Paul Ryan, a professional policy wonk from Wisconsin, sees trouble ahead if the country stays on its present course. The cost of entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security is racing ahead, at the same time that the federal government is ladling out dollars to fight the recession and collecting less in tax revenue because of the recession. Meanwhile, he argues, we are contending with chronically high unemployment, insurmountable debt payments and a crushing tax burden that could kill U.S. competitiveness. Maybe, just maybe, those entitlements have to be redesigned. He’s not quite saying, “Stop Social Security!,” but he is getting dangerously close to the thought.
Who is this guy? It would be no surprise if he turned out to be a wealthy financier who had taken up budget policy as a retirement hobby (like Peter G. Peterson) or a professional forecaster whose views on consumer spending are bearish (like Gary Shilling). The surprise is that Ryan is an elected official. He’s running for election to a seventh term in Congress, representing a district with a razor-thin Republican edge south of Milwaukee.
Mess with Social Security? Are voters ready for this? Maybe they are. Those trillion-dollar deficits can’t go on much longer.
“We have to give the country a very clear choice,” Ryan, 40, says as he’s campaigning in his home state on a mid-August afternoon. “Do you want the American idea, which is an opportunity society with a sturdy safety net, or do you want to have the cradle-to-grave, Western European-style social welfare state?”
Ryan’s choice is clear, and it’s not something many Americans of either party will easily swallow. His “Roadmap for America’s Future,” both a policy paper and a proposed bill, calls for reducing the federal deficit and debt in decades to come by partly privatizing and trimming Social Security and Medicare, freezing most government programs and instituting a simplified, optional two-tier tax system that would cut taxes for the rich.
Skeptics say his roadmap will run the country into a ditch. They say that, despite eviscerating Medicare, the plan won’t control spiraling health care costs. They say that it won’t cut the deficit drastically and could raise taxes on some people.
Yet Americans will need to take some version of this medicine, and Ryan has, as some detractors concede, at least started the conversation. President Obama called the roadmap (97 pages in the short version) “a serious proposal.” Ryan is seen as the GOP’s answer to its reputation as the “party of no” and as such has embarrassed Democrats for their lack of a comparable deficit-cutting plan. This backbencher from Janesville (pop. 63,000) and Ayn Rand admirer could be the future economic idea man for the Republican Party.