Paul Ryan Denies Being Social Darwinist

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Social Darwinist? What? Have you seen my amateurishly simplistic numbers? Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images/2010 Getty Images

Paul Ryan has a new defense of his budget. It’s not radical, because it increases spending.

We propose to increase annual federal spending from $3.6 trillion a year to $4.9 trillion over the ten year period, instead of the president’s $5.5 trillion,” elaborated Ryan. “Apparently the difference of that makes us social Darwinists?

This line is rapidly becoming a Republican talking point, as evidence by Karl Rove’s repetition of it today. This is an extremely poor way to measure a budget.

Over time, the population grows, and inflation decreases the value of a dollar, so that it takes more dollars to purchase a given government service. The cost of some services rises more quickly than others. Running a national park doesn’t get all that much more expensive, but providing health care does. The federal government, unfortunately, spends a lot on health care. On top of that, the federal government disproportionately spends a lot of money providing income security for old people, and the proportion of old people is rising quickly.

All this is to say that merely keeping the government doing the same things it’s already doing requires spending more money. That doesn’t mean the government has to spend enough money to keep the government doing everything it’s already doing. Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans are proposing ways to get the government to spend less, especially on health care. The point is that raw dollar totals don’t tell you very much.

Consider, for a helpful illustration, defense. Paul Ryan’s position is that President Obama is “slashing the defense budget.” He “imposes nearly $500 billion in defense cuts over the next decade.” The Ryan budget presents this as a reflection of Obama’s goal of promoting American “decline.”

But wait! Using Ryan’s method of counting, Obama’s defense budget increases spending, from $525 billion to $634 billion! Yet, according to Ryan, this makes Obama some kind of peacenik.

When it comes to defense, Ryan does not like to use raw dollar totals. He prefers to measure things as a percentage of the economy. His budget asserts, “The share of the nation’s resources devoted to defense has declined from its Cold War average of 7.5 percent to just 4.6 percent today.” This is true, though it oddly assumes that we should be spending about the same on defense as we were when we were preparing to wage a world war against an aggressive global superpower possessing an enormous military.

So, using the same measure, how does the Ryan budget affect various functions of government? Does it spend more money? No, it does not, says the Congressional Budget Office:

Other mandatory spending and all discretionary spending—from 12½ percent of GDP in 2011 to 5¾ percent in 2030 and 3¾ percent in 2050.

Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—from 2 percent of GDP in 2011 to 1¼ percent in 2030 and 1 percent in 2050;

Keep in mind that this measure really understates the impact of the health-care cuts, because, as I noted above, health care tends to grow faster over time than most other services.

If you actually want to measure the impact of a budget, you need to look at what changes it forces the government to make to a particular function. Ryan’s plan is pretty unambiguous. He proposes to increase defense spending, avoid any cuts to Social Security or Medicare over the next decade, and not default on the national debt. That requires him to make enormous reductions in the small chunk that remains, which includes most government functions and, especially, aid to the poor. That means a lot of poor and sick people would get a lot less. The fact that Ryan is combining his plan to dramatically reduce the provision of government benefits to poor people, while also allowing affluent people to pay a lower percentage of their income in taxes, is why President Obama is throwing around terms like “social Darwinism.”