There is a dangerously painful story line that is being propagated about a presidential race between President Obama and Mitt Romney. The line is that this will be a contest over competing visions for the country. In this story, the alternative visions are outlined in the competing budgets put forward by President Obama and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the latter which Governor Romney has embraced.
The story of competing visions is a cute fairy tale for people who don’t know anything about Washington and American politics. For adults who have not newly arrived from some foreign country, this line is just silly.
President Obama and Governor Romney are politicians, not philosophers. They have not made it to the top of the political ladder because of their grand visions of the future. They got their positions by appealing to powerful political actors who were able to give them the money and/or votes needed to get ahead.
The absurdity of a competing visions story is apparent to anyone who has looked at the Ryan budget. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) analysis of Representative Ryan’s budget, which was prepared under his direction, the budget would shrink all non-Social Security and non-health care spending to 3.75 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050.
To put this in perspective, the United States currently spends roughly 4 percent of GDP on the military, not including spending on the war in Afghanistan. Since the start of the cold war, it has never spent less than 3.0 percent of GDP on the military. Ryan does not want sharp cuts in defense; in fact, he has already criticized the modest cuts in President Obama’s 2013 budget proposal.
Let’s assume that Representative Ryan wants to keep defense spending somewhere between its 3.0 percent of GDP low and the 4.0 percent current level. That leaves somewhere between zero and 0.75 percent of GDP for everything else the federal government does other than Social Security, health care and defense.
This spending must cover all of the federal government’s spending on road and bridges, airports, and every other form of transportation. It covers its spending on aid to education, from running day care and Head Start to Pell grants and other college aid. It covers research and development, including funding for the National Institutes of Health. It includes the money needed to run the State Department, the Justice Department, the FBI and the federal prison system. It includes the money to pay for the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the patent office and Food and Drug Administration.
In short, if the Romney-Ryan budget is taken seriously, then the vision essentially involves shutting down the federal government. All the federal government will do is literally run a military and pay out money for health care and Social Security. We will have no federal courts, federal law, patents, copyrights or borders since their budget has no money to pay for the institutions needed for enforcement.
So, what exactly is the Romney-Ryan vision in this scenario? How do they envision that Pfizer and Merck will make money when there is no patent agency to register their drug patents or courts to enforce them? The same applies to copyrights for Microsoft, Time Warner, and all the other firms that depend on copyright protection.
What will be US immigration policy when we have no one to enforce borders or even issue passports? Is the Romney-Ryan vision an open country with no borders? How about the airwaves? What will broadcast and telecommunications giants like Comcast and Verizon do to secure their access to the airwaves when there is no Federal Communications Commission to parcel out bandwidth?
Will there no longer be an interstate highway system, since there will be no federal funds to maintain it? Will airports and air traffic control be left to states, since there is no money for the Federal Aviation Commission?
These are the questions that reporters should be asking about the Romney-Ryan vision. The arithmetic in the Romney-Ryan budget says that they want to shut down the federal government outside of Social Security, health care and defense. Maybe the reporters who are singing about competing visions can try to tell the rest of us what the Romney-Ryan vision means, since the information on the table does not give a clue as to what the Romney-Ryan world looks like.
Since the Romney-Ryan vision makes zero sense (challenge to pundits: try to show otherwise), let’s try an alternative story. Suppose that there is no Romney-Ryan vision. Suppose that Romney and Ryan are politicians trying to appeal to rich people by promising them big tax cuts. After all, big tax cuts for the rich is the item that is most clearly defined in the Romney-Ryan budget.
So, why don’t “neutral” reporters just tell us what the budget does – it gives tax cuts to the rich and guts programs that benefit the middle class and the poor. The stuff about “vision” is just nonsense to tell children and Washington pundits.