Paul Ryan and the rich man’s burden
Mitt Romney’s decision to name Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate says quite a lot about what Romney thinks about America and its workers, and none of it is good. In recent years, Ryan has earned a reputation as the intellectual of the conservative movement. He’s a gutsy guy who has been willing to transparently share his vision for America through a detailed budget proposal that leads inescapably to this conclusion: He believes that American workers are slackers and freeloaders.
Ryan hasn’t written a book, but his defining work is “A Roadmap For America’s Future,” where he was admirably honest about his plans for dealing with the long aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
But his diagnosis of the problem should make taxpayers who go to work every day wonder what the potential vice-president of the United States really thinks about them. Summing up the problem, he writes:
Americans have been lured into viewing government – more than themselves, their families, their communities, their faith – as their main source of support; they have been drawn toward depending on the public sector for growing shares of their material and personal well-being. The trend drains individual initiative and personal responsibility. It creates an aversion to risk, sapping the entrepreneurial spirit necessary for growth, innovation, and prosperity. In turn, it subtly and gradually suffocates the creative potential for prosperity.
To support the notion that most Americans have come to view the government as a provider, Ryan cites analysis done by the Tax Foundation, a non-partisan research group that had concluded, when Ryan first published his “Roadmap” in 2008, that 60 percent of American taxpayers receive more in government services than they pay in taxes. Of course, these taxpayers make up the bottom 60 percent of wage earners. This is the source of the “rich man’s burden” argument – that our society is built on a system of patronage where a minority pays for the needs of all the rest and the richer you are, the more you pay and the less you get back.
In a system of progressive taxation this is not all that surprising. The more you have, the more you can pay without needing anything. The Tax Foundation attempted to be expansive in its analysis so that the benefits received by taxpayers include not just direct payments, like unemployment insurance and Medicare, but also our broader societal initiatives such as air-traffic control, space exploration and national defense. Fair enough. We all share in those programs, but we don’t all share in them equally.
What the analysis lacked was a look at relative benefits. We all, for example, have better lives because the U.S. has a functioning and safe air transportation system. But that good clearly means more to the people who use air travel for business and recreation, and a little less to those who use Greyhound buses. To broaden the example, U.S. military spending and foreign policy clearly mean more, in a practical way, to multinational businesses than they do to smaller local businesses, even though both benefit to some measurable extent.
The world offers more visceral examples. Eduardo Saverin, born in Brazil to a wealthy family, spent his formative years in the U.S., where he made his way to Harvard, met Mark Zuckerberg and made the small investment in Facebook that turned him into a billionaire. Why did his family move him from Brazil to Miami, where he would find his own path to building generational wealth? His parents moved because they had gotten word that their son was a target for kidnapping and ransom. That’s Brazil. The rich pay more taxes in the U.S., but in return they can sleep soundly, knowing that the police are available and effective. The median American household, making $50,000 a year, might pay less in taxes than a wealthy one, but it is surely not as worried that the children will be kidnapped and ransomed.
This isn’t a new idea. When the U.S. was founded, only property owners could vote, on the theory that people with assets had more interest in society. The founders recognized that those with more have more to protect; but they chose the wrong policy response. Those with more to protect shouldn’t be granted additional rights, they should be given a larger bill for services.
By choosing Ryan as his running mate, Romney is endorsing an economic plan that asks less of those who have more and, as a consequence, more of those who have less. Ryan believes that 60 percent of the country is getting a free ride. The election should now be about whether or not the majority agrees.
PHOTO: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney and U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) walk with Ryan’s daughter Liza to the Romney campaign bus after Ryan was introduced as the vice-presidential running mate during a campaign event at the battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia August 11, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton