Paul Ryan

The Most Interesting Man in Buzzfeed's Paul Ryan Profile Is Not Paul Ryan

Poverty and the right


Not Paul Ryan

McKay Coppins' new profile of Paul Ryan, which focuses on Ryan's recent attempts to explore the issues around poverty, has aggravated some Democrats by treating the congressman's interest in the topic as sincere. Republicans, meanwhile, might not care for ways the piece paints Ryan as uncomfortable, even clueless, as he tries to make sense of poor people's worlds.

Me, I think the most fascinating figure here isn't Ryan but Bob Woodson, the man who's been serving as Ryan's guide to the inner cities. Woodson is an old civil rights activist whose decentralist, neighborhood-based approach to public policy has allowed him to make connections on the right—he even had a post at the American Enterprise Institute for a little while in the late '70s and early '80s—but who doesn't fit the standard profile of a "black conservative." (Indeed, the one time I met him, it was at an event with a rather left-wing vibe.) He's an independent-minded man whose commitment to poor people's well-being is undeniable; he clearly sees this as a chance to get a high-profile Republican to adopt some of his issues, whether or not that politician is deeply commited to the cause.

But that adoption process can be tricky. A few months ago I blogged John McClaughry's comments contrasting the conventional GOP approach to poverty ("Republicans typically do not understand what life is like in a lower-income or minority community, and are uncomfortable with spontaneous grassroots efforts which seem to them to be potentially subversive of the existing order") with the view from the ground ("People at the grassroots, faced with collective problems, usually want the tools, resources and opportunities to solve their problem themselves," a perspective that frequently leads them to "view government and other institutions as part of the problem"). In Coppins' piece, Ryan comes across as a man who may be trying to break free of that old Republican frame of reference but has trouble getting his head around the grassroots point of view. One passage in particular embodies the dynamic:

Not Bob Woodson

"I plagiarize your sayings all the time," Ryan tells Woodson as we drive. "Like, we have a poverty management system for the benefit of the managers."

"It's provider-driven," Woodson says.

"Provider-driven," Ryan repeats. "Not outcome-based."

Woodson nods, and supplies an example. "There are issues that are very pedestrian but very important," he tells Ryan. "Like, helping people like this keep more of the money that they earn. For instance, my daughter lives in Costa Rica. It costs me practically nothing to call her. It costs me a dollar a minute to call to federal prison."

Woodson waits for a response, but none comes, so he reiterates the point. "These families pay a dollar a minute, Paul."

"Just to call into prison?"

"Yeah!" Woodson says. "I mean, there's a huge rip-off of people in prison, families of people in prison. I have to give my credit card to a company and they come and tell me, 'You have $100 on your account, you have talked for X number of minutes, this is what's left on your card.' And it's about a dollar a minute. I'm telling you, it's crazy!"

"Geez," Ryan mutters.

For a moment, it seems as though this will mark the end of the conversation, but Woodson keeps pressing. "So, that is something, Paul, that we really need to look into. It would reach thousands and thousands of families around this country."

As it turns out, the Federal Communications Commission last year actually banned price-gouging by private companies that provide telephone service for inmates, though prison reformers remain concerned that the same shady practices could be applied to email access and video chat services. But Ryan isn't aware of that now, and while he clearly wants to move on, Woodson seems intent on pushing him just a little bit harder, making him just a little bit more uncomfortable.

"I mean, this is the kind of issue that politicians just don't pay attention to," Woodson says.

"Or even know about," Ryan adds.

"But it would have a profound impact if you were to come out and get interested in advocating for fairness to these families to say they need to keep more of the money they earn."

"That's why we spend so much time on these marginal tax rate issues," Ryan offers, weakly.

Bonus link: An old Reason story about Woodson.

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  1. “Republicans typically do not understand what life is like in a lower-income or minority community, and are uncomfortable with spontaneous grassroots efforts which seem to them to be potentially subversive of the existing order”

    I assume we mean GOP politicians specifically.

