Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Trust Me, Paul Ryan is Really Smart"

While driving yesterday I heard somebody present a question to Byron York to the effect of, "I keep hearing that Paul Ryan is really smart, but the only evidence people offer in support of that is 'He read Ayn Rand in high school and he wrote a budget plan.' Why should I believe he's smart?"

York fumbled out an answer that, unintentionally, spoke highly of the President and not so highly of Ryan. Specifically, York argued that Ryan has mastered details of the budget, and if you meet with him in private he will wow you with his grasp of those details. I'm reminded of fifth grade, in which some kids I knew had memorized pretty much every detail from the back of trading cards for the entire NHL roster. The kids at issue weren't slouches, but I need a bit more than that to be wowed by a grown-up.

York's next argument was that Ryan was not only the Republican Party's front man on the budget, but that the President took him seriously and met with him to discuss budget issues. That is reasonably accepted as a compliment of the President - the implicit argument is that nobody as smart as Obama would agree to discuss budget issues with a mediocre mind. I thus see what York is attempting to argue, but I don't think the point holds. That is, if I am going to negotiate over something, and my opponent in the negotiation is markedly less intelligent than I am, I'm going to be very happy with my opponent's choice of representative. I'm certainly not going to argue, "No, send in somebody who is my equal."

I'm not suggesting that to be the case, either - when the Republicans say "This is our budget guy," who would York expect the President to meet with? The most obvious inference that can be drawn from the fact that the President discussed budget issues with Ryan is not that he's a strong or weak opponent, but that he's the guy his party put in the position

At the end of his response, York preferred to answer a question of his own rather than the one the caller asked. That is, rather than pointing to evidence of Ryan's smarts, York instead argued that Ryan's knowledge about the federal budget is "beyond question". Frankly, it's not beyond question - if you look at Ryan's budget proposals the first thing that strikes you is that he has omitted the most relevant details. Perhaps he's willing to discuss those details, in private and off-the-record, but I don't feel any need to take York's word for it.

If I am to accept York's argument, it's actually quite damning of Ryan. If I assume he's a smart man with encyclopedic knowledge of the budget, the he knows what spending he will need to cut to turn his budget proposal into reality. If I am rejecting the idea that he's simply not smart enough to understand the reality of his proposal, then I have to accept the conclusion that he's being dishonest about his plan.
In the more than two years since his budget was unveiled, Ryan has not specified any tax breaks he would eliminate. Independent analyses have shown that offsetting the tax cuts would require changing things such as the mortgage interest deduction, the tax exclusion for employer-financed health insurance or other popular tax preferences widely used by middle-income households.
Why after two years hasn't Paul "Encyclopedia" Ryan shared any relevant details? If the problem isn't a lack of smarts, and it isn't a lack of knowledge, the only remaining possibility is a lack of candor. If he's smart enough to know what he's selling, he knows how much of it is snake oil.

Update: How would Romney's version of Ryan's plan balance the budget? In his own words, "We haven't run the numbers on that specific plan".

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