For most of last year, Rep. Paul Ryan was busy revamping his image. He’d spent most of his public life as the tax-cutting budget “wonk” who believed ardently in the power of supply-side economic theory, but after helping Mitt Romney take silver in the 2012 election, Ryan embarked on a political reinvention that would help dispel the GOP’s well-earned reputation as the party of the wealthy. The end result of his efforts was Paul Ryan: The Republican Who Cares About Poor People.
Ryan gave the effort his all. He put out a dubiously researched study arguing that federal anti-poverty programs had failed and were doing little beyond breeding dependency on government largess. He also released a new anti-poverty plan that block-grants all federal anti-poverty programs and forces recipients of government aid to sign contracts promising that they’ll be better, more successful Americans (or face “sanctions”).
Ryan also sought a change in tone. For years he’d happily divided America into “makers” (successful rich folks who create jobs) and “takers” (low-earners who grow fat on government programs funded by the “makers’” tax revenue). But the New Paul Ryan had learned his lesson and wasn’t going to coarsen the economic inequality debate with insulting language of that sort. He apologized for using the makers-and-takers “shorthand” in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed last August. “The phrase gave insult where none was intended,” Ryan wrote. “People struggling and striving to get ahead—that's what our country is all about. On that journey, they're not ‘takers’; they're trying to make something of themselves. We shouldn't disparage that.”
Well, that was then. Ryan is the GOP’s new point man on tax policy and he’s being called upon to push back on President Obama’s plans to finance tax credits for low earners with tax hikes on the wealthy. Ryan did just that in two separate interviews this weekend – with NBC News and the New York Times – and he test drove a new slogan for bashing the president’s proposals: “envy economics.”
Here’s what he said on “Meet the Press”:
RYAN: I think it [closing the “stepped-up basis” loophole] is a bad idea. You’re actually making it really hard for a family to pass on a family business to the next generation. So what I think the President is trying to do here is to, again, exploit envy economics. This top-down redistribution doesn’t work. We have been doing it for six years. Look, it may make for good politics. It doesn't make for good economic growth.
And here’s the New York Times:
But Mr. Ryan stopped short of the kind of direct wage subsidy that Mr. Obama has proposed with his $500 “second-earner” tax credit, which would go to families with two working parents to help defray child care and other costs.
He also opposed “envy economics,” a hit on Mr. Obama’s proposals to curb tax breaks on huge individual retirement accounts, to raise the capital gains tax and to tax inheritances based on the value of assets when they were purchased, not based on their value when the owner died.
“Envy economics” is a fun turn of phrase, as it plays to the hoary old resentments the wealthy nurse about class warfare. It goes without saying that the “envy” that powers Ryan’s “envy economics” is felt by the less fortunate, who want to punish the wealthy for their success and – ahem – take some of that wealth for themselves. But Ryan promised he wouldn’t disparage low earners by calling them “takers,” so instead he’s characterizing the relationship between the “makers” and the “takers” as one of jealousy and bitterness. It’s the new Paul Ryan!
What makes Ryan’s invocation of “envy economics” doubly galling is that he’s trying to pair it with the GOP’s newfound concern over economic inequality. Again, from the Times:
“The Obamanomics that we’re practicing now have exacerbated inequality,” he said. “They’ve exacerbated stagnation. They’re [sic] made things worse.”
Mr. Ryan continued: “The wealthy are doing really well. They’re practicing trickle-down economics now.”
That’s an amazing quote. First of all, Ryan is arguing simultaneously that Obama is a top-down redistributionist whose “envy economics” are punishing the rich, and also that the wealthy are doing too well under Obama’s economic policies. So Obama is, at the same time, the worst redistributionist ever, and the worst supply-sider ever. And the very idea of Paul Ryan – whose budgets gave millionaires a six-figure tax cut as part of the “secret sauce” of economic growth – using the phrase “trickle-down economics” as a pejorative is beyond mockery.
The basic message coming from Ryan and his buddies boils down to: “Sure the rich are doing fine, but what about the bitter, envious less fortunate? And also what about the rich?” Irreconcilable tension of this sort is inevitable when you and your party try to rebrand as champions of the poor and less fortunate while steadfastly adhering to policies that overwhelmingly privilege the already privileged.