Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Paul Ryan and the US budget showdown

This week, after a decade of waffling, House of Representatives Budget Chairman Paul Ryan outlined what Republicans would like to do with the US government—eliminate its direct responsibility for ensuring healthcare for seniors and the poor, and leave education reform and anti-poverty measures to the states. They’d take ten years to do it.
From a federalist perspective, the idea, if not the stridency of Ryan’s rhetoric, is neither nihilistic nor alien. Effectively, Canada’s federal government provides block funding now for the operation of provincial universal healthcare systems and education and social services. The US federal government, conceivably, could ensure fair access to healthcare for Americans by providing monies to competent state governments. Over ten years, a re-definition of the American social contract could be fashioned.
Of course, this would entail years of negotiation and compromise. Traditional Democrats would insist that individual states are able to assume the obligation to provide affordable healthcare, and Republicans would want to ensure that market incentives and private firms are included.
Ryan’s use of federal vouchers and block funding needn’t be ruled out. However, they’re incomplete. They wouldn’t go anywhere politically, in Washington or in the rest of the country, unless the Republican Party again commits to a simple 20th century proposition: social insurance—decent income security and health coverage for the elderly and the poor—must remain a responsibility of American government, whether articulated in Washington or in state capitals.
Ryan’s overall fiscal blueprint, “The Path to Prosperity,” is hardly reassuring. Reducing projected federal tax revenues by anywhere near $4 trillion over the next ten years would surely leave far too little federal money available to negotiate an adequate transfer of dollars as well as responsibilities to the states.
Selling the concept of decentralizing versus simply privatizing essential services is hardly helped by Ryan’s rhetoric. Says Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post:
“The reductions in aid to the poor, says the budget blueprint that Ryan released, will be made ‘to ensure that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.’”
Neither hammocks nor hospital beds are on the verge of bankrupting America or its government. And $130 to $140 a month in food stamps for each of 45 million poor Americans is likely not begrudged by average taxpayers or is causing the least fortunate to shun the American dream. (Certainly, his proposal to reduce the top income tax rate from 35% to 25% will buy plenty of recreational devices for the affluent.)
The first imperative of radical reformers (beyond the ability to care for people who we can’t afford to join our clubs) is to be seen as acting competently in the eyes of others. This week, Ryan and fellow Republicans will have to decide whether they will pander to their extreme or compromise with the Democrats on this federal year’s budget. A shut down of the American government, in the midst of massive unemployment, global economic uncertainty, and three wars, would be a vainglorious leap of faith—a gamble that my idea, in the ruins, will prevail.
Whether 45% or 55% of voters decide to blame the Republicans would be beside the point. Conservative reformers will look like reckless dilettantes, and Washington’s much-maligned insiders will be back in favour. The last thing the public will want to hear from anyone in Congress will be “Trust me; I’ve got a big idea that will be good for you.”   

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