In principle, the country faces a choice this fall between a moderate conservative, President Obama, and Governor Romney, an extreme conservative who wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare and eliminate most of the services that the public expects from the federal government. The reason why this choice only exists in principle is that the media have worked hard to conceal Rep. Paul Ryan's extreme positions from the public. Now that Governor Romney has implicitly embraced these positions by selecting Representative Ryan as his vice presidential nominee, it remains to be seen whether the media will do it job.
First, in spite of all the name calling about President Obama being a Kenyan socialist, he has pushed an agenda that most Republicans would have been comfortable with twenty years ago. His health care plan was put forward by the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1992, before Governor Romney put it in place in Massachusetts. His Wall Street reform leaves the too-big-to-fail banks bigger than ever, even after they helped to inflate a housing bubble, the collapse of which brought the economy to its knees.
And, running large deficits in a downturn was a practice that Obama could tie to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and both Bushes. It would be difficult to find a policy pushed by our Kenyan socialist president that would make a Nixon Republican unhappy.
By contrast, Representative Ryan has an extreme right-wing agenda that predates both Great Society and the New Deal. He has put forward plans that would cut and privatize both Social Security and Medicare. He has also called for essentially zeroing out most categories of federal spending.
While Ryan supports current levels of military spending, the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) analysis of his budget shows that there will be essentially nothing left for anything else by 2040. The CBO analysis of the Ryan budget (prepared under his direction) shows that spending on all items other than health care and Social Security would fall to 4.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2040 and to 3.75 percent of GDP by 2050.
The military budget currently is more than 4.0 percent of GDP. In the post-World War II era, it has never been less than 3.0 percent. This means that Ryan's budget would leave nothing for running the State Department, the Park Service, the Food and Drug Administration, the Justice Department, the National Institutes of Health and the other areas that comprise the federal government as it now exists.
However, to imply that Ryan is some sort of stringent free-market fundamentalist would be far too generous. Representative Ryan has never expressed any discomfort with the numerous forms of government intervention that redistribute income upward to those at the very top.
For example, Representative Ryan has never spoken up against the implicit insurance that the government provides to too-big-to-fail banks, a subsidy which has been estimated to exceed $60 billion a year. Representative Ryan has also never spoken up against government provided patent monopolies for prescription drugs. Patent monopolies raise the price of drugs by close to $270 billion a year above the free-market price. While there are more efficient mechanisms for financing drug research, Representative Ryan is apparently not bothered by a government-created monopoly that results in a massive upward redistribution of income.
He has also never spoken up against the professional and licensing restrictions that protect doctors in the United States from international competition. As a result of these protectionist barriers, we pay our doctors more than twice as much as what doctors earn in Western Europe. If free trade lowered doctors' pay to Western European levels, it would be equivalent to a tax cut of $1,200 a year for an average family of four.
It is possible to cite many other government interventions along similar lines that never seemed to bother Representative Ryan. In other words, Representative Ryan doesn't have any principled objections to government interferences in the market, even when this interference leads to enormous inefficiency, as is the case with too-big-to-fail banks or patent protection for prescription drugs.
Representative Ryan only seems to object to government programs and policies that benefit lower- and middle-income people. In this sense, he seems to have perfectly captured the philosophy of the modern Republican Party: "a dollar in the pocket of a middle-class person is a dollar that could belong to a rich person."
We will face quite a choice this November.