The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits “atrocities” but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future.
— George Orwell, “As I Please,” Tribune, February 4, 1944
We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.
— Neil Newhouse, pollster for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney
As the political world now knows, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan did not run a sub-three hour marathon. While boasting about one’s athletic prowess is a relatively venial sin for a politician (and just might — being generous here — have been the result of faulty memory due to the passage of twenty years), the press, with its sure instinct for the tangential, has pounced on the braggadocio.
But did any one of the many of Ryan’s political claims in his nomination speech at the Republican National Convention receive the same exacting analysis as The New Yorker’sexegesis of his pretended (or misremembered) marathon feat? How about his recollection of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission? Ryan delivered a serious charge: heaccused President Obama of having “created a bipartisan debt commission” which “came back with an urgent report,” but that Obama merely “thanked them, sent them on their way, and then did exactly nothing.”
The date of the commission’s report lay less than two years in the past. It is doubtful that fading memory could have altered Ryan’s recollection — particularly as he was one of eighteen members of the commission. I cannot judge the veracity of Ryan’s athletic achievement because I was never there. And I never personally heard any of his now-denied musings about Ayn Rand, although it is highly probable that video tape does not lie. But as a Senate Budget Committee staffer serving on an ad hoc basis to assist the deficit commission staff, I was in a position to render an eyewitness judgment on his statements about that commission.
It is important to understand Ryan’s charge in context, because debt and deficit are the signature issues the GOP runs on, and they are among the premier charges in the party’s bill of indictment against the Obama administration. The Simpson-Bowles Commission was expressly created to make recommendations to reduce deficit and debt. Therefore, Ryan’s activity as a commission member is a crucial indicator of the sincerity of his claim of being a deficit hawk.
A key component of the Simpson-Bowles package was its tax policy, which to all appearances came straight from the Republican playbook. As opposed to a progressive income tax system (during the Eisenhower administration the top marginal rate was 91 percent), many in the GOP have been pushing for at least 30 years for a flat tax scheme, whereby hedge fund billionaires and ditch diggers will pay the same rate. The GOP’s rhetorical halfway house to achieving this goal is “tax reform,” whereby rates will be lowered, flattened (with fewer rate steps) and broadened (with more low-income earners paying income tax because of the removal of deductions and tax credits).
And that is precisely what the Simpson-Bowles tax proposal did: it lowered, flattened, and broadened the tax system, just as House GOP commission members Ryan, Dave Camp, and Jeb Hensarling repeatedly advocated during the commission’s deliberations. But there was just one fly in the ointment.
The commission’s overriding mission was to reduce outyear deficits, and revenue loss would make this goal more difficult if everyone were paying a lower rate. So the commission staff proposed to tax capital and labor at the same rate: in other words, the hypothetical hedge fund billionaire’s capital gains and dividends would no longer be taxed at the current preferential 15 percent rate, but at the top marginal rate of 28 percent. This proposal, along with the capping and elimination of many deductions, meant the commission’s tax plan actually brought in more revenue than current policy, thereby reducing the deficit.
Now comes the dirty little secret of the GOP’s real, as opposed to pretended, tax policy. It is not just that they want the leveraged buyout artist paying the same federal tax rates as a cop or school teacher, they want a buyout artist to pay a lower rate — or no taxes at all. When presented with the commission’s plan, which would lower outyear deficits by $4 trillion, the three House GOP deficit hawks Ryan, Camp and Hensarling voted to reject it. President Obama “did exactly nothing” because the commission’s proposal was dead: Paul Ryan had helped kill it.
Ryan’s opposition to the commission’s recommendation was logical even if his misrepresentation of it was deplorable. His own budget features capital gains and dividend tax rates of zero. No wonder the purported arch-deficit hawk was unable to tell Brit Hume when his budget would balance. In truth, it will not balance within decades, even with the most favorable economic assumptions.
That is the next dirty little truth: when presented with a clear choice between deficit reduction and further lowering taxes on their rich contributors, Ryan and most of his GOP colleagues will unhesitatingly opt for the latter. All the tough talk about deficits is so much eyewash intended to fool gullible Tea Partyers.
That is not a particularly attractive national platform; hence all the lying, obfuscation, and blame casting to conceal the bare facts. Among cult-like groupings, which is what the GOP is fast becoming, truth and factual evidence must give way to the preferred narrative. That is possibly what happened in the case of Ryan’s miraculous marathon, and certainly the case with his misrepresentation of the Simpson-Bowles Commission. In the mind of what Eric Hoffer called the true believer, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, Obama was born in Kenya, the Community Reinvestment Act did cause the Great Recession, and tax cuts do pay for themselves. In alternate-reality universes like Fox News, these things are commonplace, so why not a sub-three hour marathon or praise for an “urgent report” you voted against?