Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Ryan's Plan--Greedy Boy Grabs For It All

Greedy Boy Grabs For It All

When my eldest was a very little boy, he got a story every night before bedtime.  Sometimes we read a book together. More often it was a little bit of fluff I made up, usually mixing in real people, like his grandparents or great grandparents, places he knew, foods he liked, fictional characters, and children. 

One of his favorites was Greedy Boy.  Greedy Boy loved walnuts.  He loved everything about walnuts.  He liked stacking them and playing with them and rolling them on the floor.  He even liked cracking them and eating them.  He liked them so much he wanted all the walnuts for himself. 

Greedy Boy’s mother was on to him.  She kept all her walnuts in an old cut glass jar with a narrow neck and a cork stopper.  You could barely fit your hand in to get one.  And the jar was way too heavy for a small boy to take down from the countertop and shake out.

One day, Greedy Boy’s mom came home with a large bag of fresh walnuts.  One by one, she put them in the jar, while Greedy Boy watched. 

Suddenly, the doorbell rang, and Greedy Boy’s mom left the room.  He knew if he asked Mom he could have a few.  A few?  All those walnuts seemed to beg Greedy Boy “take me, take me.”

Greedy Boy pulled out the cork stopper, reached in, and grabbed for a handful of walnuts.  At that very moment he heard the door shut.  Mom was returning to the kitchen. Frantically, Greedy Boy tried to pull out his hand, and the walnuts, but his loaded fist was too big.  He got stuck, just when Mom walked in the door.

When Paul Ryan, with that young-seminarian demeanor, announced his budget plans. I somehow found myself thinking of Greedy Boy and all those walnuts. Ryan’s plan is a spectacular land grab of conservative fantasy.  It purports to cut spending by $5 trillion in the next decade, while increasing the Defense budget by nearly $500 Million.  Top targets include the repeal of Obamacare (which he says will save $2 Trillion) slashing spending on education, on food stamps, and on a variety of domestic programs, including George Bush’s Medicare Part D.  There would be cuts to the Federal workforce, reductions in benefits, and increased premiums that would result in a significant decrease in after-tax pay.  Medicaid would be replaced by block grants to states (where, presumably, like-minded Governors would find other uses for the money.) Medicare, the primary health plan for seniors, would be partially privatized for those currently under 55.  Social Security “would be discussed at a later date.”

Of course, no bad deed ever has to go unrewarded, and someone has to get the walnuts here.  As you might have guessed, Ryan does see the objects of his bounty, and they will not come as much of a surprise. So Ryan also includes a “tax reform” concept that reduces the top tax rates and collapses all the rates into only two. Being the good and virtuous fiscal conservative he is, he needs to make it revenue neutral, meaning some will have to pay more for others to pay less.  But being a good and virtuous politician, he refuses to spell out what deductions he might cut so the public can figure out who might do all that paying.  In case you were curious about Dave Camp’s plan, which actually did (to the horror of some major campaign contributors) spell out some things, it’s been officially kicked to the curb.  Representative Camp is not running for reelection, and he will return to his home state of Michigan with empty pockets.

Will any of this come to pass?  Well, Ryan is in line to become the next chair of the Ways and Means Committee (replacing the now un-mourned Dave Camp) so we should expect the House (with perhaps more walnuts thrown in) to pass it.  The chances in the Senate are probably nil right now, but with the expected GOP takeover in 2015, it could make its way to Mr. Obama’s desk shortly as a “signature” piece of legislation after his State of the Union.

Politically?  Mr. Obama will veto it, but it will become a template for negotiation for yet another government shutdown and debt ceiling increase.  The issues won’t go away.  They will get teed up for the 2016 election, as they should, because they need to be resolved in the political arena.

Ryan has done us a favor, because the issues he raises demonstrate some fault lines in each Party’s supporters.  Republicans have, particularly in the Obama era, been dominating the senior vote.  Part of that is senior opposition to Obamacare, which they fear will cut into their benefits.  Part is social issues—seniors are simply more likely to align themselves with more conservative values, particularly on things like faith, reproductive issues, and gay rights.  Part is that many see themselves as self-reliant, and others as takers, regardless of the monthly checks they get.  Part is particular to rapidity of culture change and even Mr. Obama himself.  This does not mean that seniors are racists.  Rather, I would suggest, they may have a different frame of reference.  If you were born in 1940 you almost certainly grew up in segregation, hard or soft.  Your ideas about the proper role of minorities in this country are likely to be very different than someone in her twenties.

Will seniors stick with the GOP in the long term? Gays will be with us always, but Obama will not.  How about those pocketbook issues?  If Ryan’s cuts in some or all senior walnuts come to pass, will they still be willing to back whomever comes out of the GOP primaries?

What about the young?  They are very much the reverse image of seniors; more socially tolerant, more accepting of Mr. Obama personally, somewhat more sympathetic and public spirited towards the needy.  Right now, they lean Democratic.  But they are also cynical about the possibilities of them ever getting Social Security.  Will they support higher taxes on them to support the entitlement spending they don’t expect to either need or get?

You could break down demographic after demographic, region-by-region, and you would find analogous questions.  Ultimately, most vote their self-interest.  If politics is like a marketplace, with all issues for sale, few want to pay more and get less. They, too, want all the walnuts they can get.  In an ideal world, Mom and Greedy Boy would discuss things and agree on the number of walnuts.  However, in the political area, where electeds are making a virtue of their inflexibility, we may have to be less optimistic.

That is a huge problem, because, as we have seen with Obamacare, when one side imposes their vision, the other may never accept it.  I believe the GOP would oppose Obama regardless, but ACA provides the rocket fuel.  So, take a hard look at Ryan’s budget, beyond the headlines and the packaging.  You might find things in there that you support.  Won’t you won’t see is any balance.  It is a radical re-working of government.  He really wants all the walnuts.

My son always loved the end of the Greedy Boy story.  Greedy Boy tugged and he tugged, but he couldn’t get his hand out without letting go of the walnuts.  And he couldn’t bear to give up his prize.

So, when Greedy Boy’s Mom turned the corner and saw him, hands behind his back, red faced, shielding the jar of walnuts, she asked, “Greedy Boy, what are you doing?”

Wise words from electorate.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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