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If cuts such as these are not possible, it would be better to give up any pretense that we will ever restore the barest semblance of sanity to the federal budget and get on with fiddling as Rome burns. If we're going to continue hosting a party whose bill is unpayable, we might as well enjoy ourselves.
Which brings us to the major flaw in Ryan's budget: He doesn't rest his reform of entitlements on a fundamental understanding that not everyone should be receiving govenment money. Even as he pushes to reform Medicare, for instance, he emphasizes continuing its universality for retirees. The two of us believe it is society's responsiblity to care for the neediest and poorest among us. But it's not society's responsiblity to take care of middle-class and wealthy individuals who have the means of doing so for themselves (as David Stockman told one of us recently, all government benefits should be means-tested). By failing to make this distinction, Ryan sets his plan up for political failure. When his plan was scored by the Congressional Budget Office, the CBO noted that under his reforms most Medicare beneficiaries would have to pay more for their health care costs. That's not only mathematically correct, it's morally correct. There is simply no reason that relatively well-off seniors shouldn't pay their own way. That would allow the government to take better care of those actually in need while reducing overall tax burdens on the economy. Similarly, while we think Ryan is absolutely correct about block-granting Medicaid, at least that program is specifically geared toward helping the poor. The same cannot be said about Social Security and Medicare, which suggests reforming those programs should be the highest priority when it comes to entitlements.
Budget discussions are always built around a tedious discussion of what is politically feasible, politics supposedly being the art of the possible and all that. Rand Paul's five-year plan, goes this line of thinking, is as unattainable as any Soviet five-year plan because it's simply too radical, too lapidary. A 10-year plan like our "19 Percent Solution" is similarly a dream because...well, because it would actually require making minor trims over time and across all areas of spending. Defenders of the status quo will always recoil from change, even when that change simply returns us to a recent state of affairs. In this light, it's not surprising that Ryan's plan has gotten a high-five from some liberals, such as Slate's Jacob Weisberg, who calls it, "brave, radical, and smart."
But as long as we're talking about the art of the possible, it's worth asking: Who would have ever thought that we'd be spending 25 percent of GDP, a figure last seen during World War II? Who would ever have thought that deficits and debt as a share of the economy would be hearkening back to days when we were locked in a twilight struggle against the Nazis and their fascist and imperialist allies? At least at the end of World War II, there was a widespread expecations that spending would be reduced. As we look to the next decade and beyond, all signs are that government spending will explode higher. The real fantasy at work in contemporary America doesn't revolve around attempts to cut spending.
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And yet Obama's completely unserious plan - offered up by a transformational change-agent who somehow couldn't even pass a budget last year despite belonging to the party that controlled both houses of Congress - is deemed worthy of serious discussion. And Rep. Paul Ryan's more-thoughtful plan to increasing total spending by 30 percent over the next decade is both lauded for "grasp[ing] reality with both hands" and accused of "dismantling...key parts of government."
As we said at the outset, there's no question that Ryan's plan is far preferable to Obama's. And there's no question that Ryan's plan can and must be the starting point of a discussion about how to get serious about reforming the way the government spends money. But in an America where taxpayers and politicians have been reluctant to fully grok that "We Are Out of Money" at every level of government, Ryan's spending plan should at best represent the ceiling of what is considered worthy of discussion.
If, as is much more likely, it ends up being the floor from which budget negotiations spiral upwards, then our future just got a whole lot shorter.
Contributing Editor Veronique de Rugy is an economist at The Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author with Matt Welch of The Declaration of Independents: How libertarian politics can fix what's wrong with America, which will be published in June.