Paul Ryan is the perfect choice, and here’s why . . .

| August 11 2012
Christopher Cook

The Ryan pick tells us what we need to know about a Romney presidency
By Christopher Cook 

Yesterday evening, my wife and I had a lovely (and exceptionally rare) child-free dinner-date. Just the two of us and some delicious food. Wow! We both work in politics and public policy, and yet we managed to talk about non-political stuff through the whole meal.  It was a nice break. However, as we pulled up our street towards home (which is also our place of work), the inevitable happened: We began talking about politics again. “What if Romney picks Ryan?” my wife asked, just as we were pulling into the garage. Immediately, a wave of images swept through my head . . . and most of them were Democrat ads showing Paul Ryan pushing a wheelchair-bound grandmother off a cliff.

The left has been demagoguing entitlements and scaring seniors for 70 years. They’re really, really good at it. Paul Ryan is the poster child of entitlement reform—he is the most prominent figure in America talking about our looming entitlement-driven debt crisis. Not only is he talking about it, he has actually done something about it: he has put a budget and reform plan on the table. There it is, in writing, to be picked apart by people who do not have his best wishes in mind. Let’s face it, Paul Ryan comes with a target pre-painted on his back.

And yet, in the light of day this morning, I realized that he is the perfect pick, for it tells us something crucial: The Romney camp is serious. They are serious about taking on one of the biggest problems America has ever faced. Ever . . . including our major wars. I’m talking about our looming fiscal crisis: debt, unfunded liabilities, and the fiscal gap.

For years, we talked about the seriousness of national debt. I remember people fretting about it back when I was a kid and Ronald Reagan was president. However, during the intervening years, two things happened. First, we experienced one of the greatest economic expansions in human history. This raised revenue rates and our GDP, which helped make the debt look less scary relative to the size of the economy. Second, the debt did not actually rise up like a monster and devour the nation whole, thus inuring us to deficit spending and a slowly increasing national debt. The result was that the national debt stopped seeming like as much of a problem. Maybe a big economy like ours really could continue deficit spending indefinitely. So we borrowed even more. In recent years . . . a lot more. Why not? After all, we’ve gotten away with it so far.

This is a false hope. Eventually, the chickens always come home to roost. From the moment that Social Security was created, from the moment that the Great Society was launched, we’ve been building a house of cards. Actuarially, there is no way that any nation can sustain entitlement programs of this size. It is a mathematical impossibility. Nations like Greece are at the leading edge of a wave that will sweep through nearly all the nations of the West. Just as full-blown socialism collapsed so spectacularly at the end of the 20th century, so to will entitlement-state capitalism collapse here in the 21st. It’s not a matter of if, only when, and how painful it will be.

What’s worse, the debt is just the tip of the iceberg. In spite of the fact that the $16 trillion debt is one quarter of the GDP of the entire planet, it’s small potatoes compared to the unfunded liabilities for our entitlement programs, which are estimated to be between $84 and 120 trillion.  Worse still, it has been estimated that our total fiscal gap—the ratio of future revenues to future liabilities—is now $222 trillion. For good measure, add in the unfunded costs of public pensions and other local debts, which are already bankrupting cities and threatening to bankrupt entire states. There is no one to bail us out of this. Without the right steps being taken, and soon, the inevitable results—defaults, a complete currency collapse, hyperinflation, widespread riots—will be unlike anything ever seen. It will have ripple effects across the entire globe.

You can take this seriously or not. You can allow your normalcy bias (the psychological impulse that tells us that things will continue in the future as they have in the past) to convince you that something this big cannot happen. You can imagine that there is an easy way out. You can side with the Democrats, whose approach—unchanged for decades—is that politicians can continue buying votes through these entitlement programs indefinitely. You can think any of these things, but you’d be wrong. This is an onrushing disaster unlike anything any nation has ever faced. In the best case scenario, it will be painful and hard. In the worst case, it is an extinction-level event.  One way or the other, the edifice of the debt-funded entitlement state is going to collapse before our eyes.

So, for months now, I have been having a terrible thought: What if Romney wins and a collapse happens on his watch?

If there is one thing you can be sure of about the left, here and abroad, it is their eagerness to blame any problem, economic or otherwise, on “capitalism.” They totally got away with it in the 1930s. The Great Depression had a lot of causes, but it was not the fault of capitalism, properly understood. Government spending and intervention (in wages, trade, monetary policy, interest rates, prices, regulations, taxes, and banking) were to blame in both causing the collapse and prolonging the time it took to recover. A true free-market system never would have collapsed so spectacularly; nonetheless, the left successfully blamed the free market and vilified market economics for more than a generation. They also used the crisis to usher in a new era in statist government, creating programs and an ethos of spending and governance that are the source of our economic crisis today. This is what they do.

