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Is Ryan really a fiscal conservative?

Writing for the Washington Post, Matt Miller complains that the media is mischaracterizing Ryanism (as in the fiscal ideas of new Repub veepstakes winner Rep. Paul Ryan). Ryan is no fiscal conservative and no deficit hawk, Miller argues.

He’s right, unless you adopt the new (but not really so new) meaning of the term “fiscal conservative” that has come unofficially into style since Pres. Reagan.

Pre-Reagan, the term “fiscal conservative” referred to those who wanted to balance the budget or at least hold down the accumulation of debt. Since Reagan, “fiscal conservatives” are those who always favor tax cuts, and the cuts generally turn out to make the tax code less progressive. This fits Ryan and Romney both. They have lots of idea for reducing government spending, especially on programs that benefit the poor, the elderly and the sick. (The one exception is military spending — which I personally try to avoid calling “defense” spending since the United States maintains a military establishment far far far in excess of anything that could reasonably be called necessary to defend the country from any real threat to “national security” as that term would be defined by any other more normal country.) The Ryan budget plan cuts pretty much every government function except military.

If you made those cuts and left the tax code alone, you would shrink the deficit reasonably steadily and eventually get to balance. If, instead of leaving the tax code alone, you phased in some small increases in top tax rates, or eliminated some loopholes and deductions, or both, you could get to a surplus and actually start to pay down the debt that conservatives are always complaining about.

But that’s not what the modern “fiscal conservatives” do. They always pair their spending cuts on programs that help the poor with tax cuts that help the rich, which is what the Ryan plan and apparently the Romney plan do. (I say “apparently” because Romney has only put out a general description of his taxing and spending ideas.) 

Comments (46)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/13/2012 - 03:19 pm.

    The Ryan plan

    calls for elimination of tax deductions and loopholes commonly used by the affluent in return for lower tax rates for everyone. If anything, he’s going to have rich people opposing his plan.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/13/2012 - 06:55 pm.

      Economic analyses

      by economists such as Joseph Stiglitz have shown that, as usual, Ryan’s proposals (to the extent to which he has actually named a loophole to be closed) would benefit mostly the top 1%.
      Just who do you think benefits most from the home mortgage deduction?

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/13/2012 - 03:33 pm.

    What about the Obama “plan”

    Mr. Black,
    Please outline for me the Obama plan for cutting the deficit? (or saving Social Security of Medicare)
    I have tried to gather information on the Obama plan for “cutting the deficit.” It seems Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich so he can “invest” in education, health care, and the environment (typical democratic special interest groups.)
    Would you call this “tax and spend?”

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/13/2012 - 04:41 pm.

      Obama’s Plan

      Obama did promise to reform entitlements and cut real spending. I’m sure that liberals with their interest in good government will hold him to those promises.
      Well, ok, I’m not sure of that at all. In fact I can’t help but hold my hands up when earnest Dem voters complain about ‘lack of specifics’ from GOP candidates when their own Senate members are steadfastly refusing to do so much as propose a budget. I want to say that this is politics as usual but it really is a rather lot to swallow.

      • Submitted by Lance Groth on 08/13/2012 - 04:52 pm.

        Reality Intervened

        “Obama did promise to reform entitlements and cut real spending.”

        He also wasn’t planning on having a crashed economy, all but destroyed financial sector and a housing implosion handed to him on inauguration day. As the saying goes, the first casualty of any war is the war plan. Or, only a fool refuses to change course when icebergs appear in one’s path.

        Not to forget a Republican House that blocked every single thing he tried to do…

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/13/2012 - 10:07 pm.


          Obama made these promises in the October debates long after the economy started doing scary things. And the House actually has passed budgets, the Senate then refuses to do anything with them. And before you say it, you can’t filibuster budget votes.
          Obama has flat out not even tried to keep these promises.

        • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/15/2012 - 10:37 am.

          “He also wasn’t planning on having a crashed economy”

          Really? He didn’t notice it was crumbling around his ears? No wonder he’s done nothing about it.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/13/2012 - 06:57 pm.


        According to the Constitution, budget proposals originate in the House and are approved by the Senate.
        Now who controls the House?

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/13/2012 - 10:09 pm.

          The House Has Passed Budgets

          And then the Senate does nothing with them. It’s rank irresponsibility and I wish that well meaning libs would put some heat on elected Dems to actually do their work.

    • Submitted by Todd Jese on 08/15/2012 - 01:42 pm.

      Great response!

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/13/2012 - 03:45 pm.


