It’s the budget proposal that has set the Washington, D.C. chattering class abuzz. President Obama has called it “an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country,” while all-but-inevitable Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is considering whether making its author his running mate would spell doom for his candidacy as Sarah Palin did for John McCain four years ago. The mood of the Beltway commentariat was captured best by columnist James B. Stewart in The New York Times: “[Since he faces criticism from both Democrats and Republicans,] I figure Paul D. Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who is head of the House Budget Committee, must be doing something right.”
Ryan’s new plan is best understood in two parts. The first is a detailed agenda to slash federal taxes to levels even lower than under the temporary-wait-just-kidding tax cuts of the Bush era, putting massive new debt on the federal credit card that would only be partially paid for by proposed cuts to entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. In the second part, Ryan promises to bring the bottom of his ledger into the black with a combination of domestic spending cuts and tax loophole closures, to be specified somehow… someday… somewhere… just not right now. Not only is this the opposite of a responsible plan to rein in the long-term federal debt, but it shouldn’t even count as one of those specific-numbers-filled documents that people on planet Earth like to call “budgets.”
Faced with such a non-budget, President Obama made the most basic of assumptions — applying the proposed cuts equally across domestic spending programs — and laid out some of the results in his remarks at an Associated Press luncheon last week. Massive financial aid cuts for nearly 10 million college students, 1,600 fewer medical research grants and 200,000 children denied pre-school education through Head Start, according to Obama, represent “just a partial sampling of the consequences of this budget.” The money quote came when he characterized Ryan’s agenda and the philosophy guiding it as “thinly veiled social Darwinism.”
Inevitably, such language ended up featured in cookie-cutter tirades from avowed centrists like New York Times columnist David Brooks, who in last week’s column “The Other Obama” accused the president of “tak[ing] the low road,” “resort[ing] to hoary, brain-dead clichés” and “wander[ing] so far from his true nature that he makes Mitt Romney look like Mr. Authenticity.” Brooks also fell hook, line and sinker for Ryan’s dessert-first-dinner-later budgeting ploy: “Where did Obama get these specifics [about spending cuts]?” Brooks asked. “He imagined them.” As if the point wasn’t that the one writing the budget should have done the imagining to begin with.
And on the larger issue, is it really hyperbole to describe Ryan’s ideology as “social Darwinism”? (Apologies, of course, to any biologists appalled at the misapplication of Charles Darwin’s scientific ideas as a political teleology.) Consider the tenets in question: Some people are fit to survive and thrive while others aren’t, but soft-hearted altruists have forced us to coddle the unfit with handouts and safety nets that artificially guarantee their survival, and only by removing these distortions and letting nature do its brutal work can we progress enough to claim our species’ rightful place in history.
Social Darwinism, right? It’s also a decent summary of Ryan’s favorite work of literature, required reading for every staffer in his Congressional office: the controversial 1,500-page novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. In Rand’s world, the “fit” consist largely of talented and wealthy businessmen, the Atlases on whose shoulders the weight of the world rests — the job creators, in modern wingnut parlance. Meanwhile, the “unfit” (a.k.a. poor) are branded with epithets like “moocher,” “looter” and “parasite,” and over the course of the novel their collectivist dependence on the rich is broken and they are forced to fend for themselves in a brave new world governed by naught but the magical free market. If there’s anything separating Rand’s and Ryan’s economic sink-or-swim outlook from the broader philosophy of social Darwinism, David Brooks should have to show us what it is. (The racist elements Brooks was careful to highlight, while shocking and despicable, are not necessarily universal to all social Darwinists.)
But there’s an obvious reason why pundits are less than willing to dive into the specifics of Ryan’s Randian ideology: It’s long! And boring! These sorts of reasons are also why Brooks declined to address President Obama’s preemptive response to his objection, the obvious but soundbite-unfriendly truth that even if Ryan doesn’t intend to make every individual cut Obama mentioned, restoring one area of spending would necessitate further cuts in another. Explaining details like that takes up valuable minutes on TV news or column inches in a newspaper, when it’s much easier to sell ads by tossing out conservative red meat or wanking uselessly about a pox on both parties’ houses. (To be fair, it’s not just conservatives and centrists who succumb to these pressures: Jon Stewart, for example, ridiculed Ron Paul after January’s Iowa caucuses for alluding in his post-caucus speech to the Austrian school of economics, as if political figures candidly displaying their intellectual roots was something to scorn, not celebrate.)
And in addition to challenging the obvious media biases toward soundbites and sensationalism, a rejection of canned talking points for rigorous analysis of the real world would be a death knell for the professional centrism of pundits like Brooks. After all, no one political party has a monopoly on truth, but even less likely than that would be a permanent distribution of truth between our two major parties in two precisely equal halves. Only by disregarding the twin manias of obsessive partisanship and obsessive nonpartisanship might we train ourselves to judge policy proposals first and foremost based on pure intellectual merit — and by that standard, Paul Ryan’s glorified stump speech of a budget isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.