Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The WSJ and NYT Editorial Pages on Paul Ryan

The Wall Street Journal's lead editorial today is titled "The Obama Speech Downgrade" (subscription required). The editorial argues that President Obama is responsible for S&P putting a "negative" outlook on U.S. government long-term debt because of what he said at George Washington University last week. The WSJ editors viewed that speech as campaign rhetoric which made clear that the President would never accept the Ryan plan. Therefore, it's all Obama's fault.

Well, like a lot of WSJ editorials, this one serves to make those who already are inclined to agree to feel good about their opinions; it is clearly not meant to convince anyone. One can easily turn the argument around and say it's all Ryan's fault, since he proposed something he knew the President could never accept rather than engaging in meaningful discussion aimed at finding common ground on deficit reduction.

Most of the contributors and columnists to the WSJ editorial page are on the right. (I don't say "conservative," because often I think that is not what they are.) However, an occasional contributor who is not on the right, Alan Blinder, the former vice chairman of the Fed, has an article today opposite the editorial entitled "Paul Ryan's Reverse Robin Hood Budget." He concludes by saying: "No, the House Republican plan is not the only game in town. It's only the worst." He mentions other ideas, such as the Bowles-Simpson and Domenici-Rivlin proposals, as well as Obama's ideas and the upcoming proposals of the Senate Gang of Six.

Meanwhile, over at The New York Times, Paul Krugman and David Brooks have been having a feud where they restrain themselves from naming each other. Paul Krugman, a prolific blogger, has been using his blog and his column to attack the Ryan plan mercilessly. David Brooks has characterized the Ryan plan a serious proposal to deal with our serious problems, even if the Ryan plan needs to be modified at some point. When Krugman sarcastically mentions "very serious people" impressed with the Ryan plan and commentators who have "swooned" about it, he clearly has Mr. Brooks in mind.

This is all somewhat amusing, but the stakes are serious. Ryan and company are trying to set up a process that will slowly dismantle one of the achievements of President Johnson's Great Society of the 1960s -- Medicare. They also have their sights on Social Security, but they have decided to deal with that at some later date. In order to accomplish major changes to social policy, they are using the current budget deficit, largely caused by the Bush tax cuts, the wars the U.S. is waging, and the economic slowdown, along with the current economic unease, to make their case. I doubt it will work, because I believe that the political tide will turn against many of these ideas as it becomes more generally understood what they are. I also don't think the effort to lull those over 55 into apathy since the proposals will not affect them will work. Seniors are the one group besides specialists who know how Medicare works. I doubt that the majority of seniors will be in favor of a much less generous system for those younger than them.

It is a serious debate, because it goes to the heart of our philosophy of what we expect government to do to care for people. On the one hand, we have those who deride the "nanny" state; people must take responsibility for themselves and the government should not provide "safety nets" that are too wide that they encourage people to be irresponsible. On the other side, there are those who believe that government has a responsibility to help those who are down on their luck or are old.

It should be possible to come up with sensible compromises between these two extremes. In the current poisoned political environment, though, that will be very difficult. Those who successfully portray themselves as reasonable centrists will probably be rewarded politically, but that is difficult to do in this environment.

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