    Because as I understand it, Republicans are all uncultured trailer park-dwelling rednecks.

    Suggesting there’s a lot of poverty in Republican ranks… if’n you didn’t get that.

    1. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that 95% of the people reading this article- especially Liberals- never knew about the rip offs for families calling their relatives in prison. Hell, I’ll bet the author didn’t even have a clue before taking up this story.

      And yet this will be evidence of how clueless Ryan is about “real problems”. And they will stroke their hipster beards, mutter their slogans about the rich GOP then go back to agitating for the Minimum Wage being raised.

  2. Anybody else noticing a possible resurgence of the posting squirrels?

    1. Yes they just ate one of mine in another thread and my first attempt to respond to you.

  3. I deny this article’s premise: There is nothing of interest or value on buzzfeed.

    1. Except for those surveys that tell you which character you are from a random 80’s sitcom based on entirely arbitrary selections of music, drink, and weather preference.

      Coincidentally, I am Mona from Who’s the Boss.

  4. Woodson seems intent on pushing him just a little bit harder, making him just a little bit more uncomfortable.

    While I don’t have a problem with anything Woodson says here, this seems like some editorializing (maybe). Why does the point have to be making Ryan “uncomfortable,” and not just in leading him down the thought pathway of “oh, right, a bunch of these people would be talking to prisoners on the phone.” This is probably legitimately important stuff to teach someone like Paul Ryan, but why are we making it sound like he’s “uncomfortable,” which at this point I just have to assume is some kind of codeword for racist.

    1. He probably was uncomfortable, but I question the reason. Maybe he is just concerned that anything he says on the issue will get picked up and twisted as his other comments were. It’s more prudent to let Woodson talk, and not to say anything that could be controversial from Ryan’s standpoint. Even if the GOP attempted to develop understanding or talk on these issues, they are going to receive backlash from the left in this country which has monopolized the discussion on race and raced base politics.

      1. I actually think the clue to what Ryan is thinking comes in the last quote from him. He brings up marginal tax rates.

        Ryan wants to say, “Look, that is rough and all, but I’m looking for big wins. I can spend all my term bringing up little shit like this, and getting slammed by District Attorneys and Prison Guard Unions for being soft on crime, but I would rather pick a larger hill to die on, you know?”

      2. Rand Paul’s mention of voter disenfranchisement from felony convictions (many non-violent drug war convictions) is I think among the most significant, if not the most significant civil rights issue of our time (not just because the population so affect skews black, but from basic and broader civil rights of all citizens).

        Plus, he seems genuinely interested in fixing that even while I think he realizes it may be a net negative electorally for him and his party.

  5. It’s funny that Democrats are outraged given that they haven’t really done a whole hell of a lot to ACTUALLY help the poor.

    When did Nancy Pelosi sponsor a bill to improve the federal prison system to make sure that it wasn’t taking advantage of minorities and their low income families? Oh right, she doesn’t give a fuck.

    1. It’s funny that Democrats are outraged given that they haven’t really done a whole hell of a lot to ACTUALLY help the poor.

      They’ve certainly done a lot to cement their position though!

      1. Are you serious? Are you serious?! Nancy Pelosi has done plenty! She’s voted to increase food stamps, WIC, Medicare, AND raise taxes on those greedy fatcat 1%ers (you know, anyone making more than $250,000) to pay their fair share of it.

        Trick Daddy Nancy Pelosi loves the kids!

    2. Intentions are all that matters. Stated intentions.

  6. The underlying problem here is a massive gulf between Ryan’s rhetoric and his policy agenda. Ryan’s famous budget consists primarily of extremely deep cuts to programs benefiting low-income Americans. What’s more, Ryan’s policy commitments preclude any deviation ? his belief in higher defense spending, absolutely no new revenue, no cuts to Medicare or Social Security for current or near-retirees, and balanced budgets within a decade arithmetically require staggeringly large cuts to income support for the most vulnerable.

