Your Regular Reminder that New York Times Staff Editorials Are Awful

by Patrick Brennan

Paul Krugman points to his own newspaper’s staff editorial today as evidence that Paul Ryan’s budget is receiving “a lot of well-deserved flak.” So what are the AA batteries on Sixth Avenue spitting out today?

There are some minor odd issues, like the claim that there would be one private plan under Ryan’s Medicare proposals, but two of the objections they lodge demonstrate that there’s no one in the apparently massive editorial-writing operation who’s familiar with budget debates.

The first one:

He would repeal the health law and has no particular concern about the 13 million people who would no longer be covered under the law’s Medicaid expansion. In fact, he would turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grants, knowing full well that that would permit Republican states to trim benefits to the bone.

Liberals take issue with block grants for a number of reasons, including the one listed here, but there’s actually a much better argument against Ryan’s Medicaid proposal that doesn’t hinge on assuming Republican governors, a number of whom are currently expanding Medicaid, would eagerly cut the program dramatically. Ryan’s plan wouldn’t “permit” Republican states to trim benefits, it might well force them to. Ryan’s budget cuts Medicaid spending relative to the baseline much more rapidly than block-granting can be expected to produce savings, so access or benefits would have to be cut — in Democratic states, too, except for the ones wealthy enough to pick up the slack to rescue the program. This shouldn’t be that hard to explain and this is literally what it says in the think-tank blog post to which the Times links. Instead, they made a dubious shot at greedy Republican governors.

Then there’s some conjecture about Ryan’s having a reverse Robin Hood tax proposal even though Ryan doesn’t have a tax proposal in the budget. According to the Times, this would blow open the deficit, which Ryan only gets away with because:

He assumes that all his plans for cuts will magically drive growth and tax revenues to unimaginable levels, producing a $5 billion surplus. It doesn’t matter how many times this has been discredited; Republicans believe it as an article of faith, and their 2015 budget is a more faith-based blueprint than any that have gone before.

Unimaginable levels of growth? Ryan’s budget assumes the size of the U.S. economy will be $27.15 trillion in 2024. President Obama’s budget assumes it will be . . . $26.66 trillion. The gap between the president’s reality-based community and Republicans’ unimaginable faith-based one is . . . less than 2 percent. 

But okay, a smart reader might point out, such a small difference can matter, right? True. But the issue to which the Times is pointing, Ryan’s counting on a bit of economic growth in return for keeping the federal debt in check, hardly is what helps the plan stick together. Here, under “Macroeconomic Fiscal Impact,” is the effect that lower debt a decade from now has on the federal deficit, as a percentage of GDP:

Well, okay, you say, it doesn’t look very big, but it’s still an article of Republican fantasy, right? Except the numbers came from that veritable warlocks’ den known as the Congressional Budget Office, which calculated that the “fiscal dividend” from having a smaller federal debt would produce the relatively minor economic boost Ryan’s budget counts (and doesn’t count on, again, to be sustainable, though it wouldn’t balance in ten years without it).

If the Times doesn’t think the dividend will appear as the CBO projects, that’s fine — plenty of economists probably agree. But to pretend it’s some kind of fiscal fantasy in which only Republicans believe indicates that their editorial writers are just totally divorced from the actual debate. As the Medicaid point demonstrates, there are plenty of good arguments against the Ryan budget — the Times is just too busy reassuring its readers that Republicans are heartless and delusional to make them. In other words, they’re actually asking their readers, in an editorial headlined “Mr. Ryan’s Faith-Based Budget,” to take their arguments . . . on faith.