So, for weeks, I had been imagining the following scenario: What if Romney picks a safe, mild VP choice and together—terrified to touch the deadly third rail of politics—they avoid the issue throughout the election? Maybe they win in a squeaker, but once in office, the left’s incessant demagoguery on entitlements keeps them—and the Republicans in Congress—from taking any meaningful steps to fix our real problem. They manage the decline for a while, and then—WHAM!—the collapse happens on their watch. On Republicans’ watch. 

This would be all the left needed to blame the collapse on free-market economics itself. They wouldn’t need to have any evidence, just as they didn’t need any evidence with Herbert Hoover. Premise 1: A Republican was in the White House. Premise 2: Republicans believe in free market economics (especially those dastardly tea partiers and weirdo libertarians). Conclusion: The collapse is a failure of free-market capitalism. They would use this an an excuse to usher in more government, more statism—more of what truly caused the collapse in the first place. And they would get away with it.

With the Paul Ryan pick, I no longer have this fear. Yes, the left will continue trying to blame everything on capitalism and rich people. Yes, they will keep saying that the only possible solution to any problem is more government. That’s how they roll. But with the Ryan pick, we can now know—beyond any shadow of a doubt—that Mitt Romney has absolutely no intention of simply managing the decline. Picking Paul Ryan is a clarion call—to America and the world—that Mitt Romney intends to meet our looming fiscal problem head-on.

I can hear objections from my fellow conservatives and libertarians right off the bat: Ryan’s plan doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t bring the budget into balance fast enough. Rand Paul’s budget is better. The Republican Study Committee budget is better. Ryan’s budget allows statist entitlement programs to continue, when they should be privatized. This is a milquetoasty half-measure that won’t stop the collapse.

My friends, stop talking to me, and to each other, and look out at America. We are a nation hooked on entitlements. Sure, we spent the first half of our existence as a nation believing in the idea that people and communities can and should do things for ourselves. But we’ve spent the second half becoming dependent—at first grudgingly accepting, and then demanding, that government play a role as a solver of all our problems. We’ve spent generations paying money to the government with the expectation that we’ll get a return on that money. We’ve become inured to statism, the way a captive tiger finally stops pacing and just lies down in his cage.

Do you think, for one moment, that anyone more “extreme” than Paul Ryan could possibly get past the American people, in our current condition? Considering how, thus far, the left has been able to destroy any politician who so much as mentions reforming entitlements, we should think ourselves damned lucky to get someone like Paul Rayn into office. Paul Ryan is a fantastic transitional figure to get America where she needs to be—he helps us start moving the Overton Window.

A Mitt Romney administration, following the Ryan ethos, calms the bond markets. They institute growth policies that bring revenue back up. They soothe the fears of our creditors, preventing a catastrophic increase in the interest rates on our debt. They send a message to the world that we are serious about getting our house in order; this helps retain the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. All of this buys us time—the time we need to slowly unwind the Gordian Knot that a century of statism has wound around our necks.

Paul Ryan isn’t stupid. He knows that a flat tax would be more fair and produce greater growth and revenue than a two-tiered tax. He knows that complete privatization of entitlements would producer greater stability and returns for recipients, and bring the budget out of the red zone a lot sooner. But he also knows that the American people aren’t ready for those things. Ryan’s two-tiered income tax system moves the Overton Window, getting us that much closer to a flat tax. Ryan’s comparatively mild reforms of entitlements move the Window towards more meaningful reform down the road. This is exactly the bridge we need to a better future. And in case I wasn’t clear before, Ryan is the most “radical” we can possibly get. So be happy, and work hard for their victory.

This pick adds a real level of risk for Romney. Talking about reforming entitlements is usually fatal for a candidate, and yet Mitt Romney, rather than hide from America’s most pressing issue, is taking that issue’s most prominent combatant to be his running mate. Picking Paul Ryan took a lot of courage . . . and that says a lot about who Mitt Romney really is. Those of you worried that a President Mitt Romney would lack substance or the ideological fortitude to take on America’s real problems needn’t worry any longer. Mitt Romney is serious. A Romney-Ryan ticket has a real chance of winning. And a Romney-Ryan team in office has a real shot at getting us out of the mess we’re in . . . maybe even without a tremendous amount of pain. And that is something to look forward to.

Win or lose, the die is cast. By picking Ryan, Romney is sending a message: America, we have a problem, and we really need to talk about it.

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