly favors” repealing. But the article covers a lot of Ryan catching catfish with his bare hands, bow-hunting and leading morning workouts for “an adoring cast of young, conservative members of Congress.” Weisman writes of some of the hardships Ryan experienced growing up and how these difficulties gave him gravitas at a young age. If Weisman’s fluff piece was everything you ever knew about Paul Ryan, you would really love Paul Ryan.
But suppose, instead of relying on a political rival to “provide context” in writing about Ryan’s parsimony, Weisman had related what Catholic bishops, lay leaders and Jesuits thought of Ryan’s budgetary policies. For instance,
Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.
– Letter to Ryan from a group of Jesuits & Georgetown University faculty
A just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.
– Letter to Ryan from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
And suppose, somewhere in his report, Weisman had at least hinted at some of the specific impacts of Ryan’s budgets – the same elements that his Catholic critics decried. As the authors of an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put it,
The new  Ryan budget is a remarkable document – one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature. In essence, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse – on steroids. It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent history….
Specifically, the Ryan budget would impose extraordinary cuts in programs that serve as a lifeline for our nation’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, and over time would cause tens of millions of Americans to lose their health insurance or become underinsured. It would also impose severe cuts in non-defense discretionary programs – much deeper than the across-the-board cuts (‘sequestration’) that are scheduled to take place starting in January – thereby putting core government functions at still greater risk. Indeed, a new Congressional Budget Office analysis that Chairman Ryan himself requested shows that, after several decades, the Ryan budget would shrink the federal government so dramatically that most of what it does outside of Social Security, health care, and defense would essentially disappear.
Why doesn’t Weisman expose the draconian nature of Ryan’s budget? The answer that comes to mind is that in our culture one cannot write a glowing report about a “reverse Robin Hood.”
Weisman notes that Ryan painted his budget in “broad brush strokes,” but writes that Ryan’s intent is to “maintain the same flow of revenue.” Later Weisman quotes Ryan as saying, “What I hope happens is we go to the country with a positive agenda to show how we will prevent a debt crisis, how we will get this economy growing again.” Suppose, instead of reporting these two goals of Ryan’s in different parts of his story, Weisman had pointed out that even Ryan’s goal of maintaining “the same flow of revenue” is inconsistent with his vow to “prevent a debt crisis.” That is, if you’re only going to maintain the same revenue flow, you cannot cut into the deficit or lower the federal debt. The Tax Policy Center “projected the tax cuts in Ryan’s budget would add $4.6 trillion to the federal deficit over the next decade, even after extending the 2001/2003 tax cuts, which would add another $5.4 trillion to the deficit.” Ryan’s budget would not “prevent a debt crisis”; it would add to the crisis. Chad Stone of U.S. News notes that even Ryan’s stated budgetary goal would not reduce the deficit:
The Ryan budget aspires to cut the budget deficit (as a share of the economy) from 8.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product, known as GDP, last year to 1.2 percent in 2022. That’s the same 2022 deficit that the Congressional Budget Office estimates we would reach anyway if we made no significant legislative changes affecting the budget for the next 10 years.
Why doesn’t Weisman even notice the inconsistencies in his own story about Ryan’s budgetary goals? Evidently one cannot write a positive story about a budget guru who can’t add and subtract.
Late last week, Ryan made the news when he told the National Review, “I reject [Ayn Rand's] philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don’t give me Ayn Rand.” Weisman mentions in the body of his story that as a teenager, Ryan read Ayn Rand novels…. At the end of his article, Weisman writes,
Mr. Ryan likes to dispel two ‘urban legends’ around him. First, he said, he is not a disciple of Rand, the strident libertarian. Second, he never drove the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. In a 2009 Facebook video, Mr. Ryan said the ‘kind of thinking’ in the Rand epics ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was ‘sorely needed right now.’ As for the Wienermobile, one summer as he was pressing Oscar Mayer Lunchables and turkey bacon on meat buyers in rural Minnesota, two ‘very nice young ladies’ who were driving the hotdog-shaped vehicle did let him ‘take it for a spin,’ he confessed.
But suppose Weisman had reported that Ryan remained such a big fan of Rand’s that in 2003 he told an interviewer that he gave copies of Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents (because nothing says Christmas like a book by an atheist). Suppose Weisman had reported that in the 2009 Facebook videos Ryan had held up Rand’s “philosophy” as providing the moral basis for good governance. In one video he said:
I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build the moral case for capitalism. And that morality of capitalism is under assault. And we are going to replace it with a crony capitalism, collectivist, government-run system which is creeping its way into government. And so if Ayn Rand were here today, I think she would do a great job in showing us just how wrong what government is doing is. Not the quantitative analysis, not the numbers, but the morality of what is wrong with what government is doing today.
By minimizing Ryan’s “intellectual” debt to Rand and by equating it with the silly Wienermobile story, Weisman plays right into Ryan’s revised narrative. A biographical rewrite is bad enough when a politician does it; it is a crime against journalism when a reporter does it.
Ryan is a practicing Roman Catholic who claims “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the [Catholic] social doctrine as best I can make of it.” I doubt he holds atheistic views.
But so what? It isn’t Rand’s views on religion that guide him; it is her views on the relationship between government and capitalism and between government and individuals. Rand’s so-called philosophy of objectivism posited that the only moral social system is one of laissez faire capitalism and that each individual’s “primary moral obligation is to achieve his own well-being – it is for his life and his self-interest that an individual ought to adhere to a moral code.” She rejected altrusim as an ethical doctrine. It is these values – or lack thereof – that we find reflected in Paul Ryan’s budgets and legislative proposals. When you understand where Ryan “is coming from,” you understand why Ryan can so readily reject government’s roles as business regulator and as a provider of essential services.
Ryan budgets are Ayn Rand budgets. Ryan bills are Ayn Rand bills. Weisman writes,
‘Paul Ryan effectively captured the Republican presidential candidates,’ Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the House Republican leadership, said admiringly…. Grover Norquist, the Republican strategist who heads Americans for Tax Reform, said in an interview that he did not expect Mr. Romney to lead as president. He just wants him to sign the bills that put Mr. Ryan’s vision into practice.
That is, Romney laws would be Ayn Rand laws. To pretend that a whole political party’s reliance on Rand’s radical views is no more consequential than Oscar Meyer bologna is unconscionable.
As luck would have it, there is an excellent piece on Paul Ryan that was published today. It is not in the New York Times. It is in today’s New York magazine (the same publication that hired Frank Rich away from the Times): Jonathan Chait writes on Ryan, his economic philosophy (and where he got it), his methodology, and his hold on the Republican party. Chait also takes note of the way reporters have fawned over Ryan as “the courageous, reasonable, modest neighborhood accountant.” He describes Ryan as “the only politician revered as much by the mainstream media as by the tea party.” That, alas, is where we find the New York Times today – right in there with the Tea Party, gushing over Paul Ryan.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com