Political Animal


November 04, 2011 1:30 PM The ‘real drivers of our debt’

By Steve Benen

At a certain level, I should find the more buffoonish congressional Republicans more annoying — than the more “serious” GOP officials on Capitol Hill. After all, clowns like Louie Gohmert and Michele Bachmann are far more likely to say something offensive, come up with some wild conspiracy theory, introduce a ridiculous piece of legislation, etc.

But the opposite turns out to be true. I’m far more bothered by a guy like House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) than his clownish colleagues because so much of the political establishment actually believes Ryan is credible. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he’s perceived as some kind of “wonk,” whose opinions should be taken seriously.

The problem, of course, is that Ryan has no idea what he’s talking about. He fabricates claims, presents plans with numbers that don’t add up, and makes laughable policy arguments, and yet, Ryan’s reputation is impenetrable. Peggy Noonan’s nauseating love letter to the right-wing lawmaker last week — she praises Ryan as a “thinker” who “reads” — still linger as outrageous a week later.

It’d be problematic enough to evaluate Ryan on ideology alone — the extremism of this Ayn Rand acolyte is generally under-appreciated. But the problem goes much deeper, as he says things nearly every day that just aren’t true. Take Ryan’s latest salvo, for example.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the U.S is getting close to “a European-like situation,” and that not much can be done to change that course before the 2012 election.

Speaking Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Ryan said the most that could be hoped for in the next year was “a down-payment on the debt and deficits” to “calm down the credit markets.”

“We have no action on the real drivers of our debt, and meanwhile we’re getting closer to a debt crisis — to a European-like situation, and we’re not doing anything about it, and that’s what’s frustrating me,” Ryan said.

This is pure gibberish. No one who has even a passing familiarity with the basics could possibly believe the U.S. debt is “close” to the European debt crisis. It just doesn’t make any sense. Has he seen our interest rates? Does he realize how eager the rest of the world is to loan us money?

As for “the real drivers of our debt,” Ryan, as the Budget Committee chairman, should probably be aware of the fact that the biggest drivers of our debt are Republican policies. There’s even a handy chart available:

Of course, if Ryan were seriously concerned with the debt and avoiding a European-style crisis, he’d support additional tax revenue, but he doesn’t. Why? Because for him, arithmetic and fiscal responsibility aren’t terribly important. He has “an economic doctrine thing.”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • c u n d gulag on November 04, 2011 1:43 PM:

    The "drivers of our debt...?"

    Who do you think YOU are, Congressman Ryan - Miss f*uckin' Daisy?

    Dude, you and your party aren't in the back when it comes to this disaster.

    Sure, some Democrats have helped you evil and greedy assclowns by riding 'shot-gun' - but you've clearly been in the DRIVERS SEAT since you got Reagan the f*cking steering wheel!

    And if Ryan's a "wonk," it's only because he's being compared to anyone whose last name is Kardashian, or another House Republican.

  • Josef K on November 04, 2011 1:46 PM:

    [Noonan] praises Ryan as a “thinker” who “reads”

    My 10 year-old thinks and reads, but I wouldn't be taking policy points from him.

    Why voters in my home state ever gave this idiot a win is forever beyond me.

  • Anonymous on November 04, 2011 1:52 PM:

    "This is pure gibberish. No one who has even a passing familiarity with the basics could possibly believe the U.S. debt is “close” to the European debt crisis. "

    Yet he is allowed to go on national television and recite this bullshit with absolutely no push back.
    A simple " Mr Ryan please explain how this is so? "
    or " Do you have the numbers to back this up ?" might satisfy me . Even a Dem talking head to question him would suffice .
    One fact you can take to the bank. (and this applies to every teevee talking head) If they're on that show they're part of the 1 % and you know whose team they're on.

  • majun on November 04, 2011 1:55 PM:

    Despite all evidence to the contrary, he’s perceived as some kind of “wonk,” whose opinions should be taken seriously.

    New rule, anyone above the age of 16 who takes Ayn Rand seriously as a philosopher is, by definition, not a "wonk" and certainly not to be taken seriously.

  • martin on November 04, 2011 1:55 PM:

    1) Peggy Noonan? Does anyone care?

    2) "calm down the credit markets"? The credit markets are damn near comatose.

    3) clowns like Louie Gohmert and Michele Bachmann are far more likely to say something offensive, come up with some wild conspiracy theory, introduce a ridiculous piece of legislation, etc.
    It appears Ryan is just as likely as his fellow clowns to do such things. The "serious" people are just more likely to treat him seriously

  • Lifelong Dem on November 04, 2011 1:56 PM:

    Peggy Noonan still gets published?

  • Grumpy on November 04, 2011 2:08 PM:

    A gold star for everyone who predicted, in 2001, that once the Bush tax cuts completely phased in, Republicans would scream about the deficit and demand that spending be cut.