    To ‘conserve’ something is to keep it the way it is.
    By that definition, people like Ryan and Romney are not conservatives; they are reactionaries who want to return things to the days of the robber barons.
    Reminds me of Sesame Street’s Corsican Twins:
    All for me and Nothing for you.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/13/2012 - 08:33 pm.

      A conservative

      in America is a traditionalist who believes that the role of government is to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Not to run our lives.

      What Romney and Ryan want to do is return us to a free society based on the same free market capitalism that made this nation is freest, most prosperous in the history of the world. That will mean ripping out everything Obama has installed by the roots.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/14/2012 - 07:42 am.

        What presidential era was the freest, most prosperous?

        Certainly wasn’t Bush2, Bush1, Reagan.

        Hard to imagine that it was Ford or Nixon.




        Take your pick, let us know your choice.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/14/2012 - 09:41 am.


        Where do abortion, birth control, gay marriage, and the recent attack on voting rights (which are clearly provided for in the Constitution) come in? You’ve espoused support for running other peoples’ lives when it comes to those subjects. Am I to understand that you aren’t a conservative, then? Because that’s what it sounds like. (Of course you’re not. Neither are about 95% of all other people that call themselves “conservative.” It was a rhetorical question.)

        • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/15/2012 - 10:52 am.

          “Where do abortion, birth control, gay marriage come in?”

          Right where the left dragged them in and dropped them in a heap on us.

          The “attack on voting rights ” is still just a figment of fevered imaginations, as the majority of Minnesotan’s will prove in Nov.

          • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/16/2012 - 10:35 am.

            “On us”?

            On whom? You and your family? Do you really think the “left” is out to get you? Specifically you? Actually, I think you do based on your posts here and elsewhere. You think that the “left” is afraid of you and your blogging with its incredible wit and rational adult points. I hate to break it to ya, but while some people might pay attention to your blogs and shake their heads in disbelief, no one is interested in being out to get you.

            Or do you mean “conservatives?” Tell me, do you disagree with Mr. Tester’s definition of “conservative?” Because his definition admits that a true conservative has no interest in what you think about abortion, birth control, or gay marriage. A true conservative would support the Constitution in its protection of the right to vote for everyone. Yet, you seem to dip your fingers in all of these in a way that contradicts Mr. Tester’s definition of “conservative,” suggesting that you are not a true conservative. And neither is Mr. Tester.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/13/2012 - 04:37 pm.

    (quote) Ryan wants to use an


    Ryan wants to use an aging America and the bogus but superficially appealing constraint of “historic levels of spending and taxation” to force massive reductions in the rest of government. That’s why the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and others Tuesday were already calculating that Ryan’s new plan would basically zero out everything in government a few decades from now, save for Social Security, Medicare and defense.

    The crucial thing to understand about Ryan is that he is not a fiscal conservative. He’s a small-government conservative. These are very different things. The fastest-growing federal program in Ryan’s new budget is interest on the debt, which nearly triples from $234 billion next year to $614 billion in 2022. He doesn’t even pretend to balance the budget until 2040, and then only under utterly dubious assumptions.

    These are not the choices a fiscal conservative makes. A fiscal conservative pays for the government he wants. Ryan wants government smaller than the one Reagan led even as America ages, and he doesn’t want to pay for it. Instead he adds trillions in new debt and makes no bones about it….

    (end quote)

  5. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/13/2012 - 04:48 pm.

    Sensible, Honest and Serious

    Those aren’t my words, those are the words of the man that Obama chose to head the deficit commision, Erskine Bowles. That’s how he described both Paul Ryan and the Ryan plan:
    The Ryan plan is far from perfect. I fear that the loopholes will undo all of the good. But man, what kind of alternative is being offered? We are drowning in debt. We’ve tried the stimulus approach of spending our way out of problems. It hasn’t worked as advertised. It hasn’t worked at all.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/13/2012 - 11:18 pm.

      It has, and it has

      National debt might be a long term problem; it is not clear that it has immediate consequences.
      Reducing it means reducing the flow of capital, which will stifle an economic recovery, not help it.

      The stimulus approach has not been tried.
      It was estimated that a $two trillion stimulus would be necessary; $700 billion was approved.
      As predicted, that resulted in only a minor recovery.
      So the stimulus as implemented did work as advertised.

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/14/2012 - 09:08 am.

