Paul Ryan's liberal secret: Why he's suddenly endorsing the social safety net

In his own, ironic way, Ryan is the true heir of the "progressive" tradition he so likes to criticize. Here's why

Published September 6, 2014 1:15PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Matt Sullivan)
(Reuters/Matt Sullivan)

Between midsummer and Labor Day, Representative Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden gave eloquent defenses of today’s partisan worldviews. Strange to say, Paul Ryan endorsed big-government social democracy, while Joe Biden defined the middle class as those who have enough money to forego the use of any public programs.

I’m not kidding.  You can’t make this stuff up.

On July 15, Ryan gave an address entitled “Renewing the American Idea” at a Washington, D.C., branch of Hillsdale College, a conservative school. Much of the speech is a rehash of the potted Straussian history of the U.S. popularized by Glenn Beck, in which sinister early twentieth century progressives betrayed the legacy of the sainted Founding Fathers. But then it gets interesting:

Now, the Progressives were right about something. The country was crying out for a national safety net, especially following the Great Depression… They wanted to enlist the federal government in the service of self-government.  They didn’t want to turn over the keys….

Here’s the difference: Everybody understands the safety net, and everybody benefits from it. Take Social Security. We all know how it works — or at least how it’s supposed to work. When you’re working, you pay in. And when you’re retired, it pays out. It’s the same thing with Medicare — simple, straightforward. Everybody gets old. Everybody gets sick. And so everybody contributes in exchange for a secure retirement. Most people think that’s a fair trade. And I agree.

This is as good a defense of the New Deal (Social Security) and the Great Society (Medicare) as I’ve come across in years. So what exactly is Paul Ryan’s objection to the progressive-liberal tradition?

In his speech, Ryan distinguishes among simple, universal programs like Social Security and Medicare (good) and complex, means-tested programs like the Affordable Care Act (bad). This line of reasoning forces him to torture history, as when he tries to father the Affordable Care Act — a version of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s health plan and Mitt Romney’s “Romneycare” in Massachusetts — on the New Deal-Great Society tradition:

Progressives didn’t respect this distinction [between simple social insurance programs and bureaucratic, means-tested programs]. Once they got their foot in the door, they kept pushing. First there was the New Deal, then the Fair Deal, then the Great Society. In 2008, they saw another opening [with Obamacare].

In other words, we need to reject the legacies of the New Deal and the Great Society, while embracing Social Security and Medicare, their major… uh… legacies.

Paul Ryan’s version of center-left history is not entirely bogus. From the 1890s onward, there was and remains a tension to the left of center among proponents of universal social insurance, led in the early twentieth century by the Russian émigré I.M. Rubinow, and progressive proponents of more paternalistic, means-tested, targeted antipoverty programs. Woodrow Wilson, Louis Brandeis and other progressives of the “New Freedom” school — the center-right “New Democrats” of their day — tended to reject nationalized social insurance in favor of programs administered by “nanny state” middle-class social workers at the state and local level.

Ironically, Paul Ryan and other conservatives who want to devolve social insurance to the states while voucherizing it and outsourcing it are the true heirs of the nanny-state “progressive” tradition that Ryan criticizes in his speech. Today it is the Ryanite conservatives, not Rooseveltian progressives, who promote Rube Goldberg schemes in the form of 50 separate state-level programs for sliding-scale, means-tested tax credits to purchase this or that necessary good. These decentralized, privatized safety net programs multiply private as well as public bureaucracy. If Paul Ryan believed his own rhetoric about the superiority of simple, universal, non-bureaucratic, earned benefit programs, he would call for scrapping 401(k)s and other tax-favored private retirement accounts in favor of a simple, straightforward increase in Social Security benefits. And he would introduce legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act — “Nobody understands it, and it makes everyone anxious” — with universal Medicare.

A month and a half after Paul Ryan praised social-democratic universal programs like Social Security and Medicare, his rival for the vice presidency in 2012, Joe Biden, endorsed reactionary neo-Victorian political economy in a Labor Day speech in Detroit. According to Biden:

“…[Being middle class] means you get to send your kid to a decent school, that if they do well and they want to go to college, you can afford to send them to college. It means being able to take care of your parents if they get sick. It means maybe being able to save enough so you hope your kids never have to take care of you."

