Is Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” potentially the most important and necessary piece of economic legislation since President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981? Quite likely. The blueprint embraces free markets and individual choice to radically reshape America’s social welfare state for the 21st century and shrink government. Instead of looking for ways to finance an ever-expanding public sector, it would prevent Washington from growing to a projected 45 percent of GDP by 2050 (vs. 24 percent today) and instead reduce it to just under 15 percent by that year. Ryan would downsize government to its smallest size since 1950 and prevent the Europeanization of the American economy. The Ryan Path embraces dynamic growth, not managed decline and stagnation.
But what’s really important is that it affirmatively answers three questions: First, does the Ryan Path put the federal government on a sustainable fiscal path? Second, does it promote more economic growth and higher incomes? Third, is it politically realistic? Let’s take those one at a time:
1) Does the Ryan Path put the federal government on a sustainable fiscal path? Yes. It’s easily superior to President Obama’s 10-year budget plan which would generate average annual deficits of $947 billion and let debt as a share of the economy rise to a dangerous 87.4 percent from 62.1 percent in 2010. And Obama does nothing to alter the long-term fiscal glide path into insolvency.
By contrast, the Ryan Path would see debt-to-GDP peak in 2013 at 74.5 percent and fall to 67.5 percent by 2021, then continue to steadily decline until the entire federal debt is eliminated in the 2050s. Medicaid spending for the poor would be sent to the states in a fixed lump sum indexed for inflation and population growth. Medicare spending for seniors would be transformed into a system where recipients would choose among private plans, aided by a government subsidy that would grow more slowly than healthcare price increases. Indeed, the market-based plan would help lower healthcare inflation.
2) Does the Ryan Path promote more economic growth and higher incomes? Yes. Ryan uses extremely cautious economic growth figures, the same ones employed by the Congressional Budget Office, to arrive at his budget totals. But his plan would almost certainly result in higher growth and more jobs — generating more tax revenue and reducing debt even faster than Ryan estimates. It shifts vast resources from the public sector to the far more productive private sector. It also sharply reduces top federal individual and corporate income tax rates to 25 percent from 35 percent. (The U.S. currently has the highest corporate tax rate among advanced economies.) According to the Heritage Center for Data Analysis, the plan would create nearly a million new private-sector jobs next year and bring unemployment down to 4 percent in 2015. A flat tax on income and consumption would be even better, but Ryan significantly moves the ball forward.
3) Is it politically realistic? The risk is that Paul Ryan has created a plan only Paul Ryan can sell with his passion and deep expertise. He does make political concessions. The plan doesn’t, for instance, cut Medicare spending on current retirees or older workers. But austerity of that sort probably isn’t needed yet. Current trends, though, are leading toward a fiscal crisis that would result in both extreme and immediate benefit cuts and higher taxes.
And that, ultimately, is how the political case is made. The alternative to the Ryan Path isn’t the fiscally unsustainable status quo, but a future of harsh austerity beset by financial crisis, stifled by higher interest rates and marred by a lower standard of living. In short, the death of the American Dream and the collapse of any social safety net.
But there is a way forward to another American Century and away from that nightmare. And Ryan has found it.