The Ryan Game

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) Announces the GOP Budget Plan

This week, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) published a budget proposal called “The GOP Path to Prosperity.” As I mentioned on Monday in “Shutdown Showdown,” the proposal neither addresses the issues in the 2011 or 2012 budgets, nor makes realistic assumptions about the expected economic impacts of the proposed changes.

But that was a really hand-wavy, dismissive aside to the now-almost-certain shutdown. Today, I’d like to elaborate further on Ryan’s proposal.

First, he proposes dramatic cuts to social services. With Medicaid, the cuts are both overt and covert. The cuts are overt, in that the outlay would be reduced to 2008 levels, even though far more people are in the program now than were in 2008 because of the high unemployment caused by the recession. They’re covert, in that it shifts the money to block grants. By doing this, the federal government washes its hands of any responsibility over matching the expenditure to the needs of the citizens. That is, if the needs rise, the money available remains unchanged, and thus more people are sharing the same sized pie. Absent some other source of funding, or an external force to change the rate of increase of the per-capita cost of health care, I fail to see a means by which this program would be able to remain solvent.

With Medicare, the cuts are similarly overt and covert. Here, the overt cut is a form of means-testing, where the federal subsidy drops as the covered person’s income rises. The covert cut here maintains solvency, unlike the Medicaid cut, but it does so only by forcing the covered person to pay an ever-increasing portion of the costs. In other words, over time, Medicare would be covering smaller and smaller portions of seniors’ care, effectively causing the program to wither away. And any savings that can be achieved in the meantime phase in gradually, since people who are already qualified for Medicare would remain in the current program.

Ryan also proposes changes to the income tax, reducing the upper two brackets to 25%, and making the immediate result revenue-neutral by eliminating nearly all deductions. While I agree that many of the deductions are market-distorting, taxation itself is inherently market distorting. As I’ve noted a few times before, the goal is a “fair” application of government rules…but “fair” depends on perspective. Deductions are one means by which the inherent market distortions of taxation are adjusted in the interest of fairness. That’s not to say that all such rules are fairly applied; many are forms of quid pro quo for campaign donations. But it would be better to apply a razor to fix those, rather than a chainsaw.

An example of the Laffer Curve

Finally, Ryan claims that the top marginal rate reduction would lead to a reduction in unemployment, which would result in a net increase in tax revenues (shades of Laffer), which would ultimately pay off the national debt. But as I demonstrated in “Take 2: Could Employing Tax Cuts Tax Employment?,” at the top income brackets for rates below 50%, there is a positive relationship between the tax rate and the employment rate. That is, for the upper quintile of earners, employment rises when the marginal tax rate rises, and falls when the marginal tax rate falls.

Yet the entire foundation of future government solvency is dependent upon a negative relationship between the tax rate and the employment irate. In fact, it depends upon a strongly negative relationship.

Ultimately, there is little reason to view this proposal any differently from its cousins over the past three decades. It’s a plan to undo government safety net programs, decrease taxes for the wealthy, and claim that this combination will make government more solvent. Over the past three decades, this combination was applied repeatedly, and our government has consistently become less solvent with each new application. It’s time for us to stop playing this game.

About Michael Weiss

Michael is now located at, along with Monotreme, filistro, and dcpetterson. Please make note of the new location.
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9 Responses to The Ryan Game

  1. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    @ Michael,

    Distilled, are you saying that the Ryan Plan is just a “smoke and mirrors” rehash of the GOP past?

  2. Max, that might be a slight oversimplification, but that’s the gist.

  3. rgbact says:

    Hmmm, that wasn’t that blistering. Like I said, the Ryan plan is fairly lame.

    1) Medicaid–the only decent part of the plan. Not exactly heroic though.
    2) Medicare- pretty sure this doesn’t even take effect for 10 years, which you omitted. Yipee, we’re getting serious in 10 years! As for the cuts, they’re basically the same as what the Dems did on PPACA–cap Medicare trend rates. I would’ve been happy if Ryan just kept the PPACA Medicare cuts. Wouldn’t have to wait 10 years.
    3) I notice Soc Sec is not in your list. Thats becuase its presumbly untouched. Not even an increased retirement age, which even lib friends of mine think makes sense.
    4) The tax cuts are neutral. Basically just broaden the base and stop using the tax code for defacto spending.
    5) Proj. 2012 deficit comes in at $1.0T vs Obama’s $1.1T. So with a nice 50/50 split, we’ll be sitting at a miserly $1.05T deficit or about 33% of revenue
    6) No defense cuts

    The crux of the plan is repealing PPACA, not much more. So it appears we can look forward to $1T deficts for many years to come. The horror!

  4. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    Ya know, when most people find themselves in a financial squeeze they certainly do look for places to trim spending. But since, they also NEED a house, utilities, groceries, usually a car, clothes, shoes etc. They may well find that JUST cutting won’t fix the problem.

    Many families actually FIND AN ADDITIONAL SOURCE OF REVENUE!

    And they damned sure DO NOT CUT the revenue they DO HAVE! Since, no one, not even Laffer himself, can say where the US is on Laffer’s Curve(ball), the whole meme of continuously “cut taxes”, is not only foolish, but shortsighted and ADDS TO THE PROBLEM, just as it would for that family.

    Closing tax loopholes and adding a “millionaire’s” tax of a higher top marginal rate, would, in fact be the equivalent of adding the second job, or the spouse getting a job.

    But Ryan and his foolish brethren, in spite of the 1000 per cent plus increase in the national Debt since that plan began under Reagan, keep up the same drumbeat.

    Some people are incapable of learning from the facts staring them in the face and will only continue to play ideological games.

  5. rgbact,
    1) I don’t understand how converting Medicaid into an unfunded mandate is a net positive. Could you explain?
    2) I did note that the Medicare changes phase in gradually, though you’re correct that I wasn’t explicit about that phase-in not starting for a decade.
    3) Social Security wasn’t in the plan, and yes it needs some significant changes. A combination of increases in contributions (via raising or eliminating the contribution cap), and increases in the retirement age, can address that. Since neither is popular with most of the country, I’m not surprised that it was left out.
    4) The tax cuts are neutral in only an extremely broad sense, and they are far more likely over time to become net negative.
    5) Not really…this proposal is a non-starter. It’s a marketing tool, for framing discussion, not a serious budget.
    6) Nope. No defense cuts. Armchair Warlord would like that, but he’s perhaps the only regular commenter on this site who would, from what I can tell.

  6. Max aka Birdpilot says:


    Add me in there with AW. I hold for a 20% reduction in 2010 DoD spending, in constant dollars, in four 5% increments commencing with the next fiscal year.

  7. filistro says:

    This seems appropriate for this thread:

    “Mark your calendars for a celebration of capitalism.”

    Good grief.

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