        Prayers for Rain

        In a long term drought, people used to pray for rain. If the drought kept going, they hadn’t prayed hard enough. If the drought ended, it must have been the prayer that did it. Unfortunately this is the same approach that we analyze Keynesian spending. The harsh truth is that it failed to hit its predicted marks. It failed the much vaunted ‘multiplier effect’. Maybe it’s time for some open minded libs to question why the theory came up so short in real life.
        What we need is a sustainable economy, one that isn’t premised on larger and larger amounts of ‘help’ from gov’t funds. We need a reasonable framework that we can expect to use for the next 30 years at least. Big deficits, big interest payments and big increases in Medicare payments aren’t the way to do it.
        No organization can keep spending 30% more than it takes in.

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/14/2012 - 09:46 am.

          True enough, a long-term plan needs to be made. The stimulus was, as I’ve stated before, “a bridge to nowhere” because it did not recognized the fundamental changes in the world economy that have happened over the past several decades.

          The real key to the control of government expenditure is the control of medical costs. Whether as benefits to government employees or as subsidies for those who do not have adequate insurance, or for those who have aged-out from the private insurance market, medical costs are one of the biggest costs for the government (local, state and federal).

          To take that segment of expense out of the discussion is entirely irresponsible. It is clear that those countries that have major involvement of government in medical care pay half (or less) than what the US pays–that affects the US deficit, the US debt and the international competitiveness of the US workers in the international market. To turn even more of the medical costs to the private market, such as the Ryan plan does, doubles down on a system that has proven for decades that it will not control costs.

          Add to that the insistence that defense spending must be endlessly increased, and you have a situation where the vast majority of government expenditure is taken off of the discussion table.

          That is the exact stupidity of the current Republican ravings about debt and deficits.

          Yammer on and on about the sanctity of human life and work to decrease the ability to maintain those lives AND increase the means of ending lives.

          • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/14/2012 - 10:33 am.

            Control of Medical Costs

            Neal, you’re wrong about how well other countries control medical costs. All of the developed world is on the same track in terms of skyrocketing costs. The US is worse off because they started at a higher point. (And I don’t know why that is.) The idea that we can reduce costs by covering everyone for everything doesn’t make sense and isn’t working. I’ll note that the food stamp approach seems to have helped the poor get food without screwing up the market for food. Maybe there is an answer there.
            I’m in agreement about defense spending. Any agency that has continual increases in budgets will get fat and bloated. That applies across the board. I have no doubts that you could cut quite a bit out of the Pentagon without reducing effectiveness. And yes, we need a serious rethink about what exactly our military roles should be. Obama isn’t much better on this though, so you may want to rethink casting the GOP as the only villains here.
            Don’t pretend that the blue team are angels here. They’ve offered lots of hype here and come through on virtually none of it.

            • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/14/2012 - 01:13 pm.

              We ARE covering everyone right now through back-door, convoluted, expensive means. People without insurance show up at emergency rooms with minor complaints, causing bills of thousands of dollars for what may be just a strep throat. Or, they avoid going to a doctor until a minor complaint becomes a much more serious illness. They show up with more advanced diseases and more complications. And there are studies that have shown that a few dozen indigent patients in a city are responsible for millions in emergency room healthcare expense each year. The tax-payers pay for those who don’t have insurance or the cost is shifted to the private insurers carried by the insured.

              And take a look at figure 3 in this reference from the Kaiser Foundation, which shows health-care expenditure per capita by country::


              The US is clearly an outlier–costs have increased for all, but the US has increased at a far faster than the other countries (and they provide universal coverage).

              The blue team may be no angels, BUT you can’t take the biggest cost factors off the table and claim to be serious about fiscal balance. And you certainly can’t make it a blood-promise to throw out the smallest beginnings of health-care reform proposed since the Clinton administration and say you are dealing with the issue.

        • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/14/2012 - 09:48 am.

          Praying for rain

          Is the wrong approach. Finding a solution is the right approach. And sometimes it simply means building aqueducts. That’s precisely what we need to do. Spend money to build infrastructure. You can’t prime the pump with prayers.

          If you don’t want Medicare, by the way, don’t use it. In fact, we’d probably see a great benefit if all those who don’t wish to pay for Medicare wouldn’t use it. Ever. Same with Social Security. I’m sure they’ll say “but I PAID for it.” Yeah, well it’s gotta start somewhere.

          • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/14/2012 - 10:22 am.

            Asinine Comment

            This is on the same level as ‘gay people can get married, just not to the same sex’ in terms of helpfulness. And if you need help on the ‘prayers for rain’ analogy, we can probably find some for you.

            • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/14/2012 - 01:01 pm.

