The Paul Ryan Rosetta Stone

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Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The cover story of the latest Weekly Standard is a naturally adulatory profile of Paul Ryan. This passage about Ryan’s formative intellectual influences may not strike most readers as telling, and the author of the story didn’t delve into it, but it struck me:

Ryan reported to Cesar Conda, the Republican staff director. “Paul at age 19 was the exact same person he is today,” Conda recalls. “Earnest, personable, and hard-working, with an insatiable appetite for discussing policy ideas.” Ryan often popped his head into Conda’s office with questions about supply-side economics, interruptions that became so frequent Conda had to give Ryan books to keep him occupied. Among them: The Way the World Works, by one-time supply-side guru Jude Wanniski, and George Gilder’s seminal Wealth and Poverty. (Conda finally recovered his copy of Gilder in 2007, when he noticed it in Ryan’s office, heavily marked-up.)

I have harbored a long and controversy-provoking obsession with the two tomes that played such a formative role in Ryan’s intellectual development. Five years ago, I wrote a book about how anti-tax fanatics gained and kept control of the Republican Party (here’s an excerpt, and here’s the New York Times review.) One small point that appeared in both my book and the excerpt provoked particular ire from conservatives. That was a detailed description of the lunacy of Jude Wanniski and George Gilder, who wrote the two books that defined supply-side economics (Wanniski’s The Way the World Works and Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty).

My argument was that the economic arguments offered in both books is pure nuttery, but because they used economic concepts, and many people feel unqualified to judge economics, the nuttery is hard for non-specialists to spot. But it’s easy to see that they’re nuts because they have a host of beliefs on all sorts of subjects (Saddam Hussein never gassed the Kurds, E.S.P. is real, etc.) which make their general madness apparent to non-economists.

Some conservatives insisted their wide array of insane beliefs is irrelevant to gauging their economic arguments. (American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Hassett dismissively wrote, “Even if one assumes that a theory has been put forward by an unbalanced person, that fact does not mean that the theory is incorrect.”) The more common objection was that I overstated the influence of Gilder and Wanniski. Megan McArdle went on a blogging tear on this theme, asserting that I wildly overstated the influence not only of Wanniski and Gilder but of the supply-side ideology as a whole. Ultimately she wrote a nasty review for a conservative publication, which spiked the entire thing because it refused to publish her to-be-sure observation that tax cuts don’t really increase revenue under present circumstances, after which she published  a very brief note conceding she had been utterly wrong (headline: “I Take It All Back”) about the centrality of supply-side-ism within the conservative movement.

So it’s interesting to see that Wanniski and Gilder’s books were the two cited by Ryan’s mentor as helping to form his political beliefs. Ryan has also cited Ayn Rand, another obsession of mine, as an influence. And of course what gives the Standard’s little Ryan nugget its Rosetta Stone quality (or, less charitably, a sum-of-all-Chait-obsessions quality) is that a major theme of my profile of Ryan was that, though he has passed himself off as a deficit hawk, Ryan actually is a dyed-in-the-wool supply-sider. At his core he believes, for both moral and economic reasons, in holding taxes on the rich low. He has successfully learned to pitch himself to the political center as a debt hawk but the pitch is at odds with his voting record, his current positions, and his own intellectual history.