    Instead of, y'know, cutting spending first and using the surplus revenue to eliminate the debt.

  • T2 on November 04, 2011 2:12 PM:

    in a Perfect World, all TV stations would be required to show the "handy chart" for the first 30 seconds of each and every newscast and Talking Head show.

  • kevo on November 04, 2011 2:28 PM:

    Anyone - I mean ANYONE - who doesn't trace the drivers of our current debt back to the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts and the big-pharm-Medicare-drug-give-away that legislatively took place under the Bush administration is most egregiously being


    WTF MSM - grow some courage and begin to ask relevant questions of these economic charlatans who are called Ryan, Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell!

    Let's begin Occupy Republican Offices - it started yesterday with Mitch McConnell - may it grow daily to take up all the Republican office space in DC! -Kevo

  • Robert Waldmann on November 04, 2011 2:55 PM:

    Ryan's statement is crazy in a way which you don't mention. There is no such thing as “a European-like situation,” there are two very different European situations.* The situations of Greece and of Germany are very different. The indicator of the crisis is the difference in price of the debt of different European sovereigns. In the EU Germany, the UK, Denmark, Austria, Holland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Finland and Austria are like the USA (and outside Norway and Switzerland) -- investors are willing to pay huge prices for their bonds, but idiots like Ryan prevent them from selling more and stimulating the economy. France and Belgium are in ambiguous positions as maybe trusted debt payers. The formerly communist countries are doing fine on bond markets (some of them by inflicting horrible austerity and accepting double digit unemployment).

    I's say Europes main problems are neurotic hatred of deficits in the countries which could and should increase their deficits to stimulate demand and insanely tight monetary policy (much much much worse than Fed policy).

    Of course within high interest rate Europe there are differences too. Italy is not Greece either - it has high debt inherited from the 70s and 80s but a primary surplus (spending other than interest on the debt is less than tax revenue) and has been fiscally responsible for over 15 years now. Ireland and Spain had low debt and surpluses before their housing bubbles burst.

    The horrible thing is that Ryan is almost certainly not lying. I fear that the reason his statements have no attachment to reality is that he is blinded by ideology.

    *which can also be called Europe-like situations by hyphen addicts who are willing to use the English language - Ryan is using correct-like English.

  • Schtick on November 04, 2011 2:56 PM:

    I'm sorry. I just can't take anything he says as serious when all I see is Eddie Munster.

    crapcha....achimet which....dunno which

  • slf on November 04, 2011 3:49 PM:

    Ron Zerban is challenging Paul Ryan. He may have a chance: the district went for Obama in 2008. I have almost no money to donate outside of my district (which is a lock for a Republican carpetbagger in the new redistricting) but will be sending a small donation from out of state. Others might want to consider same.

    Just imagine how good it would feel to see the back of Paul Ryan because democracy worked and people heard about the alternatives and voted.

  • slf on November 04, 2011 3:52 PM:

    Oops, typo: ROB Zerban.

  • FRP on November 04, 2011 3:54 PM:

    The modern allusion to irritations as being not only part of the landscape , but being a featured aspect of the environment is most recently attributed to the completely natural death spiral involved in the suffocation experienced advancing computer operating systems . With the restraint of ethics , civilizing , cultural building , and the nurturing interests a criminal monopoly provides , the parallel between the failure of representative democracy in a corporate owned and distributed society seems just like events here , imagine that . Controlled interests by powerful monopoly shows remarkably consistent results in unregulated ethics from our pious oligarchical job creators , to their boilerplate spokes folks .
    To borrow a Greek invention on the frustration of dealing with the godlike powers of their time , constructing a colorful image of an idea of piling Mount Ossa on top of Olympus , then Mount Pelion on top of Ossa comes close to illustrating both the the immutability of reflexive urges to action , and the following successes of deities , monopolies after they dwarf the competitors . It is not a bug it is a feature and throwing money at something gives the appearance of doing something , but has difficulty in distinguishing itself from corruption . The Ponzi scheme which is finding the quality of their company improving with successful "Job Creators" progenies in their trust fund glory blundering in the idle way that evaporates fortunes in another blink of an eye . With no known penalties for gods and the Olympian misadventures of our sweetly stupid aristocrats as they struggle with the plagues of ennui , no reasonable person could find the impeccable record of bass ackwards prognostication , disaster and destruction worth one further jaw dropping blunder . They forbid the tread of unwashed feet at the temples on Wall Street , as well as the heresy of contributing from their holy revenues .

  • Dan B on November 04, 2011 4:47 PM:

    "No one who has even a passing familiarity with the basics could possibly believe the U.S. debt is “close” to the European debt crisis."

    If we assume we're not going to honor our various commitments on various entitlement spendings, then we're in great shape. Total US debt is about $14.9T, our GNP is about $14.6T, that's bad but not too bad.