Embedded in an otherwise standard progressive speech, this paragraph stands out as a sort of right-wing manifesto. Biden, or his speechwriter, implicitly defines “middle class” status as having the personal financial resources to buy everything — K-12 education, higher education, health care, retirement for yourself and your parents — without reliance on any public program.

“…[Being middle class] means you get to send your kid to a decent school…” Most Americans send their kids to the nearest free public school, decent or not, because they can’t afford to pay for private school.

“…[Being middle class means] that if they do well and they want to go to college, you can afford to send them to college….”  The implication is that whether young Americans go to college or not depends on the ability of their parents to pay full tuition out of their own personal resources. Isn’t it odd that Biden doesn’t mention Pell Grants or student loans or the G.I. Bill? Thanks to these liberal programs, higher education is no longer entirely a luxury good bestowed upon their offspring by rich parents.

“[Being middle class] means being able to take care of your parents if they get sick.” Somebody should tell the vice president that President Johnson and Congress took care of this problem in 1965, with a program called “Medicare” (Paul Ryan can fill him in). It’s no longer necessary to pay for all of the medical bills of your elderly parents out of your own pocket, if they have exhausted their resources.

“[Being middle class] means maybe being able to save enough so you hope your kids never have to take care of you."

Somebody should tell the vice president that President Roosevelt and Congress solved this problem, too, back in 1935, with a federal program called “Social Security” (of which Paul Ryan claims to be a fan). If you run out of money after you retire, you don’t have to depend on your children or private charity to survive. The federal government will send you a check. And if you need assisted living and lack the resources, Medicaid (created by Johnson in 1965) will pay for your nursing home.

How is it that Paul Ryan praises Social Security and Medicare, while Joe Biden omits any mention of public schools, federal college aid, Medicare and Social Security from his own definition of the standard of living of the middle class? Have Paul Ryan and Joe Biden switched sides? Has Paul Ryan undergone a Damascene conversion to Scandinavian social democracy? Has Joe Biden discovered his inner Ayn Rand and “gone Galt” on us?

Of course not. Ryan and Biden are politicians. They are adroitly using rhetoric to appeal to swing voters. Ryan is proactively defending himself and the Republican Party against the charge that they will destroy Social Security and Medicare (for this generation of voters, anyway). For his part, Biden, speaking to an audience full of union members at a Labor Day rally, plays up Democratic support for higher wages, while omitting any mention of expansion of tax-funded federal programs.

Ryan and Biden know the American voter. And each understands that American voters tend to support universal earned-benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare, even as they fear and dread means-tested antipoverty programs like food stamps and housing subsidies. Many voters fear that idle free riders will exploit antipoverty programs, living at the expense of Americans who work and pay taxes. At the same time, many voters dread the possibility that, as a result of misfortune, they themselves might be forced to apply for means-tested benefits — something which is stigmatized as shameful, in a way that reliance on universal earned benefits is not.

So here’s a suggestion: Why not give Americans what they want? It’s easy to design a policy agenda that would minimize means-tested benefits. For working-age Americans, you reduce the need for means-tested public assistance by boosting earned income. Higher paychecks, fewer food stamps. For non-working Americans, like the retired and children, you replace all means-tested benefits with universal benefits that are earned in the sense they are paid for partly (not necessarily completely) by payroll taxes. Decent pay plus universal benefits. Simple.

It’s equally easy to come up with progressive and conservative versions of this. Progressives would prefer to raise earned income by means of a higher minimum wage and union-negotiated wages for particular categories of workers. Conservatives might prefer boosting earned income by means of an expansion of the earned income tax credit. Progressives would prefer simple universal benefits. For their part, conservatives could favor voucherizing benefits, as long as the vouchers were flat and went to rich, poor and middle class alike, rather than being means-tested and subjected to complex sliding scales.

Perhaps in the future the American right will adopt something like this conservative version of a decent wage-universal benefit consensus. But before it could so, the American right would have to throw small-government deficit hawks and libertarians overboard. Expanding the earned income tax credit and replacing means-tested benefits limited to the poor with universal benefits for middle class and poor alike would require significantly higher taxes. And while the earned income tax credit, a wage subsidy, might allow many employers to pay poverty wages, many of the same business owners or managers would be hit by the higher taxes needed to fund even a “conservative” program of decent income and universal benefits.

That’s political reality — not political rhetoric.

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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