Paul Ryan’s Smoke and Mirrors

Rep. Paul Ryan recently introduced the Roadmap for America’s Future Act of 2010, a piece of legislation that claims to eliminate the long-term budget deficit. The CBO agrees, and Ezra Klein says it’s “an object lesson in why so few politicians are willing to answer the question ‘but how will you save all that money?'”

Well, sort of. I give Ryan credit for being more forthcoming than most supposed deficit hawks, but the truth is that for the most part he doesn’t explain how he’s going to save all that money. It’s true that he’s got a plan for Social Security private accounts, a plan for Medicare vouchers, and a plan for tax credits to replace the current tax deductibility of health insurance. It’s good conservative boilerplate.

But it turns out that’s all it is. Those things themselves don’t really save any money. The real action comes from a collection of arbitrary spending limits, but these limits don’t offer any clues about how we’re going to meet them. There’s a freeze on nonsecurity discretionary spending from 2010-2019 — but saying you’re going to freeze spending is easy. The hard part is figuring out what to cut. There’s also a limit to the growth of Medicare payments — but saying you’re going to limit growth is easy. The hard part is figuring out how to limit growth and deciding what you’re going to cut to meet your caps. Medicaid is treated the same way: Ryan’s plan simply sets a limit on growth rates without saying how those limits will be met.

In fairness, there are a few specifics. The eligibility age for Medicare would rise gradually to about age 70. Social Security payments would be reduced. All the money in the stimulus bill that hasn’t been spent yet would be eliminated.

But those are nits. For the vast bulk of the savings, Ryan simply declares that they’ll happen. His bill would cap growth rates, and that’s that. Whatever happens, happens — and he carefully avoids actually saying what would happen. That’s not serious, and it doesn’t deserve praise.

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