              Go for it

              I’m pretty sure I got the analogy, but the analogy wasn’t applicable in the first place. You’re saying that a solution that works but isn’t applied hard enough or sufficiently is equivalent to talking to God and asking for a solution, and deciding you didn’t ask hard enough if it doesn’t work, rather than applying a tangible solution. The analogy is ridiculous. Unless you expect miracles for all your problems, equating prayer to tangible solutions an exercise in silliness. I don’t need help figuring that out. I can think of all kinds of analogies that are applicable here, but they all point toward the fact that while the solution was probably the right one, it wasn’t applied in the proper way or with the proper effort, which is not what YOU want to say.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/14/2012 - 07:48 am.

      Read the article I linked to and any impartial source.

      He does’t balance the budget until 2040. That’s 28 years from now. The fastest growing portion of his budget would be the interest on the debt.

      Hardly the actions of a person concerned about controlling debt.

      But they are the actions of a person using continuing deficits as a whip to drown government in a bath-tub.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/14/2012 - 09:44 am.

      Sensible, Honest and Serious

      You can be all of these things and still delusional. Regardless, it’s kind of silly to take the word of one man as gospel to an entire group. Many, many others believe he probably isn’t anything but serious. Even that might be a stretch.

  6. Submitted by Lance Groth on 08/13/2012 - 05:00 pm.

    The test

    One test for whether their plan, whatever it turns out to be, is to be taken seriously is whether the Pentagon is included in any plan for cuts. If the Pentagon remains a repub sacred cow, then the plan is not to be taken seriously.

    Amusingly, a repub friend recently objected that Pentagon cuts/base closures would increase unemployment. I can perhaps be forgiven for laughing out loud, before reminding him that the same applies to all government cuts. Whether such things matter depend on whose ox is being gored, eh?

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/13/2012 - 10:58 pm.

    Remember, it was Mr Ryan’s polarizing budget plan that sacked an earlier (grand-bargain) bipartisan deal.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/14/2012 - 08:30 am.

    No he isn’t but…

    Almost none of the currently elected Republicans even conservative, much less fiscally conservative. Republicans just create these phrases as part of branding campaign, they have no real substance. All Republicans really care about is taking and keeping power.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/14/2012 - 08:50 am.

    Peder’s ploy

    The Republican claim the the deficit can be eliminated or reduced by spending cuts alone is economic lunacy, they been making that promise for 40 years and all they’ve ever delivered is one budget crises after another. The Republican “magic” plan of cutting taxes and waiting for the magic to happen has never produced anything other than record deficits.

    Obama had a plan to reduce the deficit and get the debt under control, but it required real additional revenue combined with spending cuts. The Republican’s blocked the revenue plan even before they had the house, and that’s why Obama’s plan hasn’t worked. This is simply history at this point and it’s dishonest to dispute it.

    Having said that, I blame the Democrats. Obama had the house and the senate for two years and he squandered that opportunity trying to negotiate with the Republicans. The Republicans clearly had a plan to do everything they could to sabotage he presidency and use his failures against him in 2012. Frankly is was stupid even try to work with the Republicans. Obama and the Democrats should have used their majorities to ram through a much better health care package, a much bigger economic stimulus. and the Obama budget with tax increases. They should have used the nuclear option to neutralize the filibusters and got it done… they didn’t have the guts. The decision to save the banks and investors rather than save houses and mortgages was also disaster that has prolonged the recession and completely undermined any populist claim that Obama might try to make. This is our problem as a nation, we need bold and intelligent leadership at a time when our political system produces mediocre candidates.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/14/2012 - 12:31 pm.

      Obama’s Revenue Plan

      Ok, point me to the part of the plan where Obama raises enough revenue to really combat deficits. Obama talked about eliminating the Bush tax cuts for those over $250k. The estimated tax recepits (as of late 2009) were about $70 billion. That’s about 5% of the deficit. Tax increases on the rich are not a realistic way of closing the gap. This is simple math.

      • Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/15/2012 - 09:42 pm.

        /Whether you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea to raise taxes on the rich, Obama has told you exactly what he wants to do. Conversely, whether you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea to cut marginal tax rates by broadening the base, Romney hasn’t actually told you what he wants to do.

        The same is true in other policy areas…. On financial regulation, Romney would “repeal Dodd-Frank and replace with streamlined, modern regulatory framework.” That is literally his entire plan. Three years after a homegrown financial crisis wrecked the global economy, the likely Republican nominee for president would repeal the new regulatory architecture and replace it with … something…./

      • Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 08/17/2012 - 08:15 am.