    BUT "debt" overlooks a lot. The Social Security Trust Fund isn't included in the debt because it's a obligation from one part of the government to another part of the government.

    The Present value of the unfunded obligations of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security is 45.8 Trillion. That doesn't include the debt or other obligations, but if we put them in then we're up to $62 Trillion. That's about 425% of our GNP, FAR MORE than what is currently breaking Europe.

    Note this makes the Iraqi war (at a Trillion or so) a rounding error.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on November 04, 2011 5:33 PM:

    I don't know how anyone doesn't consider Ryan one of the buffoonish of the Republicans. How is he not?

  • DisgustedWithItAll on November 04, 2011 5:37 PM:

    @Dan B:

    C'mon fella, everybody knows that lame specious scare tactic. Get that shit outta here.

  • Dan B on November 04, 2011 7:33 PM:


    Scare tactics? I'm not pulling those numbers out of my ass or some hack's website, there's nothing controversial about anything I put up.

    Source for numbers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_public_debt

    Basic question: are we going to continue these entitlements or aren't we? Example: If we're planning on discontinuing Society Security, then we don't need to worry about the Trust Fund only existing on paper and we won't need to increase payroll taxes by 50% to fund it.

    These are the sorts of issues that Ryan is raising, and since anyone with "even a passing familiarity with the basics" can see there's no problem, maybe one of you can explain it to me. Feel free to use long words, I've got degrees in Economics.

    If I'm making a basic mistake then I'd thank whoever points it out, but as it is I don't see how this isn't an extremely serious problem.

  • Anonymous on November 04, 2011 11:24 PM:

    @Dan B - at which year do you think it becomes a problem? What other issues are we worried about that are 35 years out?

    Even if we accept the 'urgency' of this issue - then getting people back to work and contributing those (mostly medicare) taxes would be more beneficial(make a helluva lot more sense) than cutting things like unemployment benefits now.

    Ideological is just another word for emotional in this case. Ryan can't see what makes sense because it doesn't penetrate his blinders.

  • Dan B on November 05, 2011 6:01 AM:

    In 35 years the baby boomers will be dead. Long before that our creditors will realize they’re not going to be repaid and the US will become Greece. If we wait till that point then we’ll have to do things like cut active pensions.

    Entitlements are roughly 59% of the non-interest budget, the baby boomers are starting to retire, Congress is refusing to create budgets and is arguing it needs tax increases to fund basic services like infrastructure repair. IMHO it’s already a serious problem.

    What are the solutions which “make sense”? Get people back to work by extending unemployment benefits? And so I’m not just asking questions, I’ll throw a solution out there.

    Put all of these programs on budgets so they can’t keep growing without control. Social Security keeps its current payroll funding, the seniors can decide if they want to increase the retirement age or collectively take less than 100% benefits. Medicare and Medicaid become block grants to the states.

    If you're right and these programs don't face money issues, then they'll still not face money issues.

  • jhm on November 05, 2011 8:44 AM:

    I hesitate to agree that Hon. Rep. Ryan's statement was 'complete gibberish,' albeit I concede that it probably is in the sense that the man has no idea what he's talking about.

    When he says "[W]e’re getting closer ...to a European-like situation, and we’re not doing anything about it," he is on point in that, like Europe, politicians are almost swimming in a sea of sensible solutions, but insist on flailing about, trying to figure a way to save themselves and the fifty pound rock they won't let go of. In case there is any confusion, the rock is not debt, but fealty to the banks.

  • Doug on November 05, 2011 8:53 AM:

    Dan B, what is the time span for this "unfunded debt"? One year? Five years? Or is the same as the Republican-inspired requirement for the USPS to pre-fund its' pension requirements for SEVENTY-FIVE years? You know, the requirement that's bankrupting the USPS and ISN'T required for any (privately-owned) competitor?
    If it's the latter time-span, would you please break down the "unfunded debt" into each of its component parts; ie, SS, Medicare and Medicaid. Then SUBTRACT from each the amount the monies that will accrue to each component over whatever arbitrary period you have chosen.
    If THAT amount equals your figures, I'll be very surprised.
    Get back to me with the figures, won't you?

  • Dan B on November 05, 2011 10:44 AM:


    Then you should be very surprised.

    As the link explains, those are Present Value Numbers for the unfunded debt. I.e. they have already subtracted the income these programs will get, and we're looking at amount of money we'd have to shell out tomorrow to make the problem go away.

    To be fair, no one purchases a house with cash, Countries aren't households, and the amounts of debt a country can hold varies from country to country. The US can carry a higher percentage of GNP than Greece for multiple reasons including our owning the global currency.

    But 425% should be terrifying (Greece's creditors bailed at a quarter of that). And yes, I fully admit "unfunded" isn't the same as "debt"... but that just means we have the time to make structural reforms and deal with this before it blows up on us.

    As far USPS having it rough, how many private pension funds do you know who are Paygo?