By Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research
If the news media had to work for a living, this is what they would all be asking right now. The reason is simple. The projections the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) made for Representative Ryan’s budget imply that he literally wants to shut down the federal government.
His budget implies that after three decades the federal government will have no money to spend on health research, education, highways, airports, and other infrastructure, the Food and Drug Administration and most other activities that we associate with the federal government. His budget has money for Social Security, Medicare and other health programs and the Defense Department. That’s it.
Numbers Don’t Lie
The table shows that in 2040, Representative Ryan would allot an amount equal to 4.75 percent of GDP to all these other areas of government including defense spending. By 2050, Ryan’s allocation for these areas, including defense, falls to 3.75 percent of GDP.
The defense budget is currently a bit over 4.0 percent of GDP. Ryan has indicated that he would like to maintain or even increase this level of spending. The arithmetic is then straightforward. In 2040, Ryan would leave less than 0.75 percent of GDP for areas of spending that currently require more than five times this amount. In 2050, all these areas of spending would literally have to be zeroed out as defense spending will take up every cent and more that Ryan has left in his budget.
In CBO We Trust
It is important to understand that CBO tried to accurately present the implications of the budget that Representative Ryan gave them. CBO works for Congress. These are career civil servants. They cannot be easily fired, but if CBO’s staff deliberately misrepresented a budget proposal from a powerful member of Congress like Paul Ryan, that is the sort of thing that could get them put out on the street.
The way CBO would typically analyze a proposal is that they would sit down with Representative Ryan and his staff and determine as closely as possible the outlines of the budget he is proposing. They would then produce projections which would be shown to Ryan and his staff to ensure that they had accurately represented his proposed budget. CBO would only publish a document with these projections after Representative Ryan and his staff had a chance to review them and agreed that they had accurately represented his proposal.
This means that there can be no accident here. CBO did not blindside Representative Ryan with a half-baked analysis they did in the middle of the night. We can safely assume that the projections from CBO do in fact represent the budget proposal as presented to them by Representative Ryan and his staff.
(For more from Dean Baker, check out his recent appearance on The Daily Ticker below.)
Is He Serious?
This leaves the obvious question. Is he serious? Does Representative Ryan really think it is a good idea to end the federal government’s role in building and maintaining infrastructure, in financing education, in funding basic research in health care and other areas, in maintaining our national parks, federal courts, the FBI? His budget says that this is what he thinks, since these services will not be provided for free (FBI agents expect to get paid), but it is difficult to believe that a politician running for national office would really want to eliminate most of the government.
Anyhow, this is the most basic question that reporters should be asking Representative Ryan now that Governor Romney has selected him as his vice presidential candidate. We know that they all have to run stories about his high school friends and his college courses, but the public has a right to know where he stands on the policy issues that he has put at the center of his political agenda.
If reporters do their job, they have a simple question to put to Mr. Ryan. “Your budget would put an end to everything the government does, except for Social Security, health care and defense. Is this really what you want to do?”
Dean Baker is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He has written extensively on a wide range of topics, including the housing bubble. His most recent book is The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive (free download available here).