    Because trying to manage profligate federal spending is inextricably intertwined with “helping the poor.”

    1. How to resolve this tension? One way is to assert that the best way to help poor people is to cut their subsidies. Ryan does indeed make this case, and Coppins endorses it:

      If [Ryan’s] rhetoric lacks poetry, his arguments against the current state-centric approach to aiding the poor is compelling. Since Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” the U.S. government has spent an estimated $13 trillion on federal programs that have resulted, 50 years later, in the highest deep poverty rate on record.

      Someone please tell me how the people of this earth managed before FDR and LBJ.

      1. They lived in darkness and ignorance, slaves to the Lord of Evil, Ronaldus Magnus Reagan, King of all Republicans, Father of Demons, Master of Lies.

    2. I think they at least have a point with regards to Ryan’s hypocrisy – if he was actually serious about cutting government, Social Security and the military wouldn’t be sacred cows.

      1. I imagine he is serious and would cut Social Security at least (although I’m not sure on defense spending) were it not for the concerns of elections. He’s been one of the more vocal critiques of the geriatric entitlement state within the GOP.

        Sadly, there are certain ponies that cannot be touched, and we currently have the worst situation insofar as the party that philosophically would reform the old age entitlements (even while recognizing how much of that philosophy is mere lip service) is the same party that has a constituency that skews elderly. Its hard to vote against the lucre that your electorate receives without getting the boot.

      2. To be clear- he is looking at changing Social Security- just not for people already close to dependent on it.

  7. “Republicans typically do not understand what life is like in a lower-income or minority community”. Neither do most Democrats. You think Pelosi, or Reid, or even most of the well-to-do minority Dem pols have any clue what it’s like to be poor?

    1. Yeah, I don’t get the knee-jerk response that “Republicans don’t know what it’s like to be poor”. Both sides of the aisle have a handful of people with rags to riches stories, as well as a stack of people who never went hungry.

      It would be nice if people would look beyond the political nature of the issue and look directly at ways for eliminating the problems.

      1. The fellow I quoted is himself a Republican. If you click through to my earlier post, you’ll see he had criticisms of Democrats too; I didn’t quote them again this time because they weren’t directly germane to Ryan.

    2. It’s always somewhat amusing when Democrats (see Shreeek) simultaneously boast about the over representation in their party of exorbitantly wealthy and uber-educated elites, and then insist that Republicans, whom they insist are mostly welfare-recipient Bible-thumping trailer park rednecks, are all KKKOCHTOPUS cash-money multi-billionaires who are disconnected from the concerns of the poor.

  8. So he wants to price-fix landline service in prisons?

    1. I doubt you have to price-fix; just end rents.

  9. Jesse, you could’ve at least finished the quote from the article:

    “That’s why we spend so much time on these marginal tax rate issues,” Ryan offers, weakly. He seems to realize how the words sound as he says them, and he lowers his voice to complete his sentence. “Which is such a highfalutin spreadsheet thing?”

    Ah, but the finish puts Ryan in a better light, which, of course, the author has no interest in doing.

    1. It’s not Reason if they’re not slicing and dicing the source material to fit the narrative.

    2. Ah, but the finish puts Ryan in a better light

      It shows him having a moment of self-awareness, but it doesn’t show him transcending the dynamic being discussed.

  10. Paul Ryan is one of the Straussians’ top politicians. He has had a charmed, taxpayer-subsidized life. He doesn’t identify with us. He views what is in the best interests of the working poor as a threat to his power and career. The working poor need their dignity and self-respect. Without them, they don’t have the motive power to work their way up honestly. He would take that away from them. He pretends that they cannot make it without government largesse, that they need “a safety net,” which he robs other taxpayers of to provide. Every instance of the Right reminding him of the nature of what he is and what he is doing is a cause for resentment against the Right. Deep down in dark places he won’t acknowledge even to himself, he hates us with a burning passion. Look at that propped-up smile and dead eyes. You think he would not have us shot if this weren’t a Constitutional republic?

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