The Corner

Ezra Klein: Man of Perfect Reason, and Other Peculiar Paul Ryan Reactions

In his peculiar reaction to Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, peppily titled “Social engineering with a side of deficit reduction,” Ezra Klein writes:

It is Ryan’s unusual ideology, and not the specific state of our finances, that justifies this budget. Ryan’s view is that the federal government is strangling our community,

People of Ezra Klein’s bent have an unfortunate habit of behaving as if the current state of affairs — however new or transient — represents the inviolable tradition of the country, and that the actual traditions of the country constitute a radical plot to overthrow the establishment. For all of American history there was no Obamacare, and it hasn’t even kicked in yet; now, to get rid of it is “social engineering.” The HHS mandate is less than a year old; to oppose it is to wish to drag women back to the Dark Ages. Strong communities and limited government is the American way; but Paul Ryan’s defense of this makes him a radical. It’s preposterous, and it brings to mind that hackneyed but true observation that to control the past is to control the future. Progressives have learned the hard way that if they want Americans to buy what they are selling, they have to make it seem as if their plans are consistent with America’s ideal. And so the new becomes the old, and the old becomes the new. Move Tocqueville to the fiction section, Ezra.

Tellingly, Klein refers to “Ryan’s unusual ideology.” Unusual? Does Klein mean to suggest that not spending trillions that we don’t have is “unusual”? Does he mean that how America has worked for most of its history — and pretty well, thank you — is “unusual” now that it’s 2013? That notions of community doing things that government should not are “unusual”? I wonder. And what should we make of that “ideology” word? This dismissal is particularly telling, not because Ryan isn’t ideological — he is — but because so is Ezra Klein. So is everyone. Anyone who privileges one value over another (liberty over security, or growth over redistribution, for example) is an ideologue. Anybody who believes in any individual right whatsoever is an ideologue. Anyone who believes in any form of equality is an ideologue. Klein’s reaction betrays an arrogant, rotten worldview — widely shared among his ilk. Are we really expected to buy that doing the opposite of Ryan’s plan isn’t “ideological”? That there’s no ideology behind the status quo? That there’s nothing but reason behind what Klein and his acolytes wish would happen? That Klein’s desired path for America is based on pure analysis?

If so, well, gosh I just wish that I were a scientific non-ideologue with all the answers and perfectly good intentions. But I suppose I’m stuck among all those rubes who make value judgements, emphasize some things over others, and have an ethical framework to refer to when I’m determining what I think is the best political course. If I could get away with hiding behind a dispassionate empiricism while advocating strongly for a crushingly boring orthodox progressivism, then I’d probably do it. But that’s not an option for me, because I’m for new and radical ideas such as living within your means, not bankrupting future generations, and keeping government within the bounds set by the law. One day, maybe those notions will gain some currency, but for now I suppose we’ll just have to stick with Obamacare, crushing deficits, and terrifying unfunded liabilities — just as we had for the two centuries before this one before Jacobins like Paul Ryan came along.


Klein goes on:

Ryan’s budget is, at its core, a set of very distinct, very ideological, and, over the course of Ryan’s career, very consistent ideas about how to reform the relationship between the federal government and its citizens.

Again: Whereas Obama is motivated by . . . what? Progressives are doing what, exactly? Throwing mud at the wall?

It could be worse. Of Ryan, Klein could have said what Alan Grayson did. Grayson, who appears to be masquerading as Charles P. Pierce, averred:

In one case after another, you look at his principles, you look at his vision, and they’re a nightmare for America,” he said. “He wants Americans to work until they die, he wants poor people who get sick not be able to see a doctor, not to get the care they need, not to get better, he wants them to die, and he wants an America that consists of nothing but cheap labor for his corporate patrons.

We’ve heard this before, of course. Slate’s Matt Yglesias observes that Paul committed a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy by claiming that “after the welfare reforms of 1996, child poverty fell by double digits.” Yglesias’s is not an unreasonable charge; it’s certainly hard to establish causation. But do you know two other things between which it’s also difficult to establish causation? How about the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and pretty much everything its critics said? Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the fiercest among them, described it as “the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction.” He claimed that “those involved will take this disgrace to their graves.” What would this disgrace look like, as painted by the foremost congressional expert on welfare? Its supporters were “literally arranging flowers on the coffin of the provision for children in the Social Security Act,” he wrote. Pushing forward “will produce a surge in the number of homeless children such that the current problem of ‘the homeless’ will seem inconsequential.”

None of that happened. Not even close. Nonetheless, so many of the same people are just sure that balancing the budget would ruin everyone’s lives — and to suggest otherwise is to be dismissed either as the product of “ideology” or as a total bastard. This time, they might say, it really won’t work. The sequester, George Will brilliantly observed, has forced the Left to “clarify their conviction that whatever the government’s size is at any moment, it is the bare minimum necessary to forestall intolerable suffering.” This is a conceit from which there is no escape: When the government is flush with cash and the economy is booming, we need to spend because we have the money. When the government is deep in debt and the economy is in recession, we need to spend because otherwise everybody will die. Any change away from how things are right now is too risky — unless it’s spending more money, of course.

The idea that Ryan’s ideas are in some way illegitimate runs deeper than his policies. Earlier this week, Ryan was asked by a reporter why he even bothered to come up with a budget given that he “lost.” One might ask: Lost what exactly? It is true that President Obama won a second term to head up the executive branch. It is also true that Obama is the president of the United States. The Republicans, meanwhile, won a majority in the House. A quick reminder: Congress is in charge of budgetary matters, and, of the two chambers, the House is prime in this area. Paul Ryan is the chairman of the House Budget Committee. To ask the chair of the House Budget Committee why he is coming up with a budget is absurd at best and embarrassingly ignorant at worst.

The only thing that might make such a question close to reasonable would be a belief in the nonsense that, in the House, the Republicans “lost the popular vote.” But there is no such thing as the “popular vote.” A party’s candidates could win 100 percent of the vote in 217 constituencies and the opposition party’s candidates could each win whatever percentage of the vote was necessary for them to beat their competitors in the other 218. Despite this, the latter party would have a majority. Would that be fair? Yes, of course. That’s how local representation works. The makeup of the House of Representatives is an aggregation of local elections — not an atomized reflection of a national majority. Complaining about “popular votes” isn’t just useless, it’s cretinous. It would be a ridiculous question even if Ryan were in the minority party. Where did we get this idea that the winner takes all in America? That America is a parliament? It’s not. Anyone has a right to introduce a budget. Congress is a separate branch. That the president is sometimes of the same party as the congressional majorities isn’t relevant.

On it will go, until the Empirical Class of the Fabian Society has convinced itself utterly that Paul Ryan is not only trying to overturn the established constitutional order but that he’s doing so illegitimately. Then we’ll find out what science dictates should happen instead. And all the while, the debt clock will keep ticking up and the magical results that are just around that corner will remain elusive. As they always are.


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