        That is 5% more of the deficit than the Ryan plan will produce, and almost immediately on top of it; so that is 5% that will not be charging interest for the next 30 years that the Ryan plan will need supposedly to balance the budget.

        The Ryan plan quite simply is a budget breaker and then he admits that his team has not even run its own numbers. They actually haven’t even developed their own hard data to back this thing up to the point that they do not even have any numbers they are willing to give out. That is directly from one of Ryan’s own statements. That is what scientists call “special pleading”, something they do not tolerate. Everybody else calls it “pie in the sky”.

        So all we have to go on is what outside analysis has been actually done, which shows the Ryan plan is bankrupt before it starts.

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 08/14/2012 - 12:46 pm.

      He should have channelled his inner LBJ


      In fairness, it was worth spending time to see if a bipartisan solution was possible. But when it quickly became clear that Republicans were more interesting in Obama failing than the country succeeding, Obama should have channeled his inner LBJ and gotten things done. Unfortunately, as the “outsider”, I’m not sure Obama really has an “inner LBJ”, but that’s what Reid and Pelosi could have / should have done.

  10. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 08/14/2012 - 09:02 am.

    “Fiscal conservatism”

    is a meaningless term because “conservatism” is now a meaningless term. I’ll never get tired of reminding “conservatives” of the statement of their man, Dick Cheney, who said “deficits don’t matter” when it was so necessary to invade Iraq and then spend billions on his former firm Halliburton to not clean it up afterwards. So after eight years of conservative rule in this country which crashed the economy and left us with the deficits they now claim are so important to reduce, we’re supposed to believe them?

  11. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 08/14/2012 - 11:40 am.

    Paul Ryan is definetly a Fiscal Conservative

    Paul Ryan voted for the unpaid for Iraq war, unpaid for Medicare Part D, and the unpaid for Bush Tax Cuts. Those are the credentials of a Fiscal Conservative. It is okay to spend as long as it isn’t your money and as long as you can kick the can down the road and someone else can take responsibility paying for it. Thirteen years in congress and he already has two of his bills passed. He did get a bill passed to raise the tax on arrows, as in bow and arrows. Imagine that, a Fiscal Conservative raising a tax. The second bill renamed a post office. Ryan is definitely a Fiscal Conservative. As you can see Fisal Conservative has zero meaning. They can’t even be truthful when they define themselves. Voters, the choice is yours in November.

  12. Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/15/2012 - 12:46 pm.

    so all these posts and barely but a

    Of the largesse given to the war machine.

  13. Submitted by Todd Jese on 08/15/2012 - 01:41 pm.

    It is a clear choice

    Obama Biden vs. Romney Ryan

    Obama will see that our country continues in a downward spiral. Romney- Ryan, while not perfect, can and will turn this around.

    I’d also like to see Mr. Black substantiate his claim on “military” spending. In your estimation- General Black what dollar amount do you see fit as far as military spending goes? Do you not think that if the defense budget was slashed in half that our foes would be stepping up attacks on us? It’s called opportunity cost and I like to see us err on the side of too much defense…..

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/15/2012 - 02:48 pm.

      Hmmm, the last time any country attacked the US was at Pearl Harbor– about 70 years ago. Every other military action against a country since then was a war of choice.

      An interesting question is which of these various shooting adventures since the end of WW2 has the US unequivocally won?

      That should readily bring to the forefront that war is no longer a matter of big ships, big tanks, big planes and massed formations. Every two-bit terrorist organization now knows, thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan, that it is entirely possible to fight the US (the world’s mightiest super-power) to a standstill in the field and the publicity realm with the use of AK-47 and shoulder-fired missiles.

      The days of big military is dead. A nuclear deterrent for the big guys, a diverse rapid reaction force for the little guys.

      After that, it is just about satisfying the pork for congressional districts.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/18/2012 - 10:06 am.


      Sounds like the Cheney doctrine: even a 1% chance of a threat must be treated as if it were 100%.
      Of course, since resources are limited, that means social costs that have a whole lot more than a 1% chance of happening.

  14. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 08/18/2012 - 12:50 pm.

    Not to mess up a good argument but….

    Every budget the DOD has presented has passed with more spending than requested, almost all of it for pork barrel projects in GOP districts. So much for necessary defense, more like defending GOP seats with taxpayer money

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/20/2012 - 04:26 pm.

    Cheney doctrine

    Unless that one percent is about guys flying planes into buildings… in which case you go golfing for a month and